Saturday, November 5, 2011

Post #44 - Faith and Forgiveness

A Brief Review of Elements of Orthodox Christian Tradition regarding Forgiveness
[notes prepared for the 2011 Orthodox Peace Fellowship Conference]

The Jesus Prayer

-- "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me." The phrase with which this commonly-used prayer ends implies a plea for forgiveness

Conception of the Nature of God

-- Orthodox speak of The Holy Trinity as manifesting "an unceasing flow of love" among the persons (or hyptostases) that comprise the triune God. In I John 4:8, we see "Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love." And, lastly, the approach that Christ takes to the subject of "rank" or "position" is extraordinarily different from the prevailing norms. He says, essentially, that in His Kingdom, the King is "servant of all." One doesn't have to know a great deal about the Persian Empire or the Roman Empire or Herod, the Jewish ruler of the time, to know that "servant" would not be the word one would choose when referring to the monarch. A ruler might be relatively benevolent, but this is something quite different.

Orthodox Anthropology

-- In Genesis, we see that I am to be "my brother's keeper" – that I have significant responsibility for others, not only for my own survival and welfare. In the parable of The Good Samaritan, Jesus asks the question (one that we still find very tough two thousand years later: "who is my neighbor?" The answer is: it's not about street numbers, it's about caring.

-- When Paul says, in Galatians 3:28, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" it means that the circle had been expanded beyond self, family or tribe. We keep trying to shrink that circle, I'm afraid – through cliques, sexism, racism or nationalism, but the words were clear – those divisions violate the "law of love."

-- Paul goes even further. We should not only expand our definition of who is in the in-group, but we should exclude ourselves. Yes, that what it means when we talk about "dying to self." Paul says (again, in Galatians), "Is is no longer I who live, but Christ [who] lives within me."


-- In Matthew 5:28, we read, "Be ye perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." Saint Athanasius (and others, before and after him) said, "God became Man so that Man could become God" – Orthodoxy has this idea of the divinization or deification of man – we usually say theosis – to describe the transforming effect of divine grace on the human person. Therefore, certain kinds of love that are admittedly difficult for mere mortals to achieve are, in fact, what we are to strive for.

As Fr. Stephen Freeman said in a Lenten sermon: "Nothing is more difficult to our heart than forgiveness of our enemies. Forgiveness of anything is hard for some, while forgiveness of everyone for everything is God-like. Which is a stretch for most of us. St. Gregory of Nyssa once said that “man is mud whom God has commanded to become God.”

Ultimate Judgment

-- When "our time comes" – when we are judged by God as to the kind of life we constructed out of what He gave us, what will be the criteria that He will use in making that assessment? The clearest biblical indication is found in Matthew 25. He will divide "the sheeps and the goats" how? By sifting the detritus of each life in terms of whom one has helped. The needy, the poor, the thirsty – those in prison, those who hungered – did you step up and treat them right? Did you "keep your brother?" Did you cross the road to care for your neighbor?

Orthodox Ethics

-- "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. " This sentence from John 15:13, is not just your garden-variety Golden Rule, but something more. It says, in essence, that the "other" is not just as important as you are, but is to be valued even more than your own self. And who, exactly, is to be treated with this kind of generosity and deference. Well, in fact, even those whom you classify as "enemies" are to be loved and prayed for.


-- With all this as background, let's look at "forgiveness" in particular. The scripture says quite a bit on the subject, because people asked Jesus about it. He says one should, when struck, "turn the other cheek." How may times should we let that happen to us?: "70 times 7" This is a radical commitment to reconciliation. In those times, there was much to forgive. If the enemy was the occupying Roman army or the cruel Herod's henchmen, you might get to seventy-times-seven within the first month after turning over your new leaf.

Monastic/Ascetic Tradition

-- Orthodoxy has a vibrant, living ascetic tradition based in part on the persons called "The Desert Fathers" (or, also "Mothers"), and on the monks of places like Mt. Athos, in Greece. Very Rev. Chrysostomos, a translator of these saints and seers, wrote:

"The desert fathers speak of sexual desire, envy, greed, jealousy, hate, and the most complex human foibles. They expose to us what is all too familiar and obvious. They let us see with alarming clarity the depth of our depravity and the labyrinths of our sinful inner chasms. And though we probably cannot attain to the fullest extent the virtues by which these holy hermits overcame human depravity, we can see clearly the folly of a modern world seeking goodness, truth, purity, and virtue without first humbling itself before its Creator and the subtle inward world of spiritual truth. Hearing today of virtues, the ancient Fathers show them, by their examples, to be plastic virtues. Seeing today monuments of faith built with stone and mortar, the desert dwellers show us monuments of faith built on flesh and blood." One of the recurrent themes of monastic writings that still survive is dealing with hurt of harm. The monks might be victims of common thieves and highwaymen, or caught in a raging war. Or, they might just be tempted to take offense when someone blocks the ray of sun that was warming them on a chilly day. In any case, they must find forgiveness in their soul – or create through hard work of prayer and fasting, if it can not immediately be found there.

Here is an example of one of the stories that come to us out of that "desert" tradition:

"A brother who was insulted by another brother came to Abba Sisoes, and said to him: “I was hurt by my brother, and I want to avenge myself”. Abba tried to console him and said: “Don’t do that, my child. Rather leave vengeance to God”. But he said: “I will not quit until I avenge myself”. Then Abba said: “Let us pray, brother; and standing up, he said: “Our Father… forgive us our trespasses as we forgive NOT those who trespass against us…” Hearing these words, the brother fell at the feet of the Abba and said: “I am not going to fight with my brother any more. Forgive me, Abba.”

A Serbian monk named Damascene spoke of a modern spiritual model, at a 2003 event in San Diego, CA:

Elder Sampson
"Elder Sampson (Seivers) of Russia, who reposed in 1979, was a man well-equipped to speak on the subject of forgiveness. As a young novice monk, he was arrested by the Communist authorities, shot in a mass execution, and thrown into a common grave. By Divine Providence he survived the shooting, and was pulled out of the grave still breathing by his brother monks and nursed back to health. Later he was arrested again and spent nearly twenty years in Communist concentration camps. But he never held onto bitterness and resentment: He completely forgave both his executioners and his torturers. In his later years, when he was serving as a spiritual father to many people, he was especially tough when his spiritual children refused to forgive someone, even for some petty annoyance. He said: 'I've always concluded: this means that they still have not gotten the point, that the whole secret, that all the salt of Christianity lies in this: to forgive, to excuse, to justify, not to know, not to remember evil.'"

* * * * *

So, whether we are dealing with road-rage at the idiot who cut us off in traffic, or figuring out how to relate to murderers, terrorists or torturers, our responsibility is the same: to be Christians, which means trying to be godly. Easy? No. But it is what God asks of us.

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