Posts Tagged ‘forgiveness’

‘Forgive Us …. As We Forgive’: Forgiveness In The Psalms And The Lord’s Prayer

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013
Kallistos in Wroclaw Poland

Met. Kallistos in speaking in Wroclaw, Poland (photo: Jim Forest)

 

by Kallistos Ware, Metropolitan of Diokleia

And throughout all Eternity
I forgive you, you forgive me.
As our dear Redeemer said:
‘This the Wine, and this the Bread.’

William Blake

The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naïve forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.
Thomas Szasz

‘He is free because he forgives’

In the book by Kevin Andrews, The Flight of Ikaros1, there is a story that sums up the essence of forgiveness. Andrews was studying medieval fortresses in Greece. The year was 1949. He was travelling through a land devastated by the German occupation during the Second World War, and cruelly divided by the post-war struggle between Communists and anti-Communists that had only just drawn to a close. Arriving one evening in a village, he was given hospitality by the parish priest Papastavros. The priest’s house had been burnt down, and so he received his guest in the shed that was now his home.

Gradually Andrews learnt the priest’s story. His two eldest sons had joined the Resistance during the German occupation. But some villagers betrayed their hiding-place; they were captured and never seen again. About the same time, his wife died from starvation. After the Germans had left, Papastavros was living alone with one of his married daughters and her baby son. She was expecting her second child in a few weeks. One day he returned home to find his house in flames, set on fire by Communist partisans. ‘I was in time’, he recounted to Andrews, ‘to see them drag my daughter out and kill her; they shot all their bullets into her stomach. Then they killed the little boy in front of me.’

Those who did these things were not strangers coming from a distance, but they were local people. Papastavros knew exactly who they were, and he had to meet them daily. ‘I wonder how he has not gone mad,’ one of the village women remarked to Andrews. But the priest did not in fact lose his sanity. On the contrary, he spoke to the villagers about the need for forgiveness. ‘I tell them to forgive, and that there exists no other way,’ he said to Andrews. Their response, he added, was to laugh in his face. When, however, Andrews talked with the priest’s one surviving son, the latter did not laugh at his father, but spoke of him as a free man: ‘He is free because he forgives.’

Two phrases stand out in this account: ‘There exists no other way’, and ‘He is free because he forgives.’

There exists no other way. Certain human situations are so complex and intractable, so fraught with anguish, that there exists only one way out: to forgive. Retaliation makes the problem worse; as Mahatma Gandhi observed, ‘An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.’ Solely through forgiveness can we break the chain of mutual reprisal and self-destroying bitterness. Without forgiveness, there can be no hope of a fresh start. So Papastavros found, faced by the tragedies of enemy occupation and civil war. Surely his words apply also to many other situations of conflict, not least in the Holy Land.

He is free because he forgives. In the words of the Russian Orthodox starets St Silouan of Mount Athos (1866-1938), ‘Where there is forgiveness … there is freedom.’ If only we can bring ourselves to forgive – if we can at least want to forgive – then we shall find ourselves in what the Psalms call a ‘spacious place’ or ‘a place of liberty’: ‘We went through fire and water, but Thou broughtest us out into a place of liberty’ (Psalm 66:12). Forgiveness means release from a prison in which all the doors are locked on the inside. Only through forgiveness can we enter into what St Paul terms ‘the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:21).

Yet how hard, how painfully hard, it is to forgive and to be forgiven! To quote another Russian Orthodox witness, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (1914-2003), ‘Forgiveness is not a little brook on the boundary between slavery and freedom: it has breadth and depth, it is the Red Sea.’ ‘Do not think that you have acquired virtue,’ said the Desert Father Evagrius of Pontus (346-99), ‘unless you have struggled for it to the point of shedding your blood.’ The same can be said of forgiveness. Sometimes the struggle to forgive is indeed nothing less than an inner martyrdom, to the point of shedding our blood.

Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church

How shall we set out in our exodus across the ‘Red Sea’ of forgiveness? Let us consider first the way in which the Orthodox Church offers to its members an annual opportunity to make a fresh start, on what is known as ‘The Sunday of Forgiveness’. This will lead us to look more closely at forgiveness in the Psalms and especially in the Lord’s Prayer. What, we may ask, is the meaning of the Greek verb used in the Lord’s Prayer for ‘forgive’, aphiēmi, ‘let go’? Does this mean that to forgive is to condone, or at any rate to forget? Next, taking as our guide the early Fathers, we shall see how the phrase ‘Forgive us … as we forgive’ underlines the fundamental unity of the human race. Finally, we shall try to appreciate what is signified by the word ‘as’ in the forgiveness clause of the Lord’s Prayer : ‘ … as we forgive’. Why should the scope of God’s forgiveness be seemingly restricted by my own willingness to forgive? We shall end with four practical guidelines.

The Sunday of Forgiveness occurs immediately before the seven-week Fast of Lent, the ‘Great Fast’ in preparation for the ‘Feast of Feasts’, the Lord’s Resurrection at Pascha. The human animal, it has been said, is not only an animal that thinks, an animal that laughs and weeps, but much more profoundly an animal that expresses itself through symbolic actions. With good reason, then, the Orthodox Church affords its members the chance each year to externalize their longing for forgiveness, through a liturgical rite that is both corporate and personal.

On the morning of Forgiveness Sunday, the appointed Gospel reading is Matthew 6: 14-21, beginning with Christ’s words: ‘If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’ Then in the evening, at the end of Vespers, there comes a ceremony of mutual pardon. Usually the priest gives a homily, concluding with an appeal to his flock to forgive him for all his mistakes and shortcomings in the past year. Then he comes down the sanctuary steps to the floor of the nave where the people are standing; for there can be no genuinely mutual forgiveness unless I put myself on the same level as the other. Kneeling before the congregation, he says ‘Forgive me, a sinner.’ The people likewise kneel before the priest, answering ‘May God forgive you. Forgive us.’ To this the priest responds ‘God will forgive’, or ‘May God forgive and bless us all.’ After that the people come up one by one to the priest, and each kneels before him, as he in turn kneels before each of them; and they exchange the same words, ‘Forgive me …. God will forgive.’ Then, having first knelt before the priest, the members of the congregation go round the church kneeling before one another, each asking and granting pardon. All this, for obvious reasons, is easier to carry out if, as in traditional Orthodox practice, the church is not cluttered up with pews.

There is of course a danger that a ceremony such as this may become over-emotional, in which case the results will probably prove ephemeral. Forgiveness, after all, is not a feeling but an action. It involves not primarily our emotions but our will. It is a decision, which then requires to be given practical effect. There is also the opposite danger that some worshippers, growing accustomed to this ceremony year by year, will go through it in a manner that is merely formal and automatic. Ritual can all too easily become ossified.

Nevertheless, when full allowance has been made for the dangers of emotionalism and formalism, it remains true that for very many Orthodox Christians this annual service of mutual pardon is deeply healing. On the basis of my personal experience, after more than forty years of pastoral work in a parish, I can testify that again and again it has a transfiguring effect upon relationships within the local church family. It is an occasion that many of our people approach with the utmost seriousness. Let us not underestimate the power of ritual. Even if there are times when it becomes ossified, on other occasions it can and does act as a potent catalyst, enabling us to give expression to what would otherwise remain unacknowledged and repressed. Those too hesitant or embarrassed to call at one another’s homes and embark on a lengthy verbal explanation can make a new beginning within the framework of shared prayer. The Vespers of Forgiveness serves in this way as a genuine breakthrough, the sudden vision of a fresh landscape.

The burden of unhappy memories means, not surprisingly, that the Vespers of Forgiveness is somewhat subdued and sombre. We cry out in sorrow: ‘Turn not away Thy face from Thy servant, for I am in trouble; hear me speedily: hearken unto my soul and deliver it.’ Yet, along with sorrow, there is also a note of glad expectation. ‘Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast,’ we sing in one of the hymns; and a little later we add, ‘Thy grace has shone forth and given light to our souls.’ As the mutual pardon is being exchanged between priest and people, in many churches the choir sings the Resurrection hymns that will be used seven weeks later at Paschal midnight: to forgive is to rise again from the dead. St John Climacus, abbot of Mount Sinai in the seventh-century – whose book The Ladder of Divine Ascent is specially appointed for reading in Lent – has a phrase that exactly describes the spirit of the Vespers of Forgiveness: charopoion penthos, ‘mourning that causes gladness’ or ‘joy-creating sorrow’.

Sometimes people have told me that they find the phrase commonly used at the service, ‘Forgive me … God will forgive’, to be problematic and even evasive. Surely, they object, when someone asks for forgiveness, it is not enough for us to assure them that they are forgiven by God, for they already know that; what is required is that we should forgive them. This, however, is to overlook an essential point. Forgiveness is first and foremost a divine act: ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ (Mark 2:7). If, then, I am to forgive someone else, and the other person is to forgive me, in the last resort this is possible only in so far as we are both of us in God. More specifically, we are able to forgive each other solely because we are both of us already forgiven by God. Our forgiveness is rooted in His, and is impossible without it: ‘Apart from Me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5).

Since, therefore, forgiveness is not primarily our human action but a divine action in which we humans participate, it is vitally important that in the process of mutual forgiveness we should allow space for God to operate. At the beginning of the Eucharistic service in the Orthodox Church, the Divine Liturgy, the deacon says to the priest, ‘It is time for the Lord to act’ (see Psalm 119:126), thereby affirming that the true celebrant at the Holy Mysteries is not the priest but Christ Himself. The phrase applies equally to our mutual forgiveness: here, too, it needs to be said, ‘It is time for the Lord to act.’ Our attempts at reconciliation often fail, precisely because we rely too much upon ourselves, and do not leave proper scope for the action of the Lord. With St. Paul we need to say, ‘not I, but Christ in me’ (Gal. 2:20). Such, then, is the spirit in which we reply at the Vespers of Forgiveness, ‘God will forgive.’

Forgiveness in the Psalms

In order to deepen our appreciation of the mystery of forgiveness, let us turn both to the Old Testament and to the New; and let us consider how forgiveness is understood first in the Psalms and then in the Lord’s Prayer. Because of the central place that the Psalms have occupied in the liturgical life of the Church, in both the East and the West, the testimony that they bear to the meaning of forgiveness is particularly significant.

First of all the Psalms contain a number of striking passages in which the worshipper pleads to God for forgiveness. The best known and most eloquent of these pleas is Psalm 51, ‘Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness’, which is recited no less than four times daily in the Byzantine Divine Office, at the Midnight Service, Matins, the Third Hour and Compline. Another such plea is Psalm 130, ‘Out of the deep …’:

If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark what is done amiss,
O Lord, who could abide it? (verse 4).

The same urgent cry for forgiveness recurs in many other Psalms:

For Thy name’s sake, O Lord,
Be merciful to my sin, for it is great (Psalm 25:10).

Deliver me from all mine offences …
Take Thy plague away from me (Psalm 39: 9, 11).

I said, ‘Lord, be merciful unto me:
Heal me, for I have sinned against Thee’ (Psalm 41:4).

O remember not our past sins, but have mercy upon us, and that soon:
For we are come to great misery (Psalm 79:8).

In these and similar passages of the Psalms, it is made abundantly clear how greatly we need the healing grace of divine forgiveness. Without God’s mercy we are helpless. It is also made clear that we have no claims upon God. Helpless as we are, we can do nothing to earn or deserve God’s mercy, nothing to oblige or constrain Him to forgive us. We can do no more than wait in patience and humility for His free gift of pardon. ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait for Him … A broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt Thou not despise’ (Psalms 130:5; 51:17).

In the second place, the Psalms repeatedly insist these pleas for divine forgiveness do not remain unheard. The Lord is a God of loving-kindness and tender love, ever eager to show mercy and grant healing. This is the theme in particular of Psalm 103, used daily at Matins in the Orthodox Church, and also regularly in the Divine Liturgy:

Praise the Lord, O my soul:
And all that is within me praise His holy name …
Who forgiveth all thy sin:
And healeth all thine infirmities …
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy:
Long-suffering and of great goodness …
Like as a father hath compassion upon his children,
So hath the Lord compassion upon them that fear Him (verses 1, 3, 8, 13).

In a memorable phrase, it is said that God ‘covers’ our sin:

Blessed is he whose unrighteousness is forgiven:
Even he whose sin is covered (Psalm 32:1).

Elsewhere it is said that our sins are ‘blotted out’:

To Thee shall all flesh come to confess their sins:
When our misdeeds prevail against us, in Thy mercy do Thou blot them out (Psalm 65:2).

A leitmotif in the ‘historical’ Psalms is the way in which, again and again in the story of salvation, the people of Israel has gone astray, and yet God in His faithful love has forgiven them (Psalms 78:38; 106: 43-44; 107: 13-16; cf. 85: 1-3). God, it is said elsewhere, is like a shepherd who goes in search of a lost sheep (cf. Matt. 18:12; Luke 15:4):

I have gone astray like a sheep that is lost:
O seek thy servant, for I do not forget Thy commandments (Psalm 119:176).

Yet we are not presumptuously to take God’s forgiveness for granted, for His mercy goes hand in hand with His justice (cf. Romans 11:22):

My song shall be of mercy and justice (Psalm 101:1).

Thirdly, if we are in this way forgiven by God, then we in our turn are called to extend forgiveness to our fellow humans. This is not in fact affirmed in the Psalms very clearly or very frequently, but there are occasions in which it is at least implied, in the context of money-lending:

The ungodly borroweth and payeth not again:
But the righteous giveth and is bountiful …
The righteous is ever bountiful and lendeth:
And his children shall be blessed (Psalm 31:21, 26).

It is good for a man to be generous when he lendeth (Psalm 112:5).

This can perhaps be enlarged to include not only generosity over debts but other forms of remission and forgiveness. At the same time a restriction has to be noted. We cannot grant forgiveness on behalf of others, in regard to offences that have been committed not against us but against them:

But no man may deliver his brother:
Nor pay a price unto God for him (Psalm 49:7).

Sadly, however, it has to be noted that there are grave limitations in the Psalms concerning the scope of forgiveness. If, as we have seen, there are only a few places where it is suggested that we should forgive others, there are unfortunately many other passages in which the Psalmist curses his enemies and prays for their destruction. God is invoked as a God of vengeance (Psalms 54:1; 94:1). We are to hate our enemies with a ‘perfect hatred’ (Psalm 139:22). Particularly cruel is the punishment called down upon the daughter of Babylon:

Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children:
And throweth them against the stones (Psalm 137:9).

Most notably, Psalm 109 contains an imprecation daunting its cruelty:

Let his days be few:
And let another seize his possessions.
Let his children be fatherless:
And his wife become a widow.
Let his children be vagabonds and beg their bread:
Let them be driven out even from their desolate places …
Let there be no man to pity him:
Or to have compassion upon his fatherless children (verses 7-9, 11).

Such a passage does not stand alone: compare, for example, Psalms 83: 9-17, 129: 5-8, and 140: 8-10. I have noted altogether over thirty passages in the Psalms asking God to inflict pain and suffering upon others, and this figure is almost certainly an underestimate. It is of course possible to explain away such passages by interpreting them symbolically, as referring not to our fellow human beings but to our evil thoughts or to the demons. But such was not their original intention

‘… seventy times seven …’

When we turn, however, from the Old Testament to the New, we are at once impressed by a manifest and remarkable contrast. Nowhere in the Gospels does Christ instruct us to hate our enemies: He tells us, on the contrary, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matt. 5: 44). The law of retaliation is firmly abrogated: we are not to ‘resist an evildoer’, but to ‘turn the other cheek’ (Matt. 5:39). There are to be no limits to our forgiveness: we are to forgive our brother ‘seven times a day’ (Luke 17:4); and not only that, but ‘seventy times seven’ (Matt.18:22). We do not find such statements in the Psalms. Nor, indeed, do we find in the Psalms the statement that occupies such a prominent place in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’ (Matt. 6:12). The Lord’s Prayer is comprehensive but extremely concise: if, then, in such a short prayer, nearly a quarter – no less than 13 words in the Greek text, out of 57 (or 58) 0 – is devoted to the theme of forgiveness, this shows how crucially important it is in God’s sight that we should forgive and be forgiven.

Such, certainly, is the view of Origen (d. 253/4): if Christ, he says, places such strong emphasis upon forgiveness in the model prayer that He has given us, this is because there cannot be any true prayer at all unless it is offered in a forgiving spirit.11 St Gregory of Nyssa (d.ca. 394) goes so far as to claim that the clause ‘Forgive us .. as we forgive” is the culminating point in the entire prayer; it constitutes ‘the very peak of virtue’.12 He adds, however, that – fundamental though the clause is – its true sense is not at all easy to grasp: ‘The meaning surpasses any interpretation in words.’13

A valuable insight into the significance of forgiveness is provided by the literal sense of the verb used in the Lord’s Prayer for ‘forgive’, aphiēmi. The primary idea conveyed by this word is ‘let go’, ‘set aside’, ‘leave behind’. It denotes such things as release from captivity, the cancellation of a debt, or the remission of punishment. The unforgiving grasp, retain, and hold fast; the forgiving let go. Yet, if we ‘let go’ the memory of an offence, does this not suggest that we are condoning the evil that has been done? That, surely, cannot be the correct meaning of forgiveness. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, ‘Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what has happened seriously and not minimizing it.’14 To condone an evil is to pass over it, to ignore it, or else it is to pretend that it is not an evil, to treat it as if it were good. But to forgive is something altogether different from this. There can be no genuine forgiveness that is not truthful and realistic. Let us not practise any evasion. If an evil has been done, then this has to be frankly admitted.

Moreover, if the process of forgiveness is to be brought to full completion, the evil has to be frankly admitted by both sides, by the aggressor as well as the victim. It is true that, when we suffer wrong, we should endeavour to forgive the other immediately, without any delay, not waiting for the other to acknowledge the wrong. It was precisely in this spirit that Jesus prayed at His crucifixion, ‘Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:24). If, however, the forgiveness is to come to proper interpersonal fulfilment, more than this is required. Forgiveness needs to be accepted as well as offered; and the one who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.

If forgiveness, in the sense of ‘letting go’, is not the same as condoning, should we say that to forgive is to forget? Shall we make our own King Lear’s words, ‘Pray you now, forget and forgive’? The answer seems to be both yes and no. It all depends on what we remember (or forget) and on how we do so. Certainly there is no point in clinging to the memory of trivial misunderstandings and injuries. We should rather allow them to slip quietly away into oblivion, for we have better things with which to occupy our minds. There are, however, events in our personal lives, and in the lives of the communities to which we belong, that are far too important simply to be forgotten. It would not be right to say to the members of the Armenian nation, ‘Forget the massacres of 1915′, or to the Jewish people, ‘Forget the Shoah in the Second World War.’ These are matters that, for the sake of our shared humanity, none of us should forget, not least so as to ensure that such atrocities may never be allowed to happen again.

More decisive than what we remember is how we do so. We are not to remember in a spirit of hatred and recrimination, or for the sake of revenge. Dr Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, has rightly said: ‘Remember the past … but do not be held captive by it. Turn it into a blessing, not a curse; a source of hope, not humiliation.’15 Our memories are not to be repressed or negated, but at the same time they require to be purified and healed. We need to remember, yet not self-righteously, not with aggressive accusations, but in a spirit of compunction and mourning. We need to remember with love. But that is difficult.

Forgiveness, it can even be said, begins not with an act of forgetfulness, but with an act of mindfulness and self-knowledge. We have to recognize the harm that has been done, the wound that we or the other carry in our heart. Only after this moment of truthful recognition can we then begin to ‘let go’, not in the sense of consigning to oblivion, but in the sense of no longer being held prisoner by the memory. Remember, but be free.

Responsible for everyone and everything

In the Patristic interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, a dominant theme is the unity of the human race. The early Fathers are in full agreement with the words of Julian of Norwich (fourteenth century), ‘In the sight of God, all man is one man, and one man is all man.’16 They agree equally with John Donne (1571/2-1631), ‘No man is an Island, entire of it self.’17 Our need to forgive and to be forgiven springs directly from the fact that we are all of us interdependent, members of a single human family. Indeed, this insistence upon coinherence is to be seen, not only in the clause ‘Forgive us … as we forgive’, but in the Lord’s Prayer as a whole. St Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) notes how the prepositions in the Prayer are consistently in the plural, not the singular – not ‘my’ but ‘our’, not ‘me’ but ‘us’:

We do not say ‘My Father who art in heaven’, or ‘Give me this day my bread’, nor does each one ask that only his own debt be remitted, nor does he request for himself alone that he may not be led into temptation or may be delivered from the evil one. Prayer with us is public and common, and when we pray we do not pray for one but for the whole people, because the whole people are one.18

This perception of our human unity, in Cyprian’s view, has its foundation in the Christian doctrine of God. We believe in God the Trinity, who is not only one but one-in-three, not only personal but interpersonal; we believe in the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so we human beings are saved, not in isolation, but in communion one with another.19

This unity that marks us out as human persons, while underlined throughout the Lord’s Prayer, is particularly evident in the clause concerning forgiveness. In the words of Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150 – ca. 215), when we say ‘Forgive us … as we forgive’, we are proclaiming that ‘all humankind is the work of one Will’.20 This is a point emphasized by St Maximos the Confessor (ca. 580-662) in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. Unity and mutual love, he says, constitute ‘the principle (logos) of nature’, according to which we human beings have been created. When, therefore, we pray for forgiveness, we are bringing our human will into harmony with the logos of our nature. Conversely, to withhold forgiveness is to ‘sunder human nature by separating ourselves from our fellow humans, even though we are ourselves human’. Our refusal to live in union with each other through mutual forgiveness is therefore self-destructive: ‘Failing such union, our nature remains self-divided in its will and cannot receive God’s divine and ineffable gift of Himself.’21

St Gregory of Nyssa likewise sees the refusal of forgiveness as self-destructive: ‘In condemning your neighbour, you thereby condemn yourself.’22 Giving a wide-ranging application to the notion of human unity, Gregory maintains that it extends through time as well as space. When saying ‘Forgive us’ in the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking forgiveness not only for our own personal sins but also for ‘the debts that are common to our nature, and more particularly for the ancestral sin23 that the whole human race inherits from Adam. Even if we keep ourselves free from personal sins – in fact, as Gregory comments, none of us can claim this of ourselves, even for an hour – we would still need to say ‘Forgive us’ on behalf of Adam:

Adam lives in us … and so we do well to make use of these words Forgive us our trespasses. Even if we were Moses or Samuel or someone else of pre-eminent virtue, we would none the less regard these words as appropriate to ourselves, since we are human; we share in Adam’s nature and therefore share also in his fall. Since, then, as the Apostle says, ‘we all die in Adam’ (1 Cor. 15:22), these words that suitably express Adam’s penitence are likewise appropriate for all those who have died with him.24

A similar line of thought is found in St Mark the Monk (? early fifth century). In his opinion, we are called to repent not only ‘for our own sin’ but also ‘for the sin of transgression’, that is to say, for the ancestral sin of Adam. Repentance is vicarious:

The saints are required to offer repentance not only on their own behalf but also on behalf of their neighbour, for without active love they cannot be made perfect … In this way the whole universe is held together in unity, and through God’s providence we are each of us assisted by one another.25

Even though there is no explicit reference here to the Lord’s Prayer, Mark’s line of argument can surely be applied likewise to the petition ‘Forgive us … as we forgive.’ If we can repent for the sins of others, then we can and should also ask forgiveness on their behalf. The principle of mutual solidarity applies equally in both cases: ‘we are each of us assisted by one another’. No one is forgiven and saved in isolation.

These statements by Gregory of Nyssa and by Mark the Monk fall far short of a fully developed theology of original guilt, such as we find in St Augustine (354-430). Mark specifically excludes the view that, in a juridical sense, we are guilty of Adam’s sin, considered as an act of personal choice.26 Yet, on a level more profound than legal culpability, there exists a mystical solidarity that unites us all one to another; and it is of this that Gregory and Mark are speaking. ‘All man is one man’, and so we are each of us ‘responsible for everything and everyone’, to use the phrase of Dostoevsky’s Starets Zosima.27 Even if not personally guilty, nevertheless we bear the burden of what Adam and all the other members of the human family have done. They live in us, and we in them. Here as always the vital word is ‘we’, not ‘I’. None of us falls alone, for we drag each other down; and none of us is forgiven and saved alone. Forgiveness is not solitary but social.

How far can the notion of vicarious forgiveness be legitimately extended? Can I forgive or accept forgiveness on behalf of others? So far as asking forgiveness is concerned, it is surely reasonable to request forgiveness on behalf of others, when those others are joined to me in some way, for example by kinship, nationhood, or religious allegiance. If, tracing back our ancestry, we become aware that our family tree is tainted with unresolved tensions and alienation, we can and should pray for the forgiveness and healing of our forebears. By the same token, the descendant of a slave-trader might rightly feel impelled to ask forgiveness in his heart – and perhaps by some external gesture as well – from the families of those whom his ancestor took captive and sold into bondage. Pope John Paul II acted as a true Christian when, during the visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to Rome in June 2004, he asked the Patriarch’s forgiveness for the sack of Constantinople by the Latin Crusaders eight hundred years previously.28 How I long for an Orthodox church leader to ask forgiveness in the same way from the Catholics, for the many evils that we Orthodox have inflicted upon them! And all of us, Orthodox and Catholics alike, have to seek forgiveness from the Jews, God’s Chosen People, for the heavy sins that, over the centuries, we have committed against them.

Have we the right, however, not only to ask forgiveness on behalf of others, but also to offer it on their behalf? Here there is reason for us to be much more hesitant. For myself, I agree with the late Rabbi Albert Friedlander – and with Psalm 49:9 – that one cannot forgive offences that have not been committed against oneself. It would be inappropriate, and indeed presumptuous, for me as a non-Jew to claim authority to forgive the suffering inflicted upon the Jews during the Shoah in the Second World War. It is not for me but for the Jews themselves to decide how those sufferings should be remembered, and how and when they should be forgiven. In the Lord’s Prayer, we do not say, ‘… as we forgive those who have trespassed against others’, but ‘… as we forgive those who have trespassed against us’.

Issuing an order to God

What light do the Fathers shed upon the central word in the forgiveness petition – indeed, the most puzzling word in the whole of the Lord’s Prayer – the word ‘as’: ‘Forgive us … as we forgive’? ‘No word in English’, states Charles Williams, ‘carries a greater possibility of terror than the little word “as” in that clause; it is the measuring rod of the heavenly City, and the knot of the new union. But also it is the key of hell and the knife that cuts the knot of union.’29 Truly it is a hazardous prayer. We dare to apply to ourselves with unmitigated rigour the principle laid down by Christ. ‘The measure you give will be the measure you get’ (Matt. 7:2). ‘What you do,’ warned St Cyprian, ‘that you will also yourself suffer.’30 As St John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407) put it, ‘We ourselves have control over the judgement that is to be passed upon us.’31

Not only is it a hazardous request to God, but it is also a very strange one. It is as if we were issuing an order to God and instructing Him how to act. ‘If I do not forgive others,’ we are saying to Him, ‘then do You withhold forgiveness from me.’ Nowhere else in the Lord’s Prayer do we issue orders in this way. St Gregory of Nyssa attempts to spell out the paradox in terms of what may be called ‘mimetic inversion’. Under normal circumstances, he observes, it is we who are called to imitate God; as St Paul said, ‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1 Cor. 11:1). This is particularly the case when we forgive others. Since in the last resort it is God alone who has the power to forgive sins (Mark 2:7), it is only possible for us to forgive others if we imitate God. We cannot genuinely forgive, that is to say, unless we have been taken up into God and have ourselves ‘in some sense become God’, to use Gregory’s phrase. The one who forgives needs to be ‘deified’ or ‘divinized’; there can be no effective forgiveness without theosis.32 That is the normal pattern. But here, in the case of the Lord’s Prayer – and Gregory admits that this is a ‘bold thing’ to say33 – the customary order is reversed. On this occasion, it is we who serve as an example to God. Instead of ourselves imitating Him, we are telling Him to imitate us: ‘What I have done, do You do likewise; imitate Your servant, O Lord …. I have forgiven; do You forgive. I have shown great mercy to my neighbour; imitate my loving-kindness, You who are by nature loving-kind.’34

Yet, in this clause ‘Forgive us … as we forgive’, precisely how strong a sense should be attached to the conjunction ‘as’? Should it be understood as causative, proportionate or conditional?

(1) Is the sense causative? In that case, we are saying to God, ‘Forgive us because we forgive’; our forgiveness is the cause of His. This is indeed the way in which some Patristic authors interpreted the phrase. Clement of Alexandria even suggested that, by forgiving others, we somehow compel God to forgive us.35 Yet a causative interpretation of this kind surely presents grave difficulties. As Calvin has rightly insisted, forgiveness comes from the ‘free mercy’ of God.36 It is an unmerited gift of divine grace, conferred solely through Christ’s Cross and Resurrection; it is never something that we can earn or deserve. God acts with sovereign liberty, and we have no claims upon Him. As Paul affirmed, quoting the Pentateuch: ‘For God says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy’ (Rom. 9:15-16; cf. Exod. 33:19). This is rendered abundantly clear in Christ’s parable concerning the labourers in the vineyard: to those who complain about their wages, the master replies, ‘Have I not the right to do as I choose with what is my own?’ (Matt. 20:15). Moreover, the initiative rests with God and not with us. He does not wait for us to forgive others before He extends His forgiveness to us. On the contrary, His act of free and unrestricted forgiveness precedes any act of forgiveness on our part: ‘God proves His love for us, in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’ (Rom. 5:8).

(2) If the word ‘as’ cannot be causative, is it proportionate? Does it signify ‘to the same degree’, ‘according to the same measure’? Once more, this can hardly be the true sense. Between our forgiveness and God’s there can be no common measure. He forgives with a fullness and generosity far beyond our wildest imagining: ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord’ (Isa. 55:8). The transcendent and incomparable character of divine forgiveness is underlined in another Matthaean parable, that of the two debtors (Matt. 18:23-35). In relation to God, we are like the slave who owed ten thousand talents (a talent being equivalent to more than fifteen years’ wages received by a labourer), whereas in relation to each other we are like the slave who owed a hundred denarii (a denarius being the usual day’s wage for a labourer). Even St Gregory of Nyssa, after suggesting that in His act of forgiveness God is imitating us, at once goes on to qualify this by asserting that our sins against God are immeasurably heavier than any sins by others against us.37 Later he refers for confirmation precisely to the parable of the two debtors.38

(3) If, then, our forgiveness is neither the cause nor the measure of God’s forgiveness, what further alternative remains? There exists a third possibility: it is the condition. Forgiveness is indeed unmerited, but it is not unconditional. God for His part is always overwhelmingly eager to forgive. This divine eagerness is movingly expressed in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15 : 11-32), which is read at the Orthodox Liturgy on the Sunday two weeks before the Sunday of Forgiveness. The father does not simply sit and wait passively for his son to return home. We are to imagine him standing day after day outside his house, anxiously scanning the horizon in the forlorn hope that at long last he may catch sight of a familiar figure. Then, as soon as the prodigal comes into view, while he is still far off, the father rushes out to meet his son, embracing and kissing him, and inviting him into the feast. Such is God’s great willingness to forgive us and to welcome us home. Later in the story the father again goes out, this time in the hope of persuading his elder son to come and share the feast. This double going out on the part of the loving father is of primary significance if we are to appreciate the quality of divine mercy.

Yes, indeed, God is always eager to forgive – far more so than we are to repent. In the words of St Isaac the Syrian (seventh century), ‘There exists in Him a single love and compassion that is spread out over all creation, a love that is without alteration, timeless and everlasting.’39 Calling to mind Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane and His death on the Cross, we ask ourselves: What more could God incarnate have done to win us back to Himself, that He has not done? Forgiveness, however, has not only to be offered but to be accepted. God knocks at the door of the human heart (Rev. 3:20), but He does not break the door down: we for our part have to open it.

Here precisely we find the true meaning of the word ‘as’ in the Lord’s Prayer. It is not that God is unwilling to forgive us. But if, despite God’s unfailing eagerness to forgive, we on our side harden our hearts and refuse forgiveness to others, then quite simply we render ourselves incapable of receiving the divine forgiveness. Closing our hearts to others, we close them also to God; rejecting others, we reject Him. If we are unforgiving, then by our own act we place ourselves outside the interchange of healing love. God does not exclude us; it is we who exclude ourselves.

Our forgiveness of others, then, is not the cause of God’s forgiveness towards us, but it is certainly the condition without which God’s forgiveness cannot pass within us. Divine pardon is indeed a free gift that we can never earn. What concerns us here, however, is not merit but capacity. Our relation to God and our relation to our fellow humans are strictly interdependent. As St Silouan of Mount Athos affirmed, ‘Our brother is our life.’40 This is true not in a sentimental but in an ontological sense. Love for God and love for neighbour are not two loves but one.

‘Forgive us … as we forgive’: when we say these words, so Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh has rightly cautioned us, ‘we take our salvation into our own hands’.41

Four words of counsel

As we begin to cross the Red Sea of forgiveness, let us remind ourselves of certain practical guidelines.

(1) Do not delay, but do not be in haste. Do not delay: the time for forgiveness is always now. Maximize the moment. The devil’s weapons are nostalgia and procrastination: he tells us ‘Too late’ or ‘Too soon’. But, where the devil says ‘Yesterday’ or ‘Tomorrow’, the Holy Spirit says ‘Today’.

We are not to think within ourselves, ‘First, I will change for the better; then I will be ready to forgive.’ Still less are we to think (what is far worse), ‘First, I will wait to see whether the other is really sorry for the wrong that he has done, and whether he has really changed for the better; then I will decide whether to forgive him.’ Let us, on the contrary, be like the loving father in the story of the prodigal. Let us take the initiative, and run out to meet the other. Forgiveness has to come first; it is the cause of the change in ourselves and in others, not the effect. To adapt a phrase of the Romanian Orthodox theologian Fr Dumitru Staniloae (1903-93), ‘In so far as I am not forgiven, I am unintelligible to myself.’42

Yet there is another side to the question. Forgive now, in your heart; but in your outward actions do not be overhasty. Forgiveness signifies healing, and healing often takes time. Premature requests for forgiveness can make the situation worse. If we force ourselves upon the other, without first seeking through imaginative empathy to discover what the other is thinking and feeling, we may widen rather than bridge the gulf that separates us. Without putting things off, often we need to pause – not with passive indifference but waiting with alertness upon God – until the kairos, the moment of opportunity, has become clear. The Emperor Augustus was right: Festina lente.43

(2) Forgive the other, but also be willing to accept the forgiveness that the other is offering to us. It is hard to forgive; but often it is even harder to acknowledge that we ourselves need to be forgiven. Let us be humble enough to accept the gift of another’s pardon. As Charles Williams wisely observed, ‘Many reconciliations have unfortunately broken down because both parties have come prepared to forgive and unprepared to be forgiven.’44

(3) Forgive others, but also forgive yourself. Have we not sometimes said, or heard others say, ‘I will never forgive myself for that’? Yet how can we accept forgiveness from others, if we will not forgive ourselves? In the words once more of Charles Williams, by remaining in this state of ‘half-anger, half-anguish’, we each create for ourselves ‘a separate hell’.45 Judas regretted what he had done, but in his case self-knowledge brought him not to fresh hope but to despair; unable to accept God’s forgiveness, and therefore unable to forgive himself, he went out and committed suicide (Matt. 27: 3-5). Peter on the other hand took a different path. Brought to self-knowledge by the crowing of the cock, he wept bitter tears of remorse; yet this remorse did not reduce him to despair. On the contrary, seeing the risen Christ at the lakeside, he did not turn away from Him into a ‘separate hell’, but drew near with hope. Accepting Christ’s forgiveness, forgiving himself, he made a new beginning (Matt. 26:75; John 21:15-19).

(4) Pray. If we cannot yet find within our heart the possibility of forgiving the other, then let us at least pray for them. In the words of St Silouan, ‘If you will pray for your enemies, peace will come to you.’46 Let us ask God that we may not make the other’s burden more heavy, that we may not be to them a scandal and a cause of stumbling. And if, as we pray, we cannot yet bring ourselves to the point of actually forgiving, then let us ask God that we may experience at least the desire and longing to forgive. There are situations in which truly to want something is already to attain it. Like the man who brought his sick child to Christ and cried out, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’ (Mark 9 : 24), let us also cry out with tears: ‘Lord, I forgive; help my unforgivingness.’ Slowly, gradually, there will come at last the moment when we are able to remember with love.

By invoking God’s help in prayer and by admitting our own helplessness, we are reminded of the all-important truth that forgiveness is a divine prerogative. It is not simply our action, but the action of God in us. To forgive, in a full and genuine sense, we need to be ‘in God’. ‘It is God who has shone in our hearts … the all-surpassing power is from Him and not from us’ (2 Cor. 4 : 6-7). This ‘all-surpassing power’ of God is communicated to us above all through the ‘mysteries’ or sacraments of the Church; and, in the Patristic interpretation of ‘Our Father’, at least two of these ‘mysteries’ are mentioned implicitly in the course of the Prayer. When we say, ‘Give us today our daily bread’, we are to think not of material bread alone but of the ‘bread from heaven’, the Eucharist. Then, in the petition that follows, ‘Forgive us … as we forgive’, we are to recall the forgiveness of sins that we have received in Holy Baptism. The Lord’s Prayer, according to St Augustine, is in this way a continual renewal of Baptism: reciting the words that Christ has given us, ‘daily we are washed clean’.47 Our forgiveness, then, does not depend merely upon our feelings, or upon the decision of our will. It has an objective basis, in the sacrament of our baptismal washing.

Flying kites

After Orthodox Christians have knelt before each other at the Vespers of Forgiveness, asking and granting pardon, what do they do on the next day, the first day of Lent, known as ‘Clean Monday’ (Kathara Devtera)? In many places it is still the custom to go out on the hills and have a picnic; and on this, the first open-air festival of the year, both children and grown-ups fly kites in the spring breeze. Such can also be our inner experience when we begin to forgive one another. To forgive is to enter spiritual springtime. It is to emerge from gloom into the sunlight, from self-imprisonment into the liberty of the open air. It is to ascend the hills, to let the wind blow on our faces, and to fly noetic kites, the kites of imagination, hope and joy.

As his son said of the priest Papastavros, ‘He is free because he forgives.’

Footnotes

1 Kevin Andrews, The Flight of Ikaros: A Journey into Greece (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1959), pp. 109-19.
2 I take this sentence from a pamphlet entitled The F Word: Images of Forgiveness (no place, no date).
3 Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), Saint Silouan the Athonite (Tolleshunt Knights, Essex: The Monastery of St John the Baptist, 1991), p. 341.
4 Archbishop Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1966), p. 31. See also his perceptive words about forgiveness in Meditations on a Theme (London/Oxford: Mowbrays, 1972), pp. 104-8.
5 On prayer 136; tr. Robert E. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus : the Greek Ascetic Corpus (Oxford: OUP, 2003), p. 207 (translation modified).
6 For the liturgical texts used on the Sunday of Forgiveness, see The Lenten Triodion, tr. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware (London/Boston: Faber & Faber, 1978), pp. 168-83, especially p. 183. Most of the hymnology for the day in fact alludes, not to mutual forgiveness, but to the other main theme of the Sunday, the Casting out of Adam from Paradise.
7 The details of the ceremony vary in different places. A simpler form of mutual pardon is used daily at the end of Compline: see Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church, tr. Isabel Florence Hapgood, 2nd. edtn (New York: Association Press, 1922), p. 162; The Liturgikon: The Book of Divine Services for the Priest and the Deacon, ed. The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, 2nd edtn. (Englewood, NJ: Antakya Press, 1994), pp. 67, 98.
8 Not that there is anything wrong with the emotions as such, for they are an integral part of our human personhood according to the divine image, and so they can and should be offered up to God in our ‘reasonable worship’ (Rom. 12:1). I am thinking here, however, of a febrile emotionalism that is artificial and exaggerated.
9 The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 7, title (PG 88: 801C), tr. Archimandrite Lazarus Moore (London: Faber & Faber, 1959), p. 113.
10 The Greek text, as used liturgically, in the Orthodox Church, contains 58 words; in critical editions of the New Testament there is one word less, as the definite article is omitted before gēs (‘earth’).
11 On prayer 8:1, 9:1, ed. P. Koetschan, GCS (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1899), p. 317; tr. Rowan A. Greer, The Classics of Western Christianity (New York/Ramsey/Toronto: Panlist Press, 1979), pp. 97,98. On the Patristic use of the Lord’s Prayer, see the systematic study, with detailed bibliography, by Kenneth W. Stevenson, The Lord’s Prayer : A Text in Tradition (London: SCM, 2004), to which I am much indebted.
12 On the Lord’s Prayer, homily 5, ed. J.F. Callahan, Gregorii Nysseni Opera VII/2 (Leiden/New York/Köln, 1992) p. 59, line 1; tr. Hilda C. Graef, Ancient Christian Writers 18 (New York: Newman Press, 1954), p. 71.
13 On the Lord’s Prayer, homily 5, ed. Callahan, p. 61 : 10-11; tr. Graef, p.73. Here (and elsewhere) I have modified Dr Graef’s translation.
14 Quoted in the pamphlet The F Word : Images of Forgiveness.
15 The Times (London), 17 July 2004, p. 47.
16 Quoted by Charles Williams, The Forgiveness of Sins (London : Geoffrey Bles, 1942), p. 16. This brief study, written in the middle of the Second World War, remains one of the most helpful treatments on the subject.
17 Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (London: Thomas Jones, 1624), Meditation XVII.
18 On the Lord’s Prayer 8, ed. C. Moreschini, Corpus Christianorum III/A, Pars II (Turnhout: Brepols, 1976), lines 103-18; cited in Stevenson, The Lord’s Prayer, p. 33.
19 On the Lord’s Prayer 23, ed. Moreschini, lines 447-9.
20 Stromateis 7:81:2, ed. O. Stählin and L. Früchtel, GCS (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1970), p.58; tr. F.J.A. Hort and J.B. Mayor, Clement of Alexandria : Miscellanies Book VII (London: Macmillan, 1902), p. 141.
21 On the Lord’s Prayer, ed. Peter van Deun, Corpus Christianorum 23 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1991), lines 662-8; tr. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, The Philokalia, vol. 2 (London/Boston: Faber & Faber, 1981), p. 301 (translation adapted).
22 On the Lord’s Prayer, homily 5, ed. Callahan, p. 61 : 5-6; cf. p. 69:24; tr. Graef, pp. 73, 80.
23 The Greek Fathers, and also most present-day Orthodox writers, speak not of ‘original sin’ but of ‘ancestral sin’ (propatorikē hamartia). There is a subtle difference in meaning between the two terms.
24 On the Lord’s Prayer, homily 5, ed. Callahan, pp. 64:23; 65:2; 66:7-15; tr. Graef, pp. 76,77.
25 On repentance 12 and 11, ed. G.-M. de Durand, Sources chrétiennes 445 (Paris: Cerf, 1999), pp. 252, 250.
26 On baptism 17, ed. de Durand, op. cit., p. 392.
27 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1991), p. 320.
28 Service Orthodoxe de Presse et d’Information (SOP) 290 (July-August 2004), pp. 1-3.
29 The Forgiveness of Sins, p. 66.
30 On the Lord’s Prayer 23, ed. Moreschini, lines 440-1.
31 On Matthew, homily 19:6 (PG 57: 281).
32 On the Lord’s Prayer, homily 5, ed. Callahan, pp. 59:1-11; 60 : 15-16; 61 : 15-17; tr. Graef, pp. 71, 72, 73.
33 op. cit., ed. Callahan, pp. 61 : 13-14; tr. Graef, p. 73.
34 op. cit., ed. Callahan, p. 61 : 23-24; 62 : 7-9; tr. Graef, pp. 73, 74.
35 Stromateis 7 : 86 : 6, ed. Stählin and Früchtel, p. 62; tr. Hort and Mayor, p. 153.
36 Stevenson, The Lord’s Prayer, p. 165.
37 On the Lord’s Prayer, homily 5, ed. Callahan, p. 62 : 9-11; tr. Graef, p. 74.
38 op. cit., ed. Callahan, pp. 69 : 26; 70 : 12; tr. Graef, pp. 80-81. The parable is quoted to the same effect by other early Christian writers, such as Tertullian (ca. 160- ca. 225), On the Prayer 7, ed. and tr. E. Evans (London: SPCK, 1953), pp. 12-13; Origen, On prayer 28 : 7, ed. Koetschau, p. 379; tr. Greer, p. 150.
39 Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac the Syrian), ‘The Second Part’, Chapters IV – XLI, tr. Sebastian Brock, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 555, Scriptores Syri 225 (Louvain : Peeters, 1995), Homily 40 : 1, p. 174.
40 Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite, pp. 47, 371.
41 Archbishop Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer, p. 30.
42 Marc-Antoine Costa de Beauregard, Dumitru Staniloae : Ose comprendre que Je t’aime (Paris: Cerf, 1983), p. 24: ‘Mois-même, tout que je ne suis pas aimé, je suis incomprehensible.’
43 Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, ‘Divus Augustus’, §25 (‘Make haste slowly’).
44 The Forgiveness of Sins, p. 113.
45 The Forgiveness of Sins, pp. 77-78.
46 Archimandrite Sofrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite, p. 377.
47 Augustine, Sermon 59 : 7; cf. 56 : 11; 57 : 8 (PL 38: 382, 390, 401). See Stevenson, The Lord’s Prayer, p. 82. A similar interpretation is given by Caesarius of Arles (ca. 470-542), and by Euthymius Zigabenus (twelfth century): see Stevenson, op. cit., pp. 90, 108.

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IC66 In Communion 2013

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Peace in the Parish by Anthony S. Bashir and Fr. John Mefrige

Friday, April 26th, 2013

by Anthony S. Bashir and Fr. John Mefrige

page 36 Pax christi icon_webTherefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23–24).

Pastors, parishioners and parish councils often find themselves in conflict with each other—conflicts that arise from misunderstandings, differences in interests and values, competition for position and power, and sinful actions. St. James teaches that conflict and quarrels are caused by the preeminence of our desires and passions. When left unfilled, these demands and passions lead us to resent and accuse one another; conflict arises, and the result is enmity and our separation from Christ.

Inordinate attachment to our differences and demands often leads us into conflict with one another. The desires for control that fire these differences are self-centered and divisive, seeking their own satisfaction, often at any cost. When they are not satisfied, disappointments arise, leading us to make more unreasonable demands of others, to judge others for not fulfilling our desires or doing what we think is right. We act in divisive ways, and finally punish others or retaliate through our actions, with accusations, arguments, gossip, hatred, and more. Conflict has painful effects on us, wounding and tearing the fabric of our oneness in Christ Jesus.

When conflict in a parish is not addressed in a skillful and spiritual manner, it can become corrosive, with grave consequences for pastors and parishioners alike. The more prolonged and contentious the conflict, the more harm done. Conflict, how-ever, offers us an important opportunity to serve other people as stewards, to grow through these practices toward a union with Christ (theosis) and to give glory to God.

In resolving a conflict, we trust in God’s compassion and mercy, taking responsi-bility for the role we have had in it, allowing ourselves to be restored, genuinely seeking peace and reconciliation, and forgiving each other as Christ has forgiven us. We consider the words of the Prophet Isaiah, who says, “O Lord, you will ordain peace for us, for indeed, all that we have done, you have done for us” (Is. 26:12).

God loved us so much that we were reconciled with him through Christ Jesus and redeemed from our estrangement. St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans states, “We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Rom. 5:11). Consequently, there is an urgent need for peacemaking efforts and reconciliation within our everyday lives and within the life of the Church. In fact, peacemaking and reconciliation are essential ministries of the Church. A ministry of peacemaking and reconciliation and its practices are committed to building up the body of Christ and His Church. The mission of this peacemaking ministry focuses on teaching practices that bring about the resolution of conflict through reconciliation. This resolution allows movement through forgiveness to communion, where once there was conflict and enmity.

In June 2010, Metropolitan Philip (Antiochian Archdiocese of North America) approved the creation of a ministry for peacemaking and reconciliation within the Department of Lay Ministry of the Archdiocese. Since then, several of us (Frs. John Mefrige and Timothy Ferguson, Dr. John Dalack, Anthony Bashir) have sought professional training in peacemaking and reconciliation within spiritual com-munities. Our approach is grounded in the teachings of the Orthodox Church and incorporates scriptural and patristic teachings. With the approval of the Metro-politan, we have begun to work with a few parishes, focusing on their desire once again to be reconciled one to the other and to let their “light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

This ministry is an initiative in support of our Hierarchy, our clergy, and our churches. The goal is to implement a healthy and spiritual process that focuses on conflict resolution and reconciliation. At this time, the Department is preparing to offer professionally trained crisis-intervention teams to help local parishes embroiled in destructive conflict. It is our belief that the Orthodox Christian mediator is an unbiased person who serves many functions, including convening, facilitating communication and understanding, building trust, modeling behavior, generating alternatives, and bearing witness.

When our department is invited to a parish and given permission to intervene by the Metropolitan, we will follow a specific process that includes an assessment of the current conflict and a determination of readiness for intervention. Our mediation efforts follow a specific process: ground rules are established, opening statements are made, stories are heard, problems identified and clarified, solutions explored, and agreements made. Conflict coaching and conflict mediation have distinct phases that incorporate the Scriptures as well as the Church Fathers in an open, fair, and honest dialogue directed to reconciliation and forgiveness.

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As this ministry grows, we will want to recruit and train qualified individuals within each of the dioceses so as to build a team of well-prepared Orthodox Christian mediators who will be available, as needed, for peacemaking and reconciliation initiatives. Specific information and qualifications concerning team membership will be made available upon request. We will work through the Metropolitan’s office so that we might be in contact with local bishops, who could assist us in identifying potential members for this department. Our goal is to create a department that works in harmony with diocesan representatives who are prepared and trained in this ministry to the glory of God.  IC

For information regarding this ministry or for answers to specific questions, please contact Fr. John or Anthony Bashir at one of the following e-mail addresses: [email protected], [email protected] IC published an article by Fr. John titled “Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution in the Church” in issue 57, Summer 2010.

In Communion / Winter 2013

We Must Refuse to Hate Each Other: Interview with Archpriest Alexey Uminsky

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Interview with Archpriest Alexey Uminsky

Archpriest Alexey Uminsky is dean of a Moscow parish, Holy Trinity Church in Khokhly. He is also a television presenter, a member of the editorial board of the magazine Alpha & Omega, and an author of various publications on Christian education. Formerly he served as director of the St. Vladimir Gymnasium and is now the school’s chaplain and confessor. Since October 2003 he has been the chief of the television program “Orthodox Encyclopedia.” In 2010 he was awarded the St. Seraphim of Sarov medal by the Moscow Patriarchate. A controversial figure at times, he was recently accused by a fellow priest of “confusing pacifism with Christianity.” The interview that follows was made by Mila Dubrovina, reporter for the Russian journal Arguments and Facts, and was originally published August 29, 2012.

Q: Let me start by asking about the Pussy Riot case. What was your first reaction to this event?

I hadn’t known about Pussy Riot’s performance until it stirred up a storm in the media. What do you think my reaction would be? How would you behave if strangers with such intentions burst into your house? What would be your first reaction? Shock, horror, pain. If it had happened in my church, I would try to stop them immediately, to kick them out, only to do so peacefully.

Q: Have you since changed your mind about this case? What do you think would be a proper punishment for these young women?

When the situation changes, your opinion changes too. When the shock is over, you begin to reflect. People start wondering: Will they get off without any punishment?

Q: That was the reaction of Fr. Andrey Kuraev  [a popular figure in Russian cultural life well known through the mass media]. At first he called for leniency, but then he changed his mind.

Fr. Andrey Kuraev is a very intelligent person. And he hasn’t changed his attitude toward the situation. At first perhaps he responded too kindly, but the main idea of his statements is that the Church should be merciful, not a punitive body.

Q: What do such actions show? What social problems do they reveal?

They do not reveal any particular problem. Their actions however, provoked the same reaction as exploding bombs.

Q: Maybe that the society is somehow out of order…

The society is certainly out of order. There’s no need saying again that it is seriously ill. And it is obvious that the punishment inflicted on the members of the punk-group is unnecessarily severe. But we do not understand the heart of the matter. The events became an excuse for people to hate each other. Hatred lashes out on both sides! On one side, there are ultra-conservative “banner carriers,” on the other people wearing colorful balaclavas with eye slots. You cannot discern human faces. On both sides, we see enmity. This is the most awful aspect.

Q: You’ve mentioned destructive actions. Recently it has been reported that the FEMEN group [from which the Pussy Riot group emerged] is planning to chop down wooden crosses around the country. Should we protect ourselves, recruit vigilante groups, and quickly change the laws?

Journalists take advantage of the situation with FEMEN without giving any moral assessment of it. For them it is just headlines. I was shocked when I saw a picture of an almost naked young woman chopping down a wooden cross [in Kiev]. That cross had been erected in memory of victims of the KGB, people who had been tortured and killed in the Soviet period. The journalists just stood shooting photos! Not one tried to stop the destruction. So on the one hand you have journalists taking pictures of the cross being chopped down and, on the other, Church leaders turning a blind eye toward “Orthodox activists” who are beating up women whom they regard as enemies of the Church. Both situations are similar.

The issue of chopping down the crosses concerns not only FEMEN. The media too is guilty when it portrays such actions as if they were spectacles or even “glamorous” events. They should be seen as acts of unmitigated savagery. I experience the same feeling when I see caricatures of Mohammed.

Now we see certain Russian Orthodox activists forming vigilante groups that are looking forward to incidents when malefactors chop down crosses or behave in an outrageous way. It will simply give them a chance to show off.

Q: When the Patriarch commented on the December events [prior to the Russian general election], he said that an Orthodox Christian would be better off staying at home and praying instead of attending a demonstration. People thought he was in effect opposing protests. 

Well, the Patriarch did not specify which meeting the believers should not attend. There were different meetings in Moscow. Some were pro-Putin and others were against him. The Patriarch opposed all the meetings.

Q: Did the Patriarch demand a harsh punishment for the members of Pussy Riot?

Not at all. He did not comment on this case at all out of principle. Do you remember when and what he said? The only statement was made by the Superior Church Council after the sentencing.…The Church is not guilty of private statements [made by individuals] that are constantly ascribed to it.

Q: Like those made by Fr. Chaplin, for instance? [Archpriest Chaplin is Chairman of the office of Interaction of Church and Society of the Moscow Patriarchate.]

Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin is a notorious figure. I don’t know with whom to compare him. His only counterpart in politics is Zhirinovsky [the Russian politician who often speaks in a confrontational style bordering on farce]. How could Chaplin make statements that justify those who hit women in the face? He said, “I don’t approve of everything they do, but they are good guys.” How could a Church officer approve of such behavior? Instead he should have sharply criticized them, these so-called nationalists, many of whom are anti-Semites. How can a Christian be an anti-Semite if Jesus was a Jew?

Q: People often forget that.

To go back to you earlier question, the general public is disturbed about the harsh sentence given to the girls, and rightly so. But not many people seem worried about the consequences of the stunt on the young women who did it. How will it affect their lives? If hooligans come into my Church and desecrate it, I shall simply clean it up and continue to celebrate Liturgies there. The Church remains a holy place. But what will happen to their lives?

Q: And if they had come to you and repented, would you have accepted them?

Certainly I would take them in! I pray for it. I pray that we would help them, speak to them. We should speak a lot with them. They do not understand, it seems hardly anyone understands, what a huge gift they have given to Vladimir Putin, what a winning card they have presented to the authorities. At the same time they make themselves a target — people whom we should be united against. People are always willing to unite in hatred against a common enemy. The most horrible thing is now there is so much hatred on both sides. That’s much worse than leaving the Church.

Q: Don’t you think that intellectuals are moving away from the Church?

The main problem is not that anyone is leaving the Church* but rather that those who could have come, don’t. This is much more important. No one can leave the Church completely. The Church changes a person forever. Even if you leave it for a while, you return later. The real problem is that those who were almost ready, who need to come, do not.

As for conservatives, the so-called “banner carriers,” they don’t need the Church. They need a get-together, a kind of narrow circle. They pretend to be Christians, but

their belief has nothing to do with Christianity. If they had really come into the Church, it would have changed them, and they would be cured from nationalism. They would become Christians with a Russophile [a 19th century movement critical of westernization] bias, like Khomyakov and Aksakov, who outlined a particular path for Russia. And if modern oppositionists had come into the Church, they would have become Westernizers, like Chaadaev or Solovyev. Don’t forget that there have been similar disputes within Russian society in the past, but the climate of argument was quite different. It never degraded itself to the level we see today.

Q: What is the main lesson that we should take from these events?

As the proverb goes: “The devil is laughing at us.” People are happy when they can hate each other and this hatred increases every day. The antagonism is telling. We should struggle only to overcome enmity and nothing else. We should never ever lose our human dignity. We should refuse to wear masks and also refuse to merge with the hatred-infected crowd. Most of all, we should always remember Christ who suffered for every human being. The Church, first and foremost, recognizes not the crowd, but the person.  IC

*On the web site of Fr. Uminsky’s parish is this brief message: A word to those thinking about leaving the Church: We should be with the Church not only in the time of its glory.

In Communion thanks Anna Kurt for her translation of the interview with Fr. Uminsky.

Quotes Related to Fr. Uminsky’s Interview:

If I were the keeper of the church’s key, I would treat them to pancakes and a cup of mead and would invite them to come again on the Sunday of Forgive-ness…. What the young women did was an outrage, but a “legal” outrage…after all, it’s Shrovetide, a season of clowning, buffoonery, and hoaxes.  —Archdeacon Andrei Kurayev (Shrovetide is a Bacchanalian festival season dating back centuries in Russian culture during which time all manner of foolery was overlooked by the Church and civil authorities).

The tragedy of the church is that it has always grown too close to the state, and then it pays for it. Now the church is trying to prove to the Kremlin it is a serious and useful player…. We are at a crossroads: either the church starts to stand up for conscience or it will get blamed for all the Kremlin’s faults. But for that we need to abandon our old illusions: the “Third Rome” dreams of an Orthodox superpower.  —Archpriest Alexei Uminsky

The enemies of Holy Russia are everywhere….We must protect holy places from liberals and their satanic ideology. —Ivan Ostrakovsky, leader of a group of Russian Orthodox vigilantes who patrol the streets of nighttime Moscow, dressed in all-black clothing emblazoned with skulls and crosses and the slogan “Orthodoxy or Death.” (A collective of such groups from across Russia is organized under the name the “Banner Bearers.”)

That’s the ironic thing. If they had made a sincere prayer—there’s a long history of Christians praying sincerely for the Lord to deliver them from rulers that they believed to be unjust—instead of a mocking prayer, they might have gotten people on their side. Sincerity is always better than mockery; mockery only has the aim of wounding and hurting people.  —Frederica Mathewes-Green

 

❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012

Forgiving All in the Light of the Resurrection

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

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.

Forgiving all ResurrectionOrthodox 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 [email protected].

* 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

Forgive Us…as We Forgive: Forgiveness in the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer, by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Metropolitan of Diokleia

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Metropolitan of Diokleia

Forgiveness in the Psalms: In order to deepen our appreciation of the mystery of forgiveness, let us turn both to the Old Testament and to the New; and let us consider how forgiveness is understood first in the Psalms and then in the Lord’s Prayer. Because of the central place that the Psalms have occupied in the liturgical life of the Church, in both the East and the West, the testimony that they bear to the meaning of forgiveness is particularly significant.

First, the Psalms contain a number of striking passages in which the worshipper pleads to God for forgiveness. The best known and most eloquent of these pleas is Psalm 51, “Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness,” recited no less than four times daily in the Byzantine Divine Office: at the Midnight Service, Matins, the Third Hour, and Compline. Another such plea is Psalm 130, “Out of the deep …”:

If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark what is done amiss,
O Lord, who could abide it? (vs. 4)
The same urgent cry for forgiveness recurs in many other Psalms:
For Thy name’s sake, O Lord,
Be merciful to my sin, for it is great (Ps. 25:10)
Deliver me from all mine offences…;
Take Thy plague away from me (Ps. 39: 9, 11)
I said, “Lord, be merciful unto me;
Heal me, for I have sinned against Thee” (Ps. 41:4)
O remember not our past sins, but have mercy upon us, and that soon:
For we are come to great misery (Ps. 79:8)

These and similar passages of the Psalms make it abundantly clear how greatly we need the healing grace of divine forgiveness. Without God’s mercy we are helpless. It is also made clear that we have no claims upon God. Helpless as we are, we can do nothing to earn or deserve God’s mercy, nothing to oblige or constrain Him to forgive us. We can do no more than wait in patience and humility for His free gift of pardon. “I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait for Him … A broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt Thou not despise” (Ps. 130:5; 51:17).

Second, the Psalms repeatedly insist that these pleas for divine forgiveness do not remain unheard. The Lord is a God of loving-kindness and tender love, ever eager to show mercy and grant healing. This is the theme in particular of Psalm 103, used daily at Matins in the Orthodox Church, and also regularly in the Divine Liturgy:

Praise the Lord, O my soul:
And all that is within me praise His holy name …
Who forgiveth all thy sin:
And healeth all thine infirmities …
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy:
Long-suffering and of great goodness …Like as a father hath compassion upon his children,
So hath the Lord compassion upon them that fear Him (vs. 1, 3, 8, 13).

In a memorable phrase, it is said that God covers our sin:
Blessed is he whose unrighteousness is forgiven:
Even he whose sin is covered (Ps. 32:1).

Elsewhere it is said that our sins are blotted out:
To Thee shall all flesh come to confess their sins:
When our misdeeds prevail against us, in Thy mercy do Thou blot them out (Ps. 65:2).

A leitmotif in the “historical” Psalms is the way in which, again and again in the story of salvation, the people of Israel have gone astray, and yet God in His faithful love has forgiven them (Ps. 78:38, 106:43-44, 107:13-16, cf. 85:1-3). God, it is said elsewhere, is like a shepherd who goes in search of a lost sheep (cf. Matt. 18:12; Luke 15:4):

I have gone astray like a sheep that is lost;
O seek thy servant, for I do not forget Thy commandments (Ps. 119:176).

Yet we are not presumptuously to take God’s forgiveness for granted, for His mercy goes hand in hand with His justice (cf. Rom. 11:22):

My song shall be of mercy and justice (Ps. 101:1).

Third, if we are in this way forgiven by God, then we in our turn are called to extend forgiveness to our fellow humans. This is not in fact affirmed in the Psalms very clearly or very frequently, but there are occasions in which it is at least implied, in the context of money-lending:

The ungodly borroweth and payeth not again:
But the righteous giveth and is bountiful …

The righteous is ever bountiful and lendeth:
And his children shall be blessed (Ps. 37:21, 26).

It is good for a man to be generous when he lendeth (Ps. 112:5).

This can perhaps be enlarged to include not only generosity over debts but other forms of remission and forgiveness. At the same time, a restriction has to be noted. We cannot grant forgiveness on behalf of others, in regard to offences that have been committed not against us but against them:

But no man may deliver his brother:
Nor pay a price unto God for him (Ps. 49:7).

Sadly, however, it has to be noted that there are grave limitations in the Psalms concerning the scope of forgiveness. If, as we have seen, there are only a few places where it is suggested that we should forgive others, there are unfortunately many other passages in which the Psalmist curses his enemies and prays for their destruction. God is invoked as a God of vengeance (Ps. 54:1; 94:1). We are to hate our enemies with a “perfect hatred” (Ps. 139:22). Particularly cruel is the punishment called down upon the daughter of Babylon:

Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children:
And throweth them against the stones (Ps. 137:9).

Most notably, Psalm 109 contains an imprecation daunting in its cruelty:
Let his days be few:
And let another seize his possessions.
Let his children be fatherless:
And his wife become a widow.
Let his children be vagabonds and beg their bread:
Let them be driven out even from their desolate places …
Let there be no man to pity him:
Or to have compassion upon his fatherless children (vs. 7-9, 11).

Such a passage does not stand alone: compare, for example, Ps. 83:9-17, 129:5-8, and 140:8-10. I have noted altogether over thirty passages in the Psalms asking God to inflict pain and suffering upon others, and this figure is almost certainly an underestimate. It is of course possible to explain away such passages by interpreting them symbolically, as referring not to our fellow human beings but to our evil thoughts or to the demons. But such was not their original intention.

Seventy Times Seven: When we turn, however, from the Old Testament to the New, we are at once impressed by a manifest and remarkable contrast. Nowhere in the Gospels does Christ instruct us to hate our enemies: He tells us, on the contrary, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). The law of retaliation is firmly abrogated: we are not to “resist an evildoer,” but to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39). There are to be no limits to our forgiveness: we are to forgive our brother “seven times a day” (Luke 17:4), and not only that, but “seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22). We do not find such statements in the Psalms. Nor, indeed, do we find in the Psalms the statement that occupies such a prominent place in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). The Lord’s Prayer is comprehensive but extremely concise. If, then, in such a short prayer, nearly a quarter—no less than 13 words in the Greek text, out of 57—is devoted to the theme of forgiveness, this shows how crucially important it is in God’s sight that we should forgive and be forgiven.

This is certainly the view of Origen. If Christ places such strong emphasis upon forgiveness in the model prayer that He has given us, this is because there cannot be any true prayer at all unless it is offered in a forgiving spirit. St. Gregory of Nyssa goes so far as to claim that the clause “Forgive us … as we forgive” is the culminating point in the entire prayer; it constitutes “the very peak of virtue.” He adds, however, that—fundamental though the clause is—its true sense is not at all easy to grasp: “The meaning surpasses any interpretation in words.”

A valuable insight into the significance of forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer is provided by the literal sense of the verb “ forgive” in verse 12. The primary idea conveyed by this word is “let go,” “set aside,” “leave behind.” It denotes such things as release from captivity, the cancellation of a debt, or the remission of punishment. Unforgiving people grasp, retain, and hold fast; forgiving people let go. Yet, if we let go the memory of an offence, does this not suggest that we condone the evil that has been done? That, surely, cannot be the correct meaning of forgiveness. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what has happened seriously and not minimizing it.” To condone an evil is to pass over it, to ignore it, or else it is to pretend that it is not an evil, to treat it as if it were good. But to forgive is something altogether different. There can be no genuine forgiveness that is not truthful and realistic. Let us not practice any evasion. If an evil has been done, then this has to be frankly admitted.

Moreover, if the process of forgiveness is to be brought to full completion, the evil has to be frankly admitted by both sides, by aggressor as well as victim. It is true that, when we suffer wrong, we should endeavor to forgive the other immediately, without any delay, not waiting for the other to acknowledge the wrong. It was precisely in this spirit that Jesus prayed at His crucifixion, “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:24). If, however, the forgiveness is to come to proper interpersonal fulfillment, more is required. Forgiveness needs to be accepted as well as offered; and the one who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.

If forgiveness, in the sense of letting go, is not the same as condoning, should we say that to forgive is to forget? Shall we make King Lear’s words our own, “Pray you now, forget and forgive”? The answer seems to be yes and no. All depends on what we remember (or forget) and how we do so. Certainly there is no point in clinging to the memory of trivial misunderstandings and injuries. We should rather allow them to slip quietly away into oblivion, for we have better things with which to occupy our minds. There are, however, events in our personal lives, and in the lives of our communities, that are far too important simply to be forgotten. It would not be right to say to the members of the Armenian nation, “Forget the massacres of 1915,” or to the Jewish people, “Forget the Shoah in the Second World War.” These are matters that, for the sake of our shared humanity, none of us should forget, not least so as to ensure that such atrocities may never be allowed to happen again.

More decisive than what we remember is how we do so. We are not to remember in a spirit of hatred and recrimination, or for the sake of revenge. Dr Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, has rightly said: “Remember the past … but do not be held captive by it. Turn it into a blessing, not a curse; a source of hope, not humiliation.” Our memories are not to be repressed or negated, but at the same time they must be purified and healed. We need to remember, yet not self-righteously or with aggressive accusations, but in a spirit of compunction and mourning. We need to remember with love. But that is difficult.

Forgiveness, it can even be said, begins not with an act of forgetfulness, but with an act of mindfulness and self-knowledge. We have to recognize the harm that has been done, the wound that we or the other carry in our heart. Only after this moment of truthful recognition can we then begin to let go, not in the sense of consigning to oblivion, but in the sense of no longer being held prisoner by the memory. We must remember, but be free.

Responsible for everyone and everything: A dominant theme in the Patristic interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer is the unity of the human race. The early Fathers are in full agreement with the words of Julian of Norwich, “In the sight of God, all man is one man, and one man is all man.” They agree equally with John Donne “No man is an Island, entire of itself.” Our need to forgive and to be forgiven springs directly from the fact that we are all of us interdependent, members of a single human family. Indeed, this insistence upon coinherence is to be seen, not only in the clause “Forgive us … as we forgive,” but in the Lord’s Prayer as a whole. St. Cyprian of Carthage notes how the prepositions in the Prayer are consistently in the plural, not the singular: not “my” but “our,” not “me” but “us.”

We do not say “My Father who art in heaven,” or “Give me this day my bread,” nor does each one ask that only his own debt be remitted, nor does he request for himself alone that he may not be led into temptation or may be delivered from the evil one. Prayer with us is public and common, and when we pray, we do not pray for one person but for the whole people, because the whole people are one.

This perception of our human unity, in Cyprian’s view, has its foundation in the Christian doctrine of God. We believe in God the Trinity, who is not only one but one-in-three, not only personal but interpersonal. We believe in the communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and so we human beings are saved, not in isolation, but in communion one with another.

This unity that marks us out as human persons, while underlined throughout the Lord’s Prayer, is particularly evident in the clause concerning forgiveness. In the words of Clement of Alexandria, when we say “Forgive us … as we forgive,” we are proclaiming that “all humankind is the work of one Will.” This is a point emphasized by St. Maximos the Confessor in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. Unity and mutual love, he says, constitute “the principle (logos) of nature” by which we human beings have been created. When, therefore, we pray for forgiveness, we are bringing our human will into harmony with the logos of our nature. Conversely, to withhold forgiveness is to “sunder human nature by separating ourselves from our fellow humans, even though we are ourselves human.” Our refusal to live in union with each other through mutual forgiveness is therefore self-destructive: “Failing such union, our nature remains self-divided in its will and cannot receive God’s divine and ineffable gift of Himself.”

St. Gregory of Nyssa likewise sees the refusal of forgiveness as self-destructive: “In condemning your neighbor, you thereby condemn yourself.” Giving a wide-ranging application to the notion of human unity, Gregory maintains that it extends through time as well as space. When saying “Forgive us” in the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking forgiveness not only for our own personal sins but also for the debts that are common to our nature, and more particularly for the ancestral sin that the whole human race inherits from Adam. Even if we keep ourselves free from personal sins—in fact, as Gregory comments, none of us can claim this of ourselves, even for an hour—we would still need to say “Forgive us” on behalf of Adam:

Adam lives in us … and so we do well to make use of these words Forgive us our trespasses. Even if we were Moses or Samuel or someone else of pre-eminent virtue, we would nonetheless regard these words as appropriate to ourselves, since we are human; we share in Adam’s nature and therefore share also in his fall. Since, then, as the Apostle says, “we all die in Adam” (1 Cor. 15:22), these words that suitably express Adam’s penitence are likewise appropriate for all those who have died with him.

A similar line of thought is found in St. Mark the Monk. In his opinion, we are called to repent not only “for our own sin” but also “for the sin of transgression,” that is to say, for the ancestral sin of Adam. Repentance is vicarious: The saints are required to offer repentance not only on their own behalf but also on behalf of their neighbor, for without active love they cannot be made perfect … In this way the whole universe is held together in unity, and through God’s providence we are each of us assisted by one another.

Even though there is no explicit reference here to the Lord’s Prayer, Mark’s line of argument can surely be applied to the petition “Forgive us … as we forgive.” If we can repent for the sins of others, then we can and should also ask forgiveness on their behalf. The principle of mutual solidarity applies equally in both cases: “we are each of us assisted by one another.” No one is forgiven and saved in isolation.

These statements by Gregory and Mark fall far short of a fully developed theology of original guilt, such as we find in St. Augustine. Mark specifically excludes the view that, in a juridical sense, we are guilty of Adam’s sin, considered as an act of personal choice. Yet, on a level more profound than legal culpability, there exists a mystical solidarity that unites us all one to another; and it is of this that Gregory and Mark are speaking. “All man is one man,” and so we are each “responsible for everything and everyone,” to use the phrase of Dostoevsky’s Starets Zosima. Even if we are not personally guilty, nevertheless we bear the burden of what Adam and all the other members of the human family have done. They live in us, and we in them. Here as always the vital word is we, not I. None of us falls alone, for we drag each other down; and none of us is forgiven and saved alone. Forgiveness is not solitary but social.

How far can the notion of vicarious forgiveness be legitimately extended? Can I forgive or accept forgiveness on behalf of others? So far as asking forgiveness is concerned, it is surely reasonable to request forgiveness on behalf of others, when those others are joined to me in some way, for example by kinship, nationhood, or religious allegiance. If, tracing back our ancestry, we become aware that our family tree is tainted with unresolved tensions and alienation, we can and should pray for the forgiveness and healing of our forebears. By the same token, the descendant of a slave-trader might rightly feel impelled to ask forgiveness in his heart—and perhaps by some external gesture as well—from the families of those whom his ancestor took captive and sold into bondage. Pope John Paul II acted as a true Christian when, during the visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to Rome in June 2004, he asked the Patriarch’s forgiveness for the sack of Constantinople by the Latin Crusaders eight hundred years previously. How I long for an Orthodox Church leader to ask forgiveness in the same way from the Catholics, for the many evils that we Orthodox have inflicted upon them! And all of us, Orthodox and Catholics alike, have to seek forgiveness from the Jews, God’s Chosen People, for the heavy sins that, over the centuries, we have committed against them.

Have we the right, however, not only to ask forgiveness on behalf of others, but also to offer it on their behalf? Here there is reason for us to be much more hesitant. For myself, I agree with the late Rabbi Albert Friedlander, and with Psalm 49:9, that one cannot forgive offences that have not been committed against oneself. It would be inappropriate, and indeed presumptuous, for me as a non-Jew to claim authority to forgive the suffering inflicted upon the Jews during the Shoah in the Second World War. It is not for me but for the Jews themselves to decide how those sufferings should be remembered, and how and when they should be forgiven. In the Lord’s Prayer, we do not say, “… as we forgive those who have trespassed against others,” but “… as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”

Issuing an Order to God: What light do the Fathers shed upon the central word in the forgiveness petition—indeed, the most puzzling word in the whole of the Lord’s Prayer—the word “as” in “Forgive us … as we forgive”? “No word in English,” states Charles Williams, “carries a greater possibility of terror than the little word “as” in that clause; it is the measuring rod of the heavenly City, and the knot of the new union. But also it is the key of hell and the knife that cuts the knot of union.” Truly it is a hazardous prayer. We dare to apply to ourselves with unmitigated rigor the principle laid down by Christ “The measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matt. 7:2). “What you do,” warned St. Cyprian, “that you will also yourself suffer.” As St. John Chrysostom put it, “We ourselves have control over the judgment that is to be passed upon us.”

Not only is it a hazardous request to God but also a very strange one. It is as if we were issuing an order to God and instructing Him how to act. “If I do not forgive others,” we are saying to Him, “then do You withhold forgiveness from me.” Nowhere else in the Lord’s Prayer do we issue orders in this way. St. Gregory of Nyssa attempts to spell out the paradox in terms of what may be called “mimetic inversion.” Under normal circumstances, he observes, it is we who are called to imitate God; as St. Paul said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). This is particularly the case when we forgive others. Since in the last resort, God alone has the power to forgive sins (Mark 2:7), it is only possible for us to forgive others if we imitate God. We cannot genuinely forgive, that is to say, unless we have been taken up into God and have ourselves “in some sense become God,” in Gregory’s phrase. The one who forgives needs to be “deified” or “divinized”; there can be no effective forgiveness without theosis. That is the normal pattern. But in the case of the Lord’s Prayer—and Gregory admits this is a “bold thing” to say—the customary order is reversed. On this occasion, we serve as an example to God. Instead of ourselves imitating Him, we are telling Him to imitate us: “What I have done, do You likewise; imitate Your servant, O Lord …. I have forgiven; do You forgive. I have shown great mercy to my neighbor; imitate my loving-kindness, You who are by nature loving-kind.”

Yet, in this clause “Forgive us … as we forgive,” precisely how strong a sense should be attached to the conjunction “as”? Should it be understood as causative, proportionate, or conditional?

Is the sense causative? In that case, we are saying to God, “Forgive us because we forgive”; our forgiveness causes His. This is indeed the way some Patristic authors interpreted the phrase. Clement of Alexandria suggested that, by forgiving others, we somehow compel God to forgive us. Yet a causative interpretation of this kind presents grave difficulties. As Calvin has rightly insisted, forgiveness comes from the “free mercy” of God. It is an unmerited gift of divine grace, conferred solely through Christ’s Cross and Resurrection; it is never something that we can earn or deserve. God acts with sovereign liberty, and we have no claims upon Him. As Paul affirmed, quoting the Pentateuch: “For God says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (Rom. 9:15-16; cf. Exod. 33:19). This is rendered abundantly clear in Christ’s parable concerning the laborers in the vineyard: to those who complain about their wages, the master replies, “Have I not the right to do as I choose with what is my own?” (Matt. 20:15). Moreover, the initiative rests with God and not with us. He does not wait for us to forgive others before He extends His forgiveness to us. On the contrary, His act of free and unrestricted forgiveness precedes any act of forgiveness on our part: “God proves His love for us, in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

If the word “as” cannot be causative, is it proportionate? Does it signify “to the same degree,” “according to the same measure”? Once more, this can hardly be the true sense. Between our forgiveness and God’s, there can be no common measure. He forgives with a fullness and generosity far beyond our wildest imagining: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord” (Isa. 55:8). The transcendent and incomparable character of divine forgiveness is underlined in another Matthaean parable, that of the two debtors (Matt. 18:23-35). In relation to God, we are like the slave who owed ten thousand talents (a talent being equivalent to more than fifteen years’ wages received by a laborer), whereas in relation to each other we are like the slave who owed a hundred denarii (a denarius being the usual day’s wage for a laborer). Even St. Gregory of Nyssa, after suggesting that in His act of forgiveness God is imitating us, at once goes on to qualify this by asserting that our sins against God are immeasurably heavier than any sins by others against us. Later he refers for confirmation precisely to the parable of the two debtors.

If, then, our forgiveness is neither the cause nor the measure of God’s forgiveness, what further alternative remains? There exists a third possibility: it is the condition. Forgiveness is indeed unmerited, but it is not unconditional. God for His part is always overwhelmingly eager to forgive. This divine eagerness is movingly expressed in the story of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15 : 11-32), which is read at the Orthodox Liturgy on the Sunday two weeks before the Sunday of Forgiveness. The father does not simply sit and wait passively for his son to return home. We are to imagine him standing day after day outside his house, anxiously scanning the horizon in the forlorn hope that at long last he may catch sight of a familiar figure. Then, as soon as the prodigal comes into view, while he is still far off, the father rushes out to meet his son, embracing and kissing him, and inviting him into the feast. Such is God’s great willingness to forgive us and to welcome us home. Later in the story the father again goes out, this time in the hope of persuading his elder son to come and share the feast. This double going-out on the part of the loving father is of primary significance if we are to appreciate the quality of divine mercy.

Yes, indeed, God is always eager to forgive—far more than we are to repent. In the words of St. Isaac the Syrian, “There exists in Him a single love and compassion that is spread out over all creation, a love that is without alteration, timeless, and everlasting.” Calling to mind Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane and His death on the Cross, we ask ourselves: What more could God incarnate have done to win us back to Himself, that He has not done? Forgiveness, however, has not only to be offered but to be accepted. God knocks at the door of the human heart (Rev. 3:20), but He does not break the door down: we for our part have to open it.

Here precisely we find the true meaning of the word “as” in the Lord’s Prayer. It is not that God is unwilling to forgive us. But if, despite God’s unfailing eagerness to forgive, we on our side harden our hearts and refuse forgiveness to others, then quite simply we render ourselves incapable of receiving the divine forgiveness. Closing our hearts to others, we close them also to God; rejecting others, we reject Him. If we are unforgiving, then by our own act, we place ourselves outside the interchange of healing love. God does not exclude us; it is we who exclude ourselves.

Our forgiveness of others, then, is not the cause of God’s forgiveness towards us, but it is certainly the condition without which God’s forgiveness cannot pass within us. Divine pardon is indeed a free gift that we can never earn. What concerns us here, however, is not merit but capacity. Our relation to God and our relation to our fellow humans are strictly interdependent. As St. Silouan of Mount Athos affirmed, “Our brother is our life.” This is true not in a sentimental but in an ontological sense. Love for God and love for neighbor are not two loves but one.

“Forgive us … as we forgive”: when we say these words, so Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh has rightly cautioned us, “we take our salvation into our own hands.”

Four Words of Counsel: As we begin to cross the Red Sea of forgiveness, let us remind ourselves of certain practical guidelines.

Do not delay, but do not be in haste. Do not delay: the time for forgiveness is always now. Maximize the moment. The devil’s weapons are nostalgia and procrastination: he tells us “Too late” or “Too soon.” But, where the devil says “Yesterday” or “Tomorrow,” the Holy Spirit says “Today.”

We are not to think within ourselves, “First, I will change for the better; then I will be ready to forgive.” Still less are we to think (what is far worse), “First, I will wait to see whether the other is really sorry for the wrong that he has done, and whether he has really changed for the better; then I will decide whether to forgive him.” Let us, on the contrary, be like the loving father in the story of the prodigal. Let us take the initiative and run out to meet the other. Forgiveness has to come first; it is the cause of the change in ourselves and in others, not the effect. To adapt a phrase of the Romanian Orthodox theologian Fr. Dumitru Staniloae, “In so far as I am not forgiven, I am unintelligible to myself.”

Yet there is another side to the question. Forgive now, in your heart; but in your outward actions do not be overhasty. Forgiveness signifies healing, and healing often takes time. Premature requests for forgiveness can make the situation worse. If we force ourselves upon the other, before seeking through imaginative empathy to discover what the other is thinking and feeling, we may widen rather than bridge the gulf that separates us. Without putting things off, often we need to pause—not with passive indifference but waiting with alertness upon God—until the kairos, the moment of opportunity, has become clear. Emperor Augustus was right: Festina lente.

Forgive the other, but also be willing to accept the forgiveness that the other is offering to us. It is hard to forgive; but often it is even harder to acknowledge that we ourselves need to be forgiven. Let us be humble enough to accept the gift of another’s pardon. As Charles Williams wisely observed, “Many reconciliations have unfortunately broken down because both parties have come prepared to forgive and unprepared to be forgiven.”

Forgive others, but also forgive yourself. Have we not sometimes said, or heard others say, “I will never forgive myself for that”? Yet how can we accept forgiveness from others, if we will not forgive ourselves? In the words again of Charles Williams, by remaining in this state of “half-anger, half-anguish,” we create for ourselves “a separate hell.” Judas regretted what he had done, but in his case self-knowledge brought him not to fresh hope but to despair; unable to accept God’s forgiveness, and therefore unable to forgive himself, he went out and committed suicide (Matt. 27: 3-5). Peter on the other hand took a different path. Brought to self-knowledge by the crowing of the cock, he wept bitter tears of remorse; yet this remorse did not reduce him to despair. Rather, seeing the risen Christ at the lakeside, he did not turn away from Him into a “separate hell,” but drew near with hope. Accepting Christ’s forgiveness, forgiving himself, he began anew (Matt. 26:75; Jn. 21:15-19).

Pray. If we cannot yet find within our heart the possibility of forgiving the other, then let us at least pray for them. In the words of St. Silouan, “If you will pray for your enemies, peace will come to you.” Let us ask God that we may not make the other’s burden more heavy, that we may not be to them a scandal and a cause of stumbling. And if, as we pray, we cannot yet bring ourselves to the point of actually forgiving, then let us ask God that we may experience at least the desire and longing to forgive. There are situations in which truly to want something is already to attain it. Like the man who brought his sick child to Christ and cried out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9 : 24), let us also cry out with tears: “Lord, I forgive; help my unforgivingness.” Slowly, gradually, there will come at last the moment when we are able to remember with love.

By invoking God’s help in prayer and by admitting our own helplessness, we are reminded of the all-important truth that forgiveness is a divine prerogative. It is not simply our action, but the action of God in us. To forgive, in a full and genuine sense, we need to be “in God.” “It is God who has shone in our hearts … the all-surpassing power is from Him and not from us” (2 Cor. 4 : 6-7). This all-surpassing power of God is communicated to us above all through the mysteries or sacraments of the Church; and, in the Patristic interpretation of “Our Father,” at least two of these mysteries are mentioned implicitly in the course of the Prayer. When we say, “Give us today our daily bread,” we are to think not of material bread alone but of the bread from heaven, the Eucharist . Then, in the petition that follows, “Forgive us … as we forgive,” we are to recall the forgiveness of sins that we have received in Holy Baptism. The Lord’s Prayer, according to St. Augustine, is in this way a continual renewal of Baptism: reciting the words that Christ has given us, “daily we are washed clean.” Our forgiveness, then, does not depend merely upon our feelings, or upon the decision of our will. It has an objective basis in the sacrament of our baptismal washing.

Flying Kites: After Orthodox Christians have knelt before each other at the Vespers of Forgiveness, asking and granting pardon, what do they do on the next day, the first day of Lent, known as “Clean Monday” (Kathara Devtera)? In many places it is still the custom to go out on the hills and have a picnic; and on this, the first open-air festival of the year, both children and grown-ups fly kites in the spring breeze. Such can also be our inner experience when we begin to forgive one another. To forgive is to enter spiritual springtime. It is to emerge from gloom into the sunlight, from self-imprisonment into the liberty of the open air. It is to ascend the hills, to let the wind blow on our faces, and to fly noetic kites, the kites of imagination, hope, and joy.

As his son said of the priest Papastavros, “He is free because he forgives.” IC

This article is the second of a two part series. The first part appeared in the Fall 2011 issue. The entire essay was presented as a paper by Met. Kallistos at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship Study Day in Amsterdam in 2010 and will soon be made available by the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in booklet form (the booklet will include all footnotes that are part of the original paper). It appears as a chapter in a book of essays by several authors called Meditations of the Heart: The Psalms in Early Christian Thought and Practice. Essays in Honour of Andrew Louth. The book was published by Brepols Publishers in August, 2011.

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012

Forgiveness–Finding Wholeness Again By Teresa Peneguy Paprock

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

By Teresa Peneguy Paprock

Slide from presentation by Fr. Morelli.Photo provided courtesy of Teresa Peneguy Paprock

Slide from presentation by Fr. Morelli.Photo provided courtesy of Teresa Peneguy Paprock

IN THE LITERAL sense, “70 times 7” comes to 490. In the spiritual sense, however,it represents infinity. When Jesus Christ exhorts Peter to forgive “not seven times only, but 70 times seven” in Matthew 18:22, he sets the bar for all Christians:Forgive. No matter what.

Just as we do with Christ’s teachings about so many things, however, we tend to qualify his words here. “Oh,” we tell ourselves, “surely he wasn’t talking about forgiving what happened to ME.”But he was. The problem isn’t Christ’s instruction. The problem is that most of us misinterpret the meaning of “forgiveness.” In Western society in particular, the act of forgiveness is often misinterpreted as an act of deliberate amnesia, of martyrdom, or victim hood, a willingness to make oneself vulnerable to manipulation or abuse.

But if we often misunderstand the nature of forgiveness, just what is it, then?And how can we actually make it happen?Forgiveness doesn’t come from a position of weakness; actually, it comes from a position of power. And withholding forgiveness–even for what may be deemed “a really good reason”–is actually toxic to one’s health and soul. “Forgiveness–FindingWholeness Again” was the theme of the 2011 OPF-North American Conference, andparticipants explored what forgiveness is, what it is not, and what it means to forgivetheunforgiveable.”

A traditional Ethiopian coffeewas served to conferenceattendees by members of Fr.John-Brian Paprock’s parishbefore the conference began.The ceremony usuallyincludes the roasting ofgreen coffee beans beforethey are ground, boiled, andserved. A traditional mealwas also served.Photo provided courtesy ofTeresa Peneguy Paprock

A traditional Ethiopian coffeewas served to conference attendees by members of Fr.John-Brian Paprock’s parish before the conference began.The ceremony usually includes the roasting of green coffee beans before they are ground, boiled, and served. A traditional meal was also served.Photo provided courtesy of Teresa Peneguy Paprock

About 30 people attended the event, which was held Sept. 16 to 18 at the BishopO’Connor Pastoral Center in Madison, Wisconsin. This year’s theme of forgiveness was chosen because “it is a topic that has much to do with ‘peace,’” says OPF secretary, Alex Patico. “Conflict between two individuals or two groups can cease, but often the seeds of future conflict are there, ready to germinate at the first opportunity.• Without forgiveness, we achieve only a surface calm, not a reconciliation that is the foundation of true peace.” As with other OPF conferences, this one was designed to explore an element central to how we live our Christian faith, and because forgiveness is such a universal human yearning and concept, we chose to explore how others understand it as well.

The event’s keynote speaker, University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Dr. Robert Enright, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject.The founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, and author of a number of books on the topic, Enright has been a pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness for more than 25 years. He addressed the group on Friday evening.The earliest account of forgiveness in the Scriptures, he pointed out, is Joseph’s forgiveness of the brothers who sold him into slavery. “His brothers did nothing at all (to warrant forgiveness),” Enright pointed out. “There was no apology, no repentance. Joseph’s forgiveness was unconditional. But had he not forgiven them,the Hebrew nation would have perished.”

Another Biblical model of forgiveness, Enright said, is the New Testament parable of the prodigal son. But, he said, “The Cross of Christ is the best example we have. The Cross of Christ is an example of lavish love.” Enright puts “lavish love” at the root of forgiveness. And he puts forgiveness at the root of global survival. “A lack of forgiveness puts the entire world at risk,” he said. “Humanity will continue to struggle until forgiveness is carried in the human heart.”

Enright’s writings clarify what forgiveness is NOT: forgetting, denial, excusing, or receiving justice or compensation. But there’s another thing forgiveness is not: easy. Enright outlined his “Forgiveness Process Model,” a step-by-step guide to forgiving. After answering some preliminary questions (Who hurt you? How deeply were you hurt? On what specific incident will you focus?), the wronged individual must first“uncover his anger” by recognizing how resentment and obsession is affecting his life.Next, said Enright, the individual must make a conscious decision to forgive. The process involves working toward understanding and compassion, as well as accepting the pain caused by the offense. One emerges at the other end with what Enright calls“release from emotional prison.” This, he points out, is the paradox of forgiveness:“As you give of yourself to the other, you are the one that is healed.”Much of the time, we choose not to forgive because we believe the other person doesn’t “deserve” our forgiveness. But this central idea–that forgiveness actually benefits the one doing the forgiving–popped up again and again during the conference.

Milwaukee attorney Erin Manian, an Armenian American, grew up hearing about a mass slaughter most Americans don’t even know about. Between 1915 and 1923, about 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated under Turkish rule in the Ottoman Empire. They were deported by force, denied food and water, and subjected to burnings, drownings, poisons and sexual abuse.

And yet the tragedy never wound up on the world’s radar. In fact, Adolph Hitler would use it as a model against the Jews a few years later, rhetorically asking Nazi commanders, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”Turkey–the successor state of the Ottoman Empire–refuses to apply the term“genocide” to the victimization of the Armenians, and for that matter, the United States refuses as well. How can a wrong be forgiven if its existence is denied?“Why is a lack of recognition such a barrier to forgiveness?” asked Manian.“Because we think it demonstrates a lack of power. The Armenian people were stripped of power by being displaced from their homeland, by being stripped of 3,000years of history. Another barrier to forgiveness is that we equate forgiving with forgetting. Why would we want to forget? After all, we don’t want a repeat–for the Armenians or for any other people.”

For the survivors of the Armenian genocide–and for their descendants–anger has served as a kind of bond, said Manian: “We fear that if we forgive, if we forget, then we lose that bond–and again we lose power.” But Manian proposes a huge shift in perception: “If we don’t forgive you, then our empowerment is still in your hands.We have the power to forgive regardless of the actions of Turkey.”

Friday evening’s film, The Power of Forgiveness explored the transformative power of forgiveness using a number of real-world examples. The Amish community of Nickel Mines, Penn., gained national attention by its emphasis on forgiveness after10 schoolgirls were shot, five fatally. The film also included “Gardens of Forgiveness in Beirut and at Ground Zero,” and interviews of Thich Nhat Hanh, Elie Wiesel, and Thomas Moore.

The Very Rev. George Morelli, Ph.D., assistant pastor at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in San Diego, addressed the conference Saturday, illustrating how Christ is our model of forgiveness. The model begins with the Godhead itself: “Love is intrinsic to the divinity of the Trinity,” Morelli said. “The depth of the communion of love can’t be understood. Mankind came into existence, but God didn’t need to create mankind–he did it out of love.”

As Christians, we are instructed to hate sin, which Morelli called “an illness and infirmity by which we succumb to our passions and make an evil choice.” He quoted St. Maximus the Confessor, who called evil “a privation of good.” However, he added,in the words of St. Isaac of Syria, “All living creatures exist in God’s mind before their creation.” “What this implies,” Morelli said, “is that their place in the structure of the cosmos is retained even if someone falls away from God.”
So, as in Matthew 5:22-26, we are not to come to the altar while we hold on to anger: “Make friends quickly with your accuser,” the scripture says. But Morelli, who is a clinical psychologist of marriage and family therapy, pointed out psychological as well as spiritual impediments to forgiveness. According to a cognitive behavioral therapy model, cognitive distortions such as “mind-reading,” “fortune-telling,” and“catastrophizing” fuel anger.

For St. John of the Ladder, Morelli said, anger comes down to pride, “the most sinister, fiercest (demon) of all.” And the cure for pride and anger is humility, such as that Christ showed on the cross. “Forgiveness does not mean we have ‘warm fuzzy’feelings toward someone who may have offended us,” said Morelli. “It also does not mean we automatically ‘trust’ anyone to act appropriately. (But) all are to be given respect and courtesy. They are to be prayed for and approached by us in an attempt to reconcile.”

The next presenter, Judith Toy, of Black Mountain, N.C., discussed forgiveness from a Buddhist perspective. Twenty years ago, Toy experienced a nightmare most of us could not begin to imagine: Her sister-in-law Connie and her sons Allen and Bobby were stabbed and bludgeoned to death by the teenage boy who lived across the street. Charles had been a family friend, and no clear motive was ever revealed.He was sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison.

“Our family was unanimous in not wanting Charles dead–but not out of idealism or pacifism,” Toy wrote in her book, “Murder as a Call to Love.” “We wanted him to suffer long and hard behind bars. For the rest of his days, we reasoned, he should face what he had wrought.” A Quaker at the time, Toy began to study Zen. After several years of meditation, she felt her anger begin to melt away, and she wanted to tell him so–but before she had the opportunity, Charles committed suicide.“Could I have saved him?” Toy asks today. “I mentally put myself in Charles’ cell and hold him in my arms. … (When you forgive someone) the edges between yourself and others begin to blur.”

“Forgiving Dr. Mengele,” the afternoon film, told the story of Eva Mozes Kor, a Holocaust survivor who, along with her twin sister Miriam, was the object of “medical experimentation” by Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. In defiance of many in the Jewish community, Eva chose to forgive the Nazis–a decision she believed liberated her from victim hood. Eva founded the C.A.N.D.L.E.S. Museum (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiment Survivors) in Indiana. The act of forgiveness allows us to experience paradise now–in this life, said the next speaker, Ágúst Symeon Magnússon, a professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “The ancient tradition of the Church of the East places a philosophical and poetic link between the mysteries of forgiveness and paradise,” he said. But “How does one go about forgiving one’s enemies in a way that is appropriate to the spiritual realities in question? As we heard in the preceding quote by John Chrysostom, we must begin at the most basic level, in trying our hardest to not think of any man or woman as our enemy but to try to love them, no matter what they may have done to us or to others.

Magnússon emphasized that such love is not an emotion or feeling. “Rather, we are asked to transcend purely psychological or emotional categories and to enter into the love of God….If we are able to open our spiritual eyes, the eyes of the and see the world and other people not only in terms of rational concepts or emotional categories but in the light of the mystery of the love of God, in light of the fact that have been forgiven, totally and absolutely–if we accept that love–then perhaps a great deal of anger, hurt and bitterness may be swallowed up in the joy and peace that is the love of God. And this is what paradise is. Simply this.”The image of a terrified little girl, running naked from her burning village, is permanently etched in the memories of many of us–however we feel about the Vietnam War or war in general. AP photographer Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning shot has been credited with shifting American attitudes against the conflict, hastening its end. But whatever became of the child in the picture?

The final session of the conference focused on the issue of war, and featured the film Kim’s Story: The Road from Viet Nam. Kim Phuc was that “little girl in the photo.”Burned over 50 percent of her body, subjected to 17 surgeries, and used by the Vietnamese government as a public relations tool, Kim Phuc (now a Canadian citizen)bears no animosity toward anyone–not even the people who flew the plane that dropped napalm on her village. A mother of two, she travels the globe promoting forgiveness and peace. The movie was followed by a discussion featuring Phan VanDo and Mike Boehm of the My Lai Peace Park Project.

Those who were able to stay until Sunday attended the Divine Liturgy at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Madison, with Fr. Michael Vanderhoef and Fr.Frederick J. Janacek serving. Inside the church, they were surrounded by the iconography of David Giffey, a member of the congregation as well as a member of Veterans for Peace.

It was the perfect conclusion to the conference, which opened minds and hearts.For Christians, forgiveness is not simply an option, it’s an imperative–and not except when it’s too hard, but especially then. As Morelli put it: “Those who have offended most egregiously and performed the most horrific of offenses are to be loved the most.”

The dome of Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Madison along with all the icons in the church were painted by David Giffey over a period of four years of full time work. David is a member of the church andis a Vietnam vetand a journalist.  Photo provided courtesy of Teresa Peneguy Paprock

The dome of Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Madison along with all the icons in the church were painted by David Giffey over a period of four years of full time work. David is a member of the church and is a Vietnam vet and a journalist. Photo provided courtesy of Teresa Peneguy Paprock

 

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 62 / October 2011

 

Of Whom I am First: on the death of Osama Bin Laden

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

By Ágúst Symeon Magnússon

A news stand in Boston: covers of news magazines in mid-May 2011 (photo: Jim Forest)

At the time of this writing most of the world’s newspapers and television channels are reporting on the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden at the hands of a special-operations Navy Seal Team. After ten years on the run following his involvement in the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, Bin Laden was finally found in a high-security compound in Pakistan. Bin Laden had become a potent symbol for militant Islamic extremism and countless terrorist groups throughout the world. The news of his death met with mixed reaction in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda operatives threatened retaliation and vengeance, Hamas condemned the killing, calling it a “continuation of the United States policy of destruction,” while the reaction of other governments in the area ranged from hesitant to jubilant.

In the West, especially in the United States, the news was met with nothing less than festal enthusiasm. Great crowds took to the streets of many cities, especially Washington D.C. and New York – both targets of the horrors of September 11 – cheering and waving flags, chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” as if at a sports event. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented that “Justice has been done,” and newspapers reported on Bin Laden’s death with a range of journalistic flair, from the relatively understated “U.S. Forces Kill Osama Bin Laden” of The Wall Street Journal to the more robust “GOT HIM! Vengeance at last! U.S. nails the bastard!” in The New York Post and the words “ROT IN HELL!” superimposed over a picture of Bin Laden in The Daily News.

All of these reactions are perfectly understandable. Bin Laden was generally seen as leader of an organization whose terrorist activities have cost the lives of thousands of men, women and children in the past decade. The bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 killed almost three thousand. The bombings on the public transit systems of London and Madrid, in 2005 and 2004 respectively, resulted in 247 deaths. Aside from these attacks on European and American soil, al-Qaeda has terrorized and murdered countless Muslim men, women and children in the past decade all throughout the Middle East, denying people their basic human rights and dignity in order to promulgate a philosophy of hatred, religious fundamentalism and death.

Understandable as the jubilant reaction to Bin Laden’s death may be, it is nonetheless not a Christian one. Christianity demands of us an orientation towards a reality that is both supremely difficult and strange, a reality of mercy and love. This reality is the Life of God, the shared love of the Holy Trinity, and it stands in direct opposition to any worldly ideas we may have about justice, vengeance or retribution. We are told by the great seventh-century poet St. Isaac the Syrian that all the sins of the world are like a few grains of sand cast into the ocean of God’s infinite mercy. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that we may be assimilated to this mystical reality, entering into it by forgiving each other our sins so that we may fully be able to experience the mystery of God’s forgiveness. And in the sixth chapter of the gospel of Luke, Christ tells us to love our enemies and to neither judge nor condemn but rather to forgive absolutely and unconditionally.

What then would a proper Christian response to Bin Laden’s death be? Do we forget the horrors he inspired? Is our God not a God of justice as well as mercy? In thinking about such questions and exploring the mystery that lies behind them, perhaps we will come to better understand the mystical reality of God’s mercy. If nothing else, this event may be a catalyst for examining what lies at the center of these mysteries of forgiveness, repentance and communion. To enter into such a questioning is to take up the challenge given to us by Christ in the gospels to reconsider our relationship to one another and our understanding of good and evil.

To begin with we must be absolutely clear on the fact that the teachings of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church unequivocally state that evil is very real and that it permeates the very fabric of our existence due to the consequences of the Fall. The only way to reorient our lives towards God and to accept the salvation that He so freely offers us in and through his Son, the divine Logos who became incarnate as Jesus Christ. God does not force his mercy upon anyone. If he did, his mercy would no longer be love. This means that the salvation of our souls is in fact dependent upon our own free will and to what extent we choose to orient our lives towards the Good. And this is exactly why it is more 1 than likely that someone like Osama Bin Laden would find himself in a place that is the metaphysical realization of the life he lived on this earth, a life that was defined by suffering and pain and the inability to love one’s fellow human beings, irrespective of their religion, nationality or past sins. Yet in accepting the reality of evil, we, as Christians, also believe in its ultimate defeat. Christ frees us from violence, hatred and death, opening a door towards a way of life (a Tao/Logos) that we can appropriate and assimilate ourselves to through the grace of God that He so mercifully grants to us. The question then becomes how we enter upon this path and become conduits for God’s love and mercy instead of proliferating yet more suffering for both ourselves and our brothers and sisters. The answer, mysterious and indefinable as it must be, seems to always center on the mystery of repentance.   Repentance is among the most difficult and complex spiritual and philosophical realities in the entire Christian tradition. It is the beginning of the spiritual life, the first commandment of both John the Baptist and Christ in the gospels, our entrance into the Kingdom that is “at hand” (i.e. among us – present in the here and now). To begin our treatment of this difficult subject we might examine a prayer that is both beautiful and bizarre in its implications. It is a prayer said by Eastern Orthodox Christians moments before they receive the body and blood of Christ in the mystery of Holy Communion in the Divine Liturgy:

I believe O Lord and I confess, that you are truly the Christ, the living God who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am first. Moreover I believe that this is truly your most pure body and that this is truly your own precious blood.

“To save sinners of whom I am first.” What astoundingly strange words. Surely there have been worse people than I – murderers, rapists, dictators and despots. People like Osama Bin Laden. Even though I fully acknowledge that I am sinful and that I struggle with a great many passions in deed, word and thought, I nonetheless have a hard time thinking of myself as the chief of sinners, as the worst of the worst. Is this perhaps a kind of psychological flagellation, a “woe is me a sinner” attitude so that we may feel our unworthiness in the face of the holy sacraments?

Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to begin to understand these strange words, we need to break down our preconceived notions regarding repentance and communion. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, repentance, confession and sin were never thought of in legalistic terms, nor was juridical language ever applied to these realities, which was a tendency that sometimes tended to dominate Latin thinking on these matters. Rather, these spiritual realities were – and still are – understood in terms of a kind of spiritual anthropology, a language grounded in the language of medicine and healing as opposed to rules and regulations. Sin is understood as a spiritual sickness from which all of us suffer, a metaphysical condition that permeates the entire cosmos and from which God in his infinite mercy has freed us through the loving grace of his only begotten Son and his Holy Spirit. Repentance, in turn, becomes not a matter of psychological guilt, nor of feeling as if one is unworthy or tainted. Rather, it is a matter of a spiritual reorientation. The Greek word is metanoia, literally a “change of mind” or a “turning around” of the soul. As Metropolitan Kallistos writes in The Orthodox Way:

Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive. It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity. It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope – not downwards at our own shortcomings but upwards at God’s love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. To repent is to open our eyes to the light.

When Plato in the Cave Allegory in the Republic describes the freeing of the prisoner in the cave who then turns away from illusion and suffering towards the light of truth and beauty he uses this very word metanoia. There is a turning around of the soul from the realm of shadows towards the divine. Such is repentance of the Christian who now sees him or herself in the light of the Resurrection and the mercy of God. This opening of the spiritual eyes, the cleansing of the nous – as it was known to both the Greek philosophers and Church Fathers – lies at the center of the mystery of repentance. It not only changes our perception of ourselves but of every living thing, the entire cosmos, but primarily it affects how we view our brothers and sisters. No longer are we subject to the individualism and egotism that ensconce us ever deeper in the mires of sin where we constantly measure ourselves against each other, whether materially or spiritually. Instead, our eyes are opened to the love that is the very being of God, a reality where humility, sacrifice and compassion direct the course of our lives rather than our desires and passions.

What is paradoxical about this reorientation is that in opening our eyes to the beauty and goodness of God that permeate this world we also become ever more aware of the reality of suffering and pain and all the repercussions of the Fall. In repenting of our own sins, especially through the sacrament of confession, we become ever more cognizant of the spiritual sickness that permeates the very fabric of our world, the alienation, separation, violence, disease, hunger and pain.

Repentance is a softening of the heart and an opening up of the human being, a path that makes us more sensitive and humane, more aware of the suffering of our brothers and sisters. Through this mystery we break down the illusion of individualism where we view ourselves as separate atoms, each pursuing our individual gain apart from one another. Instead we enter into the life of God where love and communion become the very essence of our life, just as they do for the persons of the Trinity. To repent is to begin to understand our very being as communion, to borrow a phrase from the Orthodox philosopher and theologian John Zizioulas.

Through repentance we begin to experience God’s mercy, the healing salve that cures the world of violence and hate. (The Greek word eleos, usually translated in English as “mercy,” has the same root as the word for olive oil, one of the most common medicinal balms of the ancient Greek world.) Hatred, in fact, makes true repentance impossible. It turns us away from the reality of God’s love towards a reality that is entirely our own construct, a reality characterized by discord and separation. This is why we are told not to approach the Holy Eucharist unless we have purged our hearts of hate. The reality made manifest in the Gifts is entirely antithetical to hatred and to being controlled by fear, for it is primarily through fear that we begin to hate.

The response to Bin Laden’s death is one that is primarily characterized by fear. In many ways it is a justifiable fear, one based on the immense pain and suffering that this man had wrought upon the world. Yet fear, in all its forms, is a passion, something that separates us from God. If left unchecked, like all passions, it can lead towards an ever-deepening cycle of suffering, both for ourselves and those around us. Hatred begets only hate. Violence begets more violence. It is a cycle as old as humanity itself. Al-Qaeda has already promised revenge for the slaying of Bin Laden. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on. The jubilant response to Bin Laden’s death, even though it is understandable to an extent, is nonetheless primarily symbolic of the anger and hatred that feeds this cycle of violence and despair.

Repentance is the way out of this cycle. Repentance is to not only look at our individual sins and shortcomings, but to open ourselves up to the mercy of God. It is then up to us to extend that mercy to others. By telling us to love our enemies, Christ obviously did not mean for us to “like” them nor did He mean we should overlook the evil they have done. Rather, in loving them we are to manifest the Kingdom of God where our primary concern is not retribution or “justice,” but rather mercy as healing.

In realizing our own sins, our own entanglement in the web of suffering and pain, we free ourselves of the bonds of our sins through God’s mercy and in turn become more sensitive to the suffering of those around us. It is only at that point that we can begin to extend the healing of God to others, first and last through prayer but also through direct involvement and actions.

It is then that we can begin to address the injustice of this world, the innocent victims of terrorists such as Bin Laden as well as those who suffer because of the political machinations of foreign powers. Bin Laden’s death, instead of being an opportunity for revelry and glee, could have been one of quiet contemplation and prayer and a call to action for Christians that we do everything in our power to help those who suffer and to put an end to war, violence and economic oppression.

Among the revelry following news of Bin Laden’s death, there were also images of a very different kind – photos of people who came together to pray for the victims of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Perhaps some were also praying for Bin Laden himself. Images of people at peace, of candles being lit, heads bowed, orienting their minds towards God and their brothers and sisters, mindful of their suffering and the healing that is so desperately needed in this world. In the faces of people at prayer and in the silence that surrounded them one could see an alternative path to that of fear and hate– a Way given to us by the God of mercy and love.

Ágúst Symeon Magnússon is a philosopher, teacher, writer, husband and father who currently resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he works and studies at Marquette University. A native of Reykjavik, Iceland, he joined the Orthodox Church in 2005. His favorite pastimes are reading, drinking coffee and playing on the floor with his son Jóakim.

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1. The details surrounding the theological debate on universal salvation and to what extent the Orthodox Church has advocated such a position (at least as favoring a certain kind of theologoumenon) falls outside the boundaries of this text. There are various scholarly expositions on the matter, but Orthodox works of the catechetical sort usually address the issue in a succinct and intelligent manner. In The Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes: “Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have nonetheless believed that in the end all will be reconciled to God…. We must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but must long and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception. No one must be excluded from our loving intercession. ‘What is a merciful heart?’ asked Isaac the Syrian. ‘It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation, for humans, for birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for all creatures.’ Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the redemption of the devil.” (The Orthodox Church, new edition., p. 262).

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011