by Elizabeth Gassin and Robert Enright
Acquire the Spirit of Peace and thousands around you will be saved.
—St. Seraphim of Sarov
This examination of forgiveness by Professors Gassin and Enright expands on the work of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s two part series (IC 62 and 63) by looking through an Orthodox Theological lens at the psychological dimensions of forgive-ness which is their area of professional and scholarly expertise. Having first intro-duced us to their work in Forgiveness Education (IC 62) and then to the scientific underpinnings of forgiveness (IC 64), they conclude our year-long look at forgiveness by first elaborating an understanding of the reasons for and process of being merciful to an offender from an Orthodox theological perspective before identifying forgiveness themes and practices in Orthodox life, both liturgical and personal.
Orthodox Theology and Forgiveness: Orthodox theology, of course, flows from an understanding of Who the Holy Trinity is. Eastern Christian theology, perhaps more so than Western, focuses on the re-lationship between the Persons of the Trinity, and therefore it is not surprising that the human individual, made in God’s image, is seen in more relational terms as well. Writings in the Eastern tradition often blur the boundaries between the triad of God, self, and other, and it is in this interconnection between persons and between persons and God that we find a unique foundation for forgiving. (Of course, God’s immanence emphatically does not prohibit God’s transcendence over His creation.)
Man was created in the image and likeness of God. Following St. Irenaeus and others, the Orthodox Church distinguishes between the image and likeness of God in man. The image of God encompasses basic characteristics such as freedom, creativity, rationality, and the potential for God-likeness, which includes the capacity to love. While the image remains after the Fall, each person must struggle, fueled by God’s energies, to resurrect His likeness within herself. This struggle is salvation, the process of theosis. This likeness that is being resurrected is a more authentic communion with God and others that is based on divine virtue (mercy, justice, etc.).
As we will see, the process of theosis involves transforming passions (energy, impulses) within us, but this cannot be done in isolation. One’s relationship with other persons is a foundation of the process. As the Confessor Nikon of Optina wrote:
Greet each person, no matter who he might be, with good feelings and a hope to find in him only good, seeing before yourself the image of God…. Your salvation and your demise are in your neighbor. Your salvation depends on how you relate to your neighbor.
If we are tempted to think such directives extend only to those who do not hurt us, Father Thomas Hopko reminds us otherwise:
Loving those who abuse us is perhaps the ultimate sign that we have opened ourselves up to the life-changing power of God, are becoming the person that we will be in the age to come, and are bringing God’s Kingdom to others.
We explore further this particularly meaningful idea below.
Orthodox teaching about the person, developed largely in the context of the monastic life, sheds light on the psychological aspects of offering interpersonal forgiveness. Perhaps the foundation of this process is when thumos, the power of our souls that when distorted is vengeful anger, and epithumia, the aspect that is unhealthy attachment when distorted, are submitted to our logos (reason, thought, or word: for our purposes here, we can define the logos of each individual as God’s purpose or intention for that person). According to St. Maximus the Confessor, each entity in creation is endowed with its own logos, which in turn is related to the Divine Logos, Christ, through Whom all things were created. The Divine Logos, of course, is inherently humble, loving, self-sacrificing, and yet also firm in Truth. Therefore, in submitting our epithumia and thumos to our logos, they are transformed into an energy that strives outward, not to hurt another but to do well for and by him, yet without compromising a clear account of the offense and its effects on the forgiver.
Psychological research on anger and interpersonal attachment provides evidence that the Fathers were correct in calling the energies of thumos and epithumia unhealthy when distorted. For example, much work has been done on the effects of the Type A personality, which consists of rigidity, feeling pressured by schedules and deadlines, being easily angered, and letting hostility fester. Many studies have demonstrated a relationship between the Type A personality and health. It is not surprising to us, then, that the most consistent sub-factor to be related to poor health is hostility. Thumos run amok, without the logos as guiding principle, is indeed poison. Regarding epithumia, a large body of literature on interpersonal attachment demonstrates that those with a clingy, “preoccupied” style of emotional connection report more psychological and interpersonal problems than those with a warm but self-confident style. Similar negative results are found for those with a cold, “dismissing” style of emotional bonding. Letting one’s thoughts and feelings be dominated by an offender, or coldly cutting her out of one’s life, parallel these two unhealthy attachment styles. Mental and physical health seem intimately tied to a habit of having compassionate relations to others and yet respecting oneself, both of which may be crucial aspects of the logos of a person. In this, healthy attachment looks much like forgiveness.
A person hurt by another works synergistically with God to make forgiveness happen. Participation in the Mysteries, seeking counsel of a spiritual father or mother, fasting, confession, prayer (in general, and specifically for our offenders), and acts of charity—among other spiritual disciplines—constitute our portion of this work. They are woven into a fabric with God’s grace that enables us to do all this and more. Sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, the energies within us that were directed towards revenge and either obsessive attachment or cold detachment are purified to become the motivation to think and say positive things about the person who hurt us, to act in a manner that benefits that person (at the very least, continuing to pray for him), and to hope that all goes well for him in life.
How does this process represent some of the theological points we mentioned earlier in this article? Clearly, this take on forgiveness involves a dance between three persons: God, the forgiver, and the offender. The salvation of the forgiver is bound up in participating in this dance. A certain perichoresis* exists between God and forgiver as God’s grace, His divine presence, enables the forgiver to extend mercy and care to an offender, who also bears the image of God. In doing so, the forgiver incarnates the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit” in the life of the offender and others touched by the hurtful situation. Paradoxically, in lifting one’s soul to God for help and directing one’s energy now for the good of the offender (rather than the “good” of self, at least as the world understands it), the forgiver has found his true self. Working with God in this endeavor, he has increased in himself that likeness of the loving, self-giving, relational Trinity that was lost in the Fall. And if the offender repents as a result of receiving forgiveness, the forgiver has also participated in the development of some of God’s likeness in that person, too.
In short, in the forgiveness process, the forgiver has traveled further along the path of salvation: God’s likeness is being resurrected in her as she grows in com-munion with Him and others. She participates in Christ’s Incarnation, allowing Divinity to infuse her human nature and extending mercy in the flesh. She joins in His Transfiguration, revealing the purity of the logos God has given her by the power of the Logos of God. She shares in Christ’s death on the Cross, in suffering submit-ting her own will to the will of the One who is Love, for the sake of others’ (and paradoxically, her own) salvation. She communes with the Resurrected Christ, being raised from her hell of anger and a desire for revenge, now bearing the promise of new life to the offender. She shares in His Ascension, taking fallen human nature—her own as well as her offender’s, via her prayers—into the realm of Divine Love and Truth. She participates in Pentecost, empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit to convey the Truth of love to the offender. And, as noted above, she helps in the advent of “the second and glorious coming” of the Lord, bringing a bit of God’s Kingdom into the fallen history of humanity. If, from an Orthodox perspective, salvation is union with the Triune God, forgiving one who has hurt us provides an opportunity like few others for this union.
Having set the theological context for forgiveness, we now turn to the forgive-ness journey itself. First, we look at how forgiveness is woven through communal Orthodox worship, providing ample encouragement towards and opportunity for forgiveness in the Church community. We then look at other aspects of an Orthodox Christian lifestyle that may be of help as one walks the path of a life of mercy.
Orthodox Worship and Forgiveness: A variety of liturgical practices in Orthodoxy illumine the process and importance of interpersonal forgiveness. Perhaps the most commonly celebrated one is the Divine Liturgy, at which the faithful receive Holy Communion. Forgiveness permeates this service, as the celebrants ask for forgiveness before beginning the celebration, at the beginning of the Eucharistic Canon, and right before Holy Communion itself. In some parishes, the celebrants request this forgiveness aloud, while in others the request is symbolically made by their silent prostration before the worshipers. In our experience, parishioners typically bow in response, honoring the request and symbolically entreating forgiveness as well. Likely this emphasis on mutual forgiveness is linked to Christ’s words in the Gospel of St. Matthew (5:23-24), directing reconciliation with adversaries before one brings his or her offering to the altar. And although not all Orthodox Christians practice a pre-communion prayer rule, it is worth noting that the standard rule directs the one wishing to commune to “first be reconciled with all who have grieved” him before even beginning the actual pre-communion prayers. Regarding this, we note two things. First, the directive in the prayer rule is to reach out not to those we have grieved, but to those who have grieved us (i.e., our offenders). In addition, we should think carefully about what “be reconciled” means in this context. It is hard to imagine Christ and the Fathers asking us to force ourselves on another person if that person does not wish to be in a functional relationship with us. Perhaps it is best to interpret the emphasis on reconciliation in the context of St. Paul’s directive to “live at peace with everyone, as far as it depends on you” (Romans 12:18). In such a case, the pre-communion directive to be reconciled may be understood as an instruction to root out anger and foster benevolence in ourselves towards an offender, and to reach out to him in love, but not to force him to repent and/or enter back into a relationship that is hurtful to both parties. In other words, the pre-communion directive is to forgive. This directive is not meant to be a grim obligation, but instead wise and joyful preparation for entering into communion with the Holy Trinity, who is Love.
Before leaving the topic of the Divine Liturgy, we visit the zenith of the liturgical year: Great Lent and Pascha. As most Orthodox know, during Great Lent the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil is served. This service is distinguished in part by the relatively long prayers during the Liturgy of the Faithful. In the lengthy prayer read after the consecration of the gifts, the celebrant entreats the Lord to remember and bless many categories of people, including “those who hate us.” While on the surface, this is a prayer intended to benefit an offender, we submit that it is also much more than that. We must recognize that it is chanted in the context of preparing and receiving Holy Communion. In this, we again encounter the idea that our salvation is heavily dependent not only on how we commune with God, but also with each other. The Body and Blood I receive have been consecrated not only for my salvation, but also for the salvation of those who hurt me. My destiny and theirs are intertwined at the deepest level when even I alone partake of the Holy Mysteries. I and my offenders are in some way united to one another in Christ via Holy Communion, and whether this is unto my salvation or judgment depends on the degree to which I have allowed God to love them through me.
Although the Resurrection is stressed at every Sunday liturgy, the Paschal ser-vice is, of course, unique in its content. One of the distinctive texts of the service is the Paschal Verses, in which we hear:
This is the day of Resurrection. Let us be illumined by the feast. Let us em-brace each other. Let us call “brothers” even those that hate us, and forgive all by the Resurrection.
There are probably various ways to understand the meaning of these verses, but in the context of this paper, we see Christ’s Resurrection being the motivator and the means by which we forgive. The power that raised the Lord from death is more than strong enough to raise us from our grave of anger and bitterness. In addition, Christ’s Resurrection was the event that lay the foundation for Ascension and Pentecost. All three of these feasts stress the intermingling of humanity and divinity. In forgiving an offender, that intermingling continues: our limited and fallen humanity becomes the expression of God’s powerful Kingdom of Love here on earth. Not only can we forgive all by the Resurrection, but in forgiving we bring the Resurrection to fruition again and again.
Metropolitan Kallistos has presented a beautiful and thorough exposition of another key Orthodox liturgical event related to forgiveness: Forgiveness Sunday. This capstone of the season of Lenten preparation provides a unique opportunity to usher more of God’s Kingdom into this world. His Eminence has described the process and background of this service. Therefore, here we will add only a few notes on some research that substantiates parishioners’ experience of Forgiveness Sunday, demonstrating the helpfulness of this ritual in the struggle to forgive. Gassin and Sawchak surveyed 178 persons online about the meaning and effect of the Vespers service that contains the forgiveness ritual. Most persons responded positively about the ritual. The most common themes included bringing one’s own psychological experience into conformity with the ritual and other Lenten practices, further development of identity as an Orthodox Christian, and sensing stronger ties to the parish community. A follow-up study involving more detailed interviews with six other Orthodox Christians confirmed many of the themes mentioned by the larger sample. These interviews revealed new emphases as well, such as using the ritual as a moral and spiritual learning experience for the younger generation. As Metropolitan Kallistos noted, however, not all react positively to the ritual. The occasional respondent in both studies noted the forgiveness ritual seemed empty, frustrating, or even scary, suggesting that clergy and other religious educators may need to incorporate more education about forgiveness and the ritual into pre-Lenten preparation, so that all parishioners may come to understand the beauty of offering and receiving mercy. Despite the occasional negative comment, the large majority of responses in the study were positive and theologically astute. This suggests that most people derive some sense of progressing on the path of salvation via the ritual, which in turn provides some evidence from psychological research that forgiveness can be a pathway through which God’s Kingdom comes “here on earth as it is in Heaven.”
Other Helps Within and Beyond Orthodoxy: Aside from participating in the sacraments and praying the liturgical texts during services, other aspects of the Orthodox tradition can also assist in one’s forgiveness journey. For example, reading the lives of saints can inspire with their rich examples of persons who were treated unfairly and yet forgave. The life of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr of Russia serves as an example. Soon after her husband was murdered, St. Elizabeth visited the assassin to offer her forgiveness. Many, many other holy people followed Christ’s example of forgiving His persecutors, and their stories are abundantly available to us, urging us on in running the race of mercy.
Prayer can also be a key part of the struggle to forgive. Aside from the liturgical prayers mentioned above, prayer at home can be crucial. Some prayers books, such as St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press’ Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, include prayers for enemies and prayers for the eradication of anger. Because humility appears to foster forgiveness of others, prayers that entreat God to grant us humility may also be useful in helping us to forgive. These include, but are not limited to, the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian and the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. Both are read during Great Lent, but they may be read at other times as well. Asking the inter-cessions of saints who have been models of forgiveness, and entreating the help of one’s guardian angel in warding off angry thoughts, also can be of benefit. The one striving to forgive may also read prayers for the health of an offender, or for their repose, if the offender is already dead. In doing so, one seeks to extend God’s mercy towards the offender, creating that “trinity” of God, self, and other, united in love.
The Orthodox individual striving to forgive may also find it helpful to attend to the persons and events portrayed in the iconography around him at home and church, realizing that just as he stands before these icons as a sinful person, so might the offender. For example, if one has an icon of Christ Pantocrator in the icon corner at home, she stands before that icon with a wounded soul, just as her offender might. If, at church, there is an icon of Christ’s Descent into Hell, it is worth considering that not only would Christ be there to rescue her, but also to rescue the offender. Such meditations before the icons may help to view the offender from a divine perspective and, paradoxically, promote a sense of kinship with the offender as a fellow human being. This, in turn, can stimulate compassion for the other.
Orthodox Christians may also make use of books on forgiveness written by psychologists. The most recent example of such material is The Forgiving Life, written by Robert Enright and published by the American Psychological Association. While we can recommend The Forgiving Life, the Orthodox Christian should be aware that authors of some books about forgiveness distort the concept and/or suggest thoughts and behaviors that do not dovetail with a Christian perspective. It is wise, then, to use these materials under the guidance of a spiritual father or with a trusted and mature spiritual friend.
Conclusion: The Christian tradition as a whole places a special emphasis on forgiving offenders as a way of living a Christ-like life. Within that general tradition, specific churches offer their own slant on the particulars of the forgiveness process. Eastern Orthodox Christianity’s emphases on the relationships within the Holy Trinity and on theosis of the faithful creates a perspective on forgiveness that may differ somewhat from other theological models. In addition, the monastic tradition, with its close attention to the development of the Christian’s soul, adds to our understanding of how one travels the path of interpersonal mercy. Finally, some aspects of the Orthodox liturgical tradition offer unique insights into forgiveness and opportunities to practice it on the deepest level. To draw on another key Biblical idea for Orthodox Christians, few endeavors can help us become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) like the salvific path of extending God’s forgiveness to one who has hurt us. IC
(We thank Archimandrite Vladimir (Wendling) for reviewing this article. Any errors remain ours. –Authors)
Professor Gassin teaches at Olivet Nazarene University. Professor Enright teaches at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Both are part of the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. In Madison. Wi. A copy of this article with footnotes and references may be requested by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Ed. note: perichoresis is a term that means “to move around” or “to dance” and is developed by several Fathers in describing the “in and around and through” relationship between the Persons of the Trinity and sometimes to us in our relationship to God, as in “we are in Christ.” The English theological terms are “interpenetration” and “circumincession.” This has been referred to as the “Divine Dance.” This is most fully developed by St. John of Damascus.
❖ Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012