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

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

* * *

Healing in the Parish and the World: Let Us Go Forth in Peace by Bishop Kallistos Ware

Healing in the Parish and the World:

Let Us Go Forth in Peace

by Bishop Kallistos Ware

Our theme is the liturgy after the Liturgy. Consider the word “peace” in the Divine Liturgy: In peace let us pray to the Lord, for the peace from above, and for the peace of the whole world; and also the meaning of the celebrant’s greeting, “Peace be with you all.” We know the priest is not just transmitting his own peace, but he is transmitting to the congregation the peace of Christ. And peace, we know, is a gift from God.

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There is one phrase from the Liturgy in which the word peace figures pro-minently: “Let us go forth in peace.” There are many commandments in the Liturgy, things that we are told to do such as “Lift up your hearts,” “Give thanks to the Lord.” But, “Let us go forth in peace” is the last commandment of the Liturgy. What does it mean? It means, surely, that the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy is not an end but a beginning. Those words, “Let us go forth in peace,” are not a comforting epilogue, they are a call to serve and bear witness. In effect, those words, “Let us go forth in peace,” mean the Liturgy is over, the liturgy after the Liturgy is about to begin.

This, then, is the aim of the Liturgy: that we should return to the world with the doors of our perceptions cleansed. We should return to the world after the Liturgy, seeing Christ in every human person, especially in those who suffer. In the words of Father Alexander Schmemann, the Christian is the one who, wherever he or she looks, sees Christ everywhere and rejoices in him. We are to go out, then, from the Liturgy and see Christ everywhere.

“I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was a stranger. I was in prison.” Of everyone who is in need, Christ says, “I.” Christ is looking at us through the eyes of all the people whom we meet, especially those who are in distress and who are suffering. We go out from the Liturgy, seeing Christ everywhere. But we are to return to the world not just with our eyes open but with our hands strengthened. I remember a hymn as an Anglican that we used to sing at the end of the Eucharist, “Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands that holy things have taken.” So, we are not only to see Christ in all human persons, but we are to serve Christ in all human persons.

Let us reflect on what happened at the Last Supper. First there was the Eucharistic meal, where Christ blessed bread and gave it to the disciples, “This is my body,” and he blessed the cup, “This is my blood.” Then, after the Eucharistic meal, Christ kneels and washes the feet of his disciples. The Eucharistic meal and the foot washing are a single mystery. So, we have to apply that to ourselves. We go out from the Liturgy to wash the feet of our fellow humans, literally and symbolically. That is how I understand the words at the end of the Liturgy, “Let us go forth in peace.” Peace is to be something dynamic within this broken world. It’s not just a quality that we experience within the church walls.

Let’s remind ourselves of the way in which St. John Chrysostom envisages this liturgy after the Liturgy. There are, he says, two altars. There is, in the first place, the altar in church, and towards this altar we show deep reverence. We bow in front of it. We decorate it with silver and gold. We cover it with precious hangings. But, continues St. John, there is another altar, an altar that we encounter every day, on which we can offer sacrifice at any moment. And yet towards this second altar, an altar which God himself has made, we show no reverence at all. We treat it with contempt. We ignore it. And what is this second altar? It is, says St. John Chrysostom, the poor, the suffering, those in need, the homeless, all who are in distress. At any moment, he says, when you go out from the church, there you will see an altar on which you can offer sacrifice, a living altar made by Christ.

Developing the meaning of the command, “Let us go forth in peace,” let us think of the Liturgy as a journey, Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s key image for the Liturgy. We may discern in the Liturgy a movement of ascent and of return. That kind of movement actually happens very frequently. We can see it in the lives of the saints, such as Antony of Egypt or Seraphim of Sarov. First, in the movement of ascent, if you like, or flight from the world, they go out into the desert, into the wilderness, into solitude, to be alone with God. But then there is a moment of return. They open their doors to the world, they receive all who come, they minister and they heal.

There is a similar movement of ascent within the Liturgy. We go to church. It’s pleasant to go there; though some people must use cars, I like to walk from my home to church before the Divine Liturgy, to walk alone if I can. It’s only about ten minutes, but I find it quite important to have that movement, a sense of going to church, a sense, if you like, of a separation from the world and starting on a journey. I walk to church, and I enter the church building, into a sacred space and sacred time. This is the beginning of the movement of ascent: we go to the church. Then, continuing the movement of ascent, we bring to the altar gifts of bread and wine and offer them to Christ. The movement of ascent is completed when Christ accepts this offering, consecrates it, makes the bread and wine to be his body and blood.

After the ascent comes the return. The bread and wine that we offered to Christ, he then gives back to us in Holy Communion as his body and blood.

But the movement of return doesn’t stop there. Having received Christ in the Holy Gifts, we then go out from the church, going back to the world to share Christ with all those around us.

Let’s develop this idea a little. Receiving Christ’s body, we become what he is. We become the body of Christ. But gifts are for sharing. We become Christ’s body not for ourselves but for others. We become Christ’s body in the world and for the world. So the Eucharist impels believers to specific action in society, action that will be challenging and prophetic. The Eucharist is the start of cosmic transfiguration, and each communicant shares in this transfiguring work.

Our title suggest a connection between peace and healing in the parish and the world, and I can’t possibly deal with all the things suggested by it. But let me, in light of the bit about “Let us go forth in peace,” pose a few questions about the different levels of Eucharistic healing and transfiguration in the world.

First a question about our parish life. Perhaps this is not true everywhere, but it’s true of some parishes I’ve known. I’ve often wondered why our parish council meetings, and more particularly the annual general meetings of parishes, are such a disappointment? To me it’s very surprising that often there’s a rather dark spirit at work in the annual general meetings of parishes. The picture given of our parish life is actually deeply misleading. All the good things seem to be hidden—perhaps that’s as it should be—but we get a very distorted picture. There seems often to be an atmosphere of tension and hostility at annual general meetings in parishes.

I’ve often wondered why that is. How to bring a truly Eucharistic spirit into such gatherings? How can we bring the peace of the Divine Liturgy into the other aspects of our parish life? I don’t have an easy answer, but I think behind this first question there lurks another question. How can we make the Divine Liturgy more manifestly a shared and corporate action? In my own experience, the parish where I am, we began worshiping just in a room, and at that time it was not difficult to have a very strong feeling of the Liturgy as a unified action in which everybody was sharing because we were all so close to one another, and there was only a few of us.

Some of the most moving Liturgies I’ve ever attended have not been in churches with great marble floors and huge candelabra but in small house chapels in a room or even in a garage. Now, gradually our community has grown. Twenty-five years ago, we built ourselves a church, and now that church is too small and we’re working towards enlarging the church in order to be able to have room for all the worshipers. Now that is, in a sense, encouraging, but there is a real struggle here. As a parish grows larger and as it acquires a larger building, it becomes much harder to preserve the corporate spirit, the sense of a single family, the sense of all of us doing something together. It becomes much harder to preserve that.

hristos-mirele-1
Christ the Prisoner

I haven’t any easy answers, but that is one level on which I ask, “How can we bring peace and healing into a community that’s growing ever larger, and therefore that is bound to lose its sense of close coherence, unless we struggle to preserve it?”

There is another level of healing that occurs to me quite frequently at the Divine Liturgy. We often have present non-Orthodox Christians and we are not able to give them Holy Communion by the rules of our Church. Now, I’m sure all of you have reflected on the reasons why the Orthodox Church takes this straight line over inter-communion. The act of Communion, we say, involves our total acceptance of the faith. It involves our total life in the Church. Therefore we cannot share in Communion with other Christians who—however much we may love them—we recognize as holding a different understanding of the Christian faith, and are therefore divided from us.

This is, we know, the argument why we cannot have inter-communion. But I think we should constantly ask ourselves if we are right to take this position? In fact I think we are, but I would say go on asking yourself in your heart if it’s the right thing to do. We Orthodox are becoming increasingly isolated on this issue. In my young days, most Anglicans would have taken the same view, and would have said they could not have Communion with Protestants. That’s certainly not the case now in the Anglican Church. Also, Roman Catholics held this view very strictly, but since Vatican II, whatever the official regulations may be, in the practice of the Roman Catholic Church there is widespread inter-communion. But we Orthodox continue as we were. Are we right? And if we do continue to uphold a strict line on inter-communion, in what spirit are we doing this? Is it in a spirit of peace and healing?

I remember at the beginning of my time as priest, the first occasion, and I still feel the wound inwardly, when persons came up for Communion whom I knew were not Orthodox. I felt that it was my duty as priest not to give them Communion. I was really interested in the reaction of two different parishioners. One said to me, “You did quite right! We cannot give Communion to these heretics. The Orthodox Church is the one true church.” He saw that in triumphalist terms. That made me feel even worse. But then another parishioner came up, and he said, in a very different tone of voice, “Yes, you were right, but how tragic, how sad, that we had to do this.” Then I thought, yes, we do have to do this, but we should never do it in an aggressive spirit of superiority but always with a sense of deep sorrow in our hearts. We should mind very much that we cannot yet have Communion together. Incidentally, both of those two parishioners are now Orthodox priests themselves. I think the first one, over the years, has grown a little less triumphalist. I hope we all do, but I’m not sure whether that always happens.

 

Homeless Christ
Homeless Christ

Then I’d like to reflect on a third level of healing. Let me take as my basis here the words said just before the Epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit, at the heart of the Liturgy. The deacon lifts the Holy Gifts, and the celebrant says, “Thine own from Thine own, we offer Thee.” And in usual translation, it continues, “in all and for all.” But that translation could be misleading. It could be understood as meaning “for all human persons, for everyone.” In fact in Greek, it is not masculine, it is neuter—“for in all things, and for all things.” At that moment, we do not just speak about human persons, we speak about all created things. A more literal translation would be, “In all things and for all things.”

This shows us that the liturgy after the Liturgy involves service not just to all persons, but ministry to the whole creation, to all created things. The Eucharist, thus, commits us to an ecological healing. That is underlined in the words of Fr. Lev: “Peace of the whole world.” It means, says Fr. Lev, peace not just for humans, but all creatures—for animals and vegetables, stars, for all nature. Cosmic piety and cosmic healing. Ecology has become mildly fashionable and often has quite strong political associations. We Orthodox, along with other Christians, must involve ourselves fully on behalf of the environment, but we must do so in the name of the Divine Liturgy. We must put our ecological witness in the context of Holy Communion.

I’m very much encouraged by the initiatives taken recently by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Twenty some years ago, the then Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios issued a Christmas encyclical saying that when we celebrate the Incarnation of Christ, his taking of a human body, we should also see that as God’s blessing upon the whole creation. We should understand the incarnation in cosmic terms. He goes on in his encyclical to call all of us to show, and I quote, “towards the creation an ascetic and Eucharistic spirit.” An ascetic spirit helps us distinguish between wants and needs. The real point being not what I want.

The real point, then, is what I need. I want a great many things that I don’t in fact need. The first step towards cosmic healing is for me to make a distinction between the two, and as far as possible, to stick just to what I need. People want more and more. That’s going to bring disaster on ourselves if we go on selfishly increasing our demands. But we don’t in fact need more and more to be truly human. That’s what I understand to define an ascetic spirit. Fasting indeed can help us to distinguish between what we want and what we need. Good to do without things, because then we realize that, yes, we can use them, but we can also forego them, we are not dependent on material things. We have freedom.

If we have a Eucharistic spirit, we realize all is a gift to be offered back in thanksgiving to God the Giver. Developing this theme, the Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios, followed by his successor, the present Patriarch Bartholomew, have dedicated the first of September, the New Year in the Orthodox calendar, as a day of creation, when we give thanks to God for his gifts, when we ask forgiveness for the way we have misused those gifts, and when we pray that we may be guided for the right use of them in the future. There’s a phrase that often comes to my mind from the special service “When in danger of earthquake.” “The earth, though without words, yet cries aloud, ‘Why, all peoples, do you inflict upon me such evil?’” And we are inflicting great evil on the earth. Interesting to see earthquakes as the earth groaning because of what we do to it!

Finally, I ask you to think for a moment about one of our Gospel readings. What happens when the risen Christ on the first Easter Sunday appears to his disciples? Christ says first to the disciples, “Peace be unto you.” The first thing that Christ speaks after rising from the dead is peace. Then what does he do? He shows them his hands and his side. Why does he do that? For recognition. Yes, to show that here he is, the one whom they saw three days before crucified; here he is, risen from the dead in the same body in which he suffered and died. But there’s surely more to it than that. What he is doing is showing that, though he is risen from the dead, yet he still bears upon him the marks of his suffering. In the heart of the risen and glorified Christ, there is still a place for our human suffering. When Christ rises from the dead and ascends into heaven, he does not disengage himself from this broken world. On the contrary, he still carries on his body the marks of his suffering and he carries in his heart all our burdens. When he says before his ascension, “See I am with you, even to the end of the world,” surely he means, “I am with you in your distress and in your suffering.” Glorified, he is still with us. He has not rejected our suffering, nor disassociated himself from us.

We see from the Gospel how peace goes with cross bearing. Having given peace to his disciples, the risen Christ immediately shows them the marks of the Cross. Peace means healing and wholeness, but we have to add, peace also means vulnerability. Peace, we might say, doesn’t mean the absence of struggle or temptation or suffering. As long as we are in this world, we are to expect temptation and suffering. As St. Antony of Egypt said, “Take away temptation and nobody will be saved.” So peace doesn’t mean the absence of struggle, but peace means commitment, firmness of purpose, clarity of vision, an undivided heart, and a willingness to bear the burdens of others. When Paul says, “See, I bear in my body the marks, the stigmata, of Christ crucified,” he is describing his state of peace.  IC

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware is Titular Metropolitan of Diokleia under the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Metropolitan Ware lives in England. This essay was edited from a talk given at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat in Vézelay, France in April 1999.

 

In Communion / Winter 2013

Searching Every Which Way by Alex Patico

Searching Every Which Way

by Alex Patico

The following is not so much a review as a topical commentary on a few readings related to this issue’s theme.

A recent article in UUWorld, the magazine of the Unitarian-Universalist Association of Congregations, talked of “The End of Church.” The author, Fredric J. Muir, is the pastor of a UU church in Annapolis, MD, not far from my home. He notes that figures from Thomas Jefferson to contemporary scholars have suggested that his denomination has a potential to do well in America, yet “we remaina small religious minority.” He believes that UU’s are being “held back by a pervasive and disruptive commitment to individualism.” Although in tune with one of the characteristic strains of American culture, he says, this individualism also presents a problem. How can people who are “allergic to authority and power” also be deeply involved in their society? Muir is asking more than just how his faith tradition can be more successful and expansionary; he is wondering how it can be more conducive to the development of what Martin Luther King and others have called “The Beloved Community.” In other words, how can one (recalling the words of Hillel) be “for oneself” while also embracing social consciousness and an ethic of service?

Muir cites Emerson: “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature,” and even, “men are less [when] together than alone.” The Beloved Community, in contrast, expresses “the ethical meaning of the Kingdom of God….the divine indwelling that equally graces all people” (citing Prof. Gary Dorrien about King).

Certainly, the latter is more consonant with the standard one gleans from Orthodox tradition: “One Orthodox Christian is no Orthodox Christian,” we say; we are saved together, rather than in isolation from our brothers and sisters. Leitourgia is the work of “the people,” not of a lone actor.

But, if this is the case, why are Unitarians so much more prominent in social endeavors than we Orthodox are? Their congregations are regularly engaged in a variety of efforts to seek the common good. Sure, we can point to the Ecumenical Patriarch addressing environmental stewardship, or find archival footage of an Orthodox hierarch marching with civil rights leaders, but no one would say that we have placed our stamp on society to the degree that Catholics, Jews, Quakers, or Brethren have, relative to our numbers. Is there a reason why Matthew 25 is not a Bible verse that we find in the lectionary for our Divine Liturgy?

Another periodical caught my attention. This one, called Prism, comes from Evangelicals for Social Action. The articles in a recent issue treated the conflict in Israel/Palestine, air pollution, homelessness, and “transcending the culture wars to build bridges for the common good.” One author prayed, “Whether we veer to the traditional or the innovative, may our focus be on Christ alone as we seek to follow him in a world that will change regardless of how we feel about budging.”

We Orthodox take pride in the fact that we honor tradition and resist innovation (at least for its own sake). But would it really be an innovation for us to involve ourselves in the community as the early Christians did? They spread out far and wide spreading the Good News of Christ’s life and teaching, and also took care of the sick, protected widows and orphans, held their wealth in common and showed their unique character in “how they loved one another.”

It is not as though the concerns for justice, peace, and the poor in other communities are embraced to the exclusion of core values. In the wind these days is a strong current of active searching for deeper and more profound expressions of Christianity. In what is usually called the “Emergent Church”—an untidy phenom-enon that is not quite an organization, nor exactly a movement—thousands are looking for ways to go beyond what they have in their own ecclesial backyard. Whether Catholic, Methodist, Baptist or Mennonite, the “Emergents” say they want a more serious relationship with Jesus Christ—less bureaucracy but more joy, less comfort and more challenge. Some form separate gatherings to augment their own church, others propose change in the way of “doing church” in their denomination.

A recent book, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (Tony Jones), attempts to corral the disparate threads of this surprising and sometimes baffling new development in Christendom. Jones says that, “The modern church— at least as it is characterized by imposing physical buildings, professional clergy, denominational bureaucracies, residential seminary training, and other trappings— was an endeavor by faithful men and women in their time and place, attempting to live into the biblical gospel. But the church was never the end, only the means.” He posts, as sidebars throughout his book, a series of brief “dispatches,” such as these:

“Emergents reject the politics and theologies of left versus right. Seeing both sides as a remnant of modernity, they look forward to a more complex reality.”

“Emergents believe that church should function more like an open-source network and less like a hierarchy.”

“Emergents believe that theology is local, conversational, and temporary. To be faithful to the theological giants of the past, emergents endeavor to continue their theological dialogue.”

The idea of theology being “temporary” would strike many of us as anathema, yet we can relate to Jones’ description of emergents as embracing “the messiness of human life.” In our tradition of ekonomia, we recognize that intellectual formulations may often miss much of the mysterion that is God and His Kingdom.

Interestingly, the Emerging Church is, I’ve learned, quite open to exploring and accepting key elements of the Orthodox faith. Its members are seriously curious about contemplative and monastic traditions, and interested in rediscovering the Holy Spirit (and the Trinity in general), while they simultaneously “downplay the differences between clergy and laity.” They may haul out their pews and bring in overstuffed sofas as part of their “remodeling”—never considering that large parts of the Church never installed pews in the first place!

Personally, I am not ready yet to have communion bread come in “cinnamon raisin or cheddar jalapeno sourdough,” as in one congregation the book describes, but I admire the Emergents’ urge to seek God Himself, even if the way leads away from the temple they grew up in. They, Jones says, “are pushing over fences and roaming around at the margins of the church in America” like feral animals that have become de-domesticated. Time will tell where the movement leads.

So, while we may have something to learn about doing social action, what do we do well as Orthodox Christians? Another book I recently finished does a good job of elucidating the soul of our Holy Tradition. Everyday Saints and Other Stories features some elements that might cause evangelicals, emergents and Unitarians to blanche: exorcisms, gulags, and superstition. But it also shows the heart of Russian monastic life in all its “messy” richness. Written by a monk of the Pskov Caves Monastery, Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), the book is a series of memoirs and hearsay, a work of non-fiction but as readable as a collection by Gogol. One encounters dozens of figures who have been Fr. Tikhon’s elders, peers, or parishion-ers over several decades, during both the Soviet era and the period of perestroika.

Saints has sold millions of copies in Russia and is available in a dozen languages. The stories told so captivatingly are too long to be repeated here, but the author also offers, from time to time, brilliant and moving passages on life in the faith:

“For us it was somehow completely obvious that Soviet authority would some-day live itself out and collapse with a magnificent crash. This is not to say, of course, that it could not seriously ruin our lives, putting some of us in jail, for example, or even getting us killed. But we believed that unless it was the will of God nothing of the sort whatever possibly could happen anyway. In the words of the ancient ascetic Abba Forstus: ‘If God wishes me to live, He knows how to make this happen. But if God does not wish me to live, then why should I live?’”

“This new world Fr. Raphael had joined was full of joy and light, and governed by its own particular laws. In this world, the help of the Lord would always come when it was truly needed. In this world wealth was ridiculous, and glamour and ostentatiousness absurd, while modesty and humility were beautiful and becoming. Here great souls and just souls truly judged themselves to be lesser and worse than any other man. Here the most respected were those who had fled from all worldly glory. And here the most powerful were those who with all their hearts had recognized the powerlessness of their unaided humanity. Here the true power was hidden with frail elders, and it was understood that sometimes it was better to be old and ill than to be young and healthy…. Here the death of each became a lesson to all, and the end of earthly life was just the beginning.”

Place Everyday Saints alongside The Philokalia on your bookshelf, if you are not called to enter the monastery yourself. The search is mainly within each of us, after all. Poet Corey Carlson wrote that God’s love is “never hidden far, though we seek as though it were.  IC

In Communion / Winter 2013

Saint Alexander Schmorell: A Canonization in Munich

by Jim Forest
Schmorell-1Saints come in many sizes and varieties, ranging from kings to beggars, surgeons to street sweepers, scholars to the illiterate, the extraordinary to the unnoticed. Some never marry, some are the parents of large families. Some die in bed in their old age, others die early in life at the hands of executioners. There are millions of saints — heaven is crowded — but relatively few of heaven’s population have been formally canonized. The vast majority are rank-and-file saints, an inspiration to those who knew them, but never placed by name on the church calendar.

Reporting on canonizations, journalists often say that so-and-so was “made a saint” today at such-and-such location, but in fact the Church does not make saints. Canonization is merely an act of carefully considered recognition that a particular person became a saint in his lifetime and is unquestionably among the blessed and thus in no need of our prayers for his forgiveness and salvation. The saints who are singled out for special recognition are mentioned at the Liturgy on a particular day every year, some locally or nationally, others in churches around the world. They are also depicted in icons in both churches and homes.

What is it that makes the Church occasionally canonize a particular saint? In many cases it has to do with some remarkable quality or achievement — their exceptional impact on other lives. The memory of their works and lives needs to be passed on from generation to generation in order to encourage others to follow in their footsteps. It is one of the ways the Church declares, “This is sanctity. This is the path to eternal life.”

Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia

The majority of those canonized are martyrs. One of these — Alexander Schmorell — was added to the church calendar this past weekend. His canonization took place at the Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, a church in Munich not far from Schmorell’s grave. On the far side of the cemetery, at Stadelheim Prison, Schmorell was beheaded on 13 July 1943. He was only 25 at the time. He was an Orthodox Christian who had put his life at risk by being part of a anti-Nazi resistance group.

The canonization got underway on Saturday afternoon, February 3, as people began to gather in the church. Aware that the reporters and cameramen present would need certain photos before the ceremonies started, Fr. Nikolai Artemoff, dean of the cathedral, brought out the icon of Alexander Schmorell in anticipation of its formal presentation later in the day. Many photos were taken, a pre-canonization ceremony that would not have been imagined in earlier centuries. The icon showed Alexander Schmorell as the tall, brown-haired young man he was, wearing the white robe of a physician with a Red Cross arm band (he had been a medical student at Munich’s Maximilian University), his left hand raised in a gesture of greeting, the other holding a blood-red cross plus a white rose. He is standing against a pure gold background representing eternity and the kingdom of God.

As Father Nikolai explained to the journalists, the white rose in his hand symbolizes the White Rose group Schmorell co-founded with Hans Scholl in the spring of 1942. Before the arrests began the following February, the group succeeded — assisted by friends in many German and Austrian cities and towns — in widely distributing a series of six anti-Nazi leaflets. All six members of the core group were guillotined. (The story is powerfully told in an the Oscar-nominated film, “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days,” much of which was photographed in Munich.)

Press photos taken and interviews completed, at about 4 PM a procession of about two hundred people set out led by a cross bearer. Behind the cross were six bishops: Archbishop Mark (who leads the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in Germany), Metropolitan Valentin of Orenburg (the Russian city where Schmorell was born), Metropolitan Onufriy of Czernowitz in Ukraine, Archbishop Feofan of Berlin, Bishop Michael of Geneva, and Bishop Agapit of Stuttgart. How many priests? I lost count.

The frigid air was challenging — it was about 15 degrees below zero Centigrade (5 degrees Fahrenheit), with snow and ice on the ground. Though the cemetery, Perlacher Forst, was just across the street, its entrance was several hundred meters away. Once inside the gate, we wound our way through tombstone-lined paths, first stopping to pray at the graves of Hans and Sophie School, the brother and sister who were the first to be executed from the White Rose group, and Christoph Probst, beheaded the same day — 22 February 1943. Here three tall black crosses stand side by side, a single cross piece linking the crosses over the Scholl graves. Sophie, the one woman in the White Rose inner circle, and the youngest, was 21 when she was killed. Today many German streets and squares are named in honor of Sophie and Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst and others executed for their part in the White Rose. Hans and Sophie came from a closely-knit Lutheran family. Christoph Probst was baptized in the Catholic Church a day before his execution.

Archpriest Nikolai Artemoff placing a candle of the grave of St Alexander Schmorell
Archpriest Nikolai Artemoff placing a candle of the grave of St Alexander Schmorell

The procession than continued to Alexander Schmorell’s resting place, not far away. A bouquet of white roses was resting against the rough surface of the tombstone and more flowers heaped over the grave. Embedded in the stone was a bronze Russian Orthodox crucifix. Memorial prayers — a panikhida — was sung, concluding with the melodic two-word chant, Vyechnaya Pamyat (eternal memory), sung repeatedly by all present. Every year there has been a panikhida sung at this grave on the 13th of July, the anniversary of Schmorell’s death, but this was the final panikhida. Now that he has been officially glorified, future services at his grave no longer have a penitential character.

The high point of the day came during the Saturday evening Vigil, which began at 5 PM and lasted three-and-a-half hours, by which time an almost full moon was shining through the windows. In the middle of the service, several icon stands were placed in the center of the church with candle stands behind. At least a hundred candles were lit, forming a curtain of light. Finally a procession of bishops, clergy and altar servers poured out of the sanctuary carrying an icon of Saint Alexander Schmorell followed by another icon crowded with images of New Martyrs of the twentieth century. Next came a huge silver-bound Gospel book, a copy that had been a gift from Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, to Russian Orthodox Christians in Germany. The two icons and the Gospel book were solemnly placed side by side on the stands, then incensed. Finally everyone in the church, beginning with the six bishops, venerated the icon of the newly recognized saint.

“When they brought out the icon,” Nancy told me later that night, “it was such a climax, with the servers holding all those fans over the icons and the choir singing with such exaltation. It was as it there were neon arrows pointing at the icon of Alexander Schmorell and saying, ‘This is what really matters.’ It’s the Church pulling out all the stops. They couldn’t do more to make you look in that direction and feel the importance, the challenge, of this brave life. You couldn’t not get it. This is what the Church does in interpreting human events and letting us know what’s truly valuable. This is something that requires all the ceremony the Church is capable of. But it’s not ceremony for its own sake. It’s all meant to confront us with the inner meaning of a young man putting his head on the chopping block. The canonization ceremony pulls you out of ordinary time and confronts you with the message: consider this life and let it influence your own.”

At the Liturgy the following morning, the church was even more crowded than it had been for the Vigil. We were jammed together like cigarettes in a carton — it was challenging to make the sign of the cross without grazing your neighbors with your elbows. Perhaps as many people were present as would fill the church for the All-Night Easter service. (Also present on Sunday– given a special chair placed at the right end of the iconostasis — was Bishop Engelbert Siebler, representing the Catholic Archdiocese of Munich.)

In the Orthodox Church every Sunday is regarded as a little Easter, but rarely have I experienced so intense a paschal radiance. Resurrection was at the heart of Father Nikolai’s sermon, delivered just before communion. He reminded us that the name the White Rose group adopted for itself had been proposed by Alexander Schmorell. His suggestion came from a story in the novel The Brothers Karamazov, written by Schmorell’s most beloved author, Dostoevsky. In one chapter Christ comes back to earth, “softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him.” He is suddenly present among the many people in Seville’s cathedral square, a place were the pavement is still warm from the burning of a hundred heretics. Responding to a mother’s desperate appeal, Christ raises from the dead a young girl whose open coffin was being carried across the square on its way to the cemetery. Flowers have been laid on her body. “The procession halts, the coffin is laid on the steps at [Christ’s] feet. He looks with compassion, and His lips softly pronounce the words, ‘Maiden, arise!’ and she arises. The little girl sits up in the coffin and looks round, smiling with wide-open wondering eyes, holding a bunch of white roses they had put in her hand.” This merciful action completed, he is recognized by the Grand Inquisitor, who orders Christ’s arrest.

The white rose is a paschal symbol, a sign of the victory of life over death.
Schmorell-14That Alexander Schmorell would one day be canonized at this cathedral had been evident for years. He is shown among of a row of twenty-two martyrs of the twentieth-century included in an icon that has long been part of the cathedral’s iconostasis. After the Liturgy and the emptying out of the church, I went to look more carefully at that older icon. Schmorell is easily picked out — there he is, in the first row, third from the right, wearing a white robe. What is remarkable is that, within the group, he alone group has no halo, for at the time the icon was painted canonization was only anticipated. In one hand he holds a thin cross, in the other a scroll with these words taken from his last letter to his parents:

“This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary to put me on the right road, and therefore was no misfortune at all…. What did I know until now about belief, about a true and deep belief, about the truth, the last and only truth, about God? Never forget God!!”

One can imagine future icons of Saint Alexander of Munich will often use the same text while other iconographers may decide to use his last words, spoken to his lawyer as he was being taken to the guillotine: “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.”

In a time when fear is being sold every minute of the day, every day of the year — where would the “war on terror” be were we not prisoners of fear? — the pilgrimage to Munich to honor a saint who had freed himself from the tyranny of fear gave me an injection of pure courage.

(report written 9 February 2012)

* * * * *

Extracts from Fr Nikolai Artemoff’s sermon:

Holy New Martyrs are glorified by the Church because, in the particular circumstances of their own times, they bore a clear witness to Christ and in so doing sacrificed their own lives. On July 13, 1943 Alexander Schmorell was executed by means of the guillotine in Munich’s Stadelheim Prison. On Sunday (in Russian, the “day of resurrection”) the 5th of February 2012, he shall take his place among the band of New Martyrs of Russia, to whom this cathedral church is dedicated.

The death of a martyr is always comprised of both the love for Christ as well as, through this love, the exposure of wickedness of evildoers in this world, and therefore also those who pave the way for Satan and his complict servant, the antichrist.

Alexander Schmorell’s favorite book was The Brothers Karamazov, from which the name “White Rose” hails, as a symbol of purity and resurrection (as evidenced in the resurrection of the girl at the appearance of Christ in Seville at the beginning of the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor”). The path of Alexander Schmorell led from religious instruction which he received from priests in Munich, to the contribution of an Orthodox worldview via F.M. Dostoevsky in the catagorical repudiation of both regimes, enemies of man and idols that they have become of the “Fueher”, Hitler, as well as of Stalin, both nationalist and socialist. The “White Rose” considered Nazi rule as anti-Christian, but for Alexander Schmorell, no less anti-Christian was the regime in which his beloved was enslaved — Bolshevism. “I admit to my love of Russia without reservation. Therefore I also stand in opposition to Bolshevism.”

The last flyer of the White Rose primarily authored by Alexander Schmorell (Nr. IV) witnesses to his concept of the spiritual dimensions of this struggle in the name of God and his Son, Christ. He wrote:

“When he [that is, Hitler] blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed. True, we must conduct a struggle against the National Socialist terrorist state with rational means; but whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed by a wide margin to understand the metaphysical background of this war. Behind the concrete, the visible events, behind all objective, logical considerations, we find the irrational element: The struggle against the demon, against the servants of the Antichrist. Everywhere and at all times demons have been lurking in the dark, waiting for the moment when man is weak; when of his own volition he leaves his place in the order of Creation as founded for him by God in freedom; when he yields to the force of evil, separates himself from the powers of a higher order; and after voluntarily taking the first step, he is driven on to the next and the next at a furiously accelerating rate. Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom, who preached the One God and who with His help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course. Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenseless against the principle of evil. He is a like rudderless ship, at the mercy of the storm, an infant without his mother, a cloud dissolving into thin air.

“I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defense? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? […] Though we know that National Socialist power must be broken by military means, we are trying to achieve a renewal from within of the severely wounded German spirit.”

(with thanks to Katja Yurschak for the translation of Fr. Nikolai’s words)

* * *

Hymns sung at the glorification of Saint Alexander of Munich (annual commemoration day July 13):

Troparion, tone 4:

Today a light adorns our glorious city, / having within it your holy relics, O Holy Martyr Alexander; / for which sake pray to Christ God / that He deliver us from all tribulations, / for gathered together in love we celebrate your radiant memory / imitating your bravery, / standing against the godless powers and enemies.

Kontakion, tone 4:

From your mother you did inherit the love of Christ, / and through the love of your care-giver you were nourished in the fear of God, O all-glorious one, / to Whom you did give thyself, O all-honorable Alexander, / and you diligently pray with the angels. / Entreat on behalf of all who honor your memory a forgiveness of their sins.

* * *

A section of the web site of the Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia is devoted to St Alexander Schmorell, with texts both in Russian and German:
http://www.sobor.de/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=79&Itemid=109&lang=de

A biographical essay (“Alexander Schmorell: a Witness in Dark Times”) is here: www.jimandnancyforest.com/2011/02/02/alexander-schmorell-a-witness-in-dark-times/

Russian translation of “Alexander Schmorell: a Witness in Dark Times”: http://www.sobor.de/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=272:alexander-schmorell-a-witness-in-dark-times&catid=79:alexander-schmorell-verherrlichung&Itemid=109&lang=ru

An English translation of Schmorell’s letters from prison:
www.katjasdacha.com/whiterose/alexbriefe_e.html

A set of photos of the canonization:
www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157629206699911/with/6832060277/

A set of photos having to do of the White Rose:
www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157625346459536/with/5161067764/

Wikipedia entry about the White Rose:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_rose

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Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship — www.incommunion.org — and is the author of many books — see: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/books/ . He belongs to St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam and lives in Alkmaar, the Netherlands.

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❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 64 / Spring 2012

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

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

A Pilgrimage to Hell

by Jim Forest

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions….”

–Primo Levi, survivor of Auschwitz, If This is a Man

No one is certain how many died at Auschwitz. Most prisoners were gassed soon after arrival without having been registered, while, for those who were registered, the SS destroyed the bulk of their records before abandoning the camp. But years of research have shown that the figure is not less than 1.1 million people. Even that minimum figure leaves us with a number beyond comprehension. One million plus one hundred thousand. In the summer months, there are perhaps that many leaves on the trees in the park where I take a walk each morning before starting work. I live in a city of one hundred thousand people—thus the number killed equals everyone in this city plus ten more of the same size. But in fact there is no way to envision such a number meaningfully. I cannot take it in.

The way we usually deal with so large a number of human casualties is to focus on just a single face. One face, one story. This is manageable. A single life and death can open a window on a vast crowd.

The most well known face of the Holocaust is Anne Frank, who was fifteen when she and her family arrived at Auschwitz. (From there she was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where she died.) It is consoling to know that her diary has been read or seen enacted in film or on stage by far more people than died in all the Nazi concentration camps combined. Millions have visited her hiding place in Amsterdam. In July 1944, shortly before she and her family were taken away, she wrote in her diary, “I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

Or there is the face of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish scholar who wrote another widely-read diary of life in Amsterdam during the German occupation, in her case lived in the open. Turning down offers to go into hiding, she explained to friends that she wished to share her family’s and her people’s fate. She died at Auschwitz on the last day of November 1943. “They [the Nazis] are out to destroy us completely,” she wrote in her diary. “We must accept that and go on from there…. Very well then … I accept it…. God, take me by Your Hand. I shall follow You faithfully, and not resist too much. I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can. I shall try to spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others, wherever I go…. I know that a new and kinder day will come. I would so much like to live on, if only to express all the love I carry within me. And there is only one way of preparing for the new age, by living it, even now, in our hearts.”

Or it could be the face of Edith Stein, a nun with Jewish roots whose life ended on the 9th of August 1942 in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. She had been born in Poland, had lived in Germany and was in a Dutch Carmelite convent at the time of her arrest. “I told our Lord,” she wrote, “that I knew it was His cross that was now being placed upon the Jewish people; that most of them did not understand this, but that those who did would have to take it up willingly in the name of all. I would do that. At the end of the service, I was certain that I had been heard. But what this carrying of the cross was to consist in, that I did not yet know.”

For me, living in the Dutch city of Alkmaar, there is another way of making an intimate connection. On the 5th of March 1942, 213 Alkmaar Jews—all the local Jews not in hiding—were gathered at our one synagogue and from there transported, via Amsterdam and Westerbork, to Auschwitz. Only a few survived. (Today, after a 69-year recess, the same synagogue has just been restored and reconsecrated.)

So many names, so many stories, so many faces to choose from. More than a million.

It had long been a hope of mine to visit this Golgotha of the modern world. Though far from the only one, Auschwitz provides the most vivid image of the assembly-line production of dead bodies—a factory of absolute nihilism, a revelation of a demonic longing to assassinate God and the divine image in man.

The chance to visit Auschwitz finally came, thanks to an invitation to give a lecture at an interfaith peace conference at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. My topic at the conference was not a theory of dialogue but the story of a rescuer—Mother Maria Skobtsova, now recognized as St. Maria of Paris, who founded a house of hospitality in Paris where many lives were saved before she and her principal collaborators were arrested. Mother Maria’s life ended at Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany on the eve of Easter 1945. I could think of no better way to contribute to an interfaith meeting than to tell the story of a Christian willing to lay down her life for Jews.

I was one of three Orthodox Christians from outside Poland who came to the conference. The other two were Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, from Oxford, and Archimandrite Ignatios Stavropoulos, from a monastery near Nefpaktos in Greece. With us was Father Vladimir Misijuk, an Orthodox priest who has translated several of Metropolitan Kallistos’ books into Polish, and Dr. Pawel Wroblewski, one of the prime movers behind the peace conference in Wroclaw.

The day after the conference ended, we traveled together to the camp, now the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

The local weather seemed to be in mourning—chilly, gray, on the edge of foggy. The area for miles and miles around Auschwitz is flat and thinly populated. The town near the camp, Oswiecim, is almost entirely of post-war construction—the population had been removed by the Germans before construction of the concentration camp was started so that there would to be no local witnesses.

Standing near the only surviving crematorium, our delegation was met by a historian on the museum staff, Teresa Wontor-Cichy, who led us under the camp’s notorious Arbeit Macht Frei sign—Labor Brings Freedom. It was here that the famous Auschwitz inmate orchestra played as columns of famished prisoners marched in and out twice a day to their places of labor. The music, Teresa told us, made it easier for the guards to count.

I had imagined Auschwitz-Birkenau as one inter-connected camp, but soon learned that Auschwitz served as the nucleus for more than forty other camps, with nearby Birkenau the point of delivery for the daily trainloads of prisoners, mainly Jews but also Christians, gypsies, homosexuals, and political opponents of the Nazis.

In Auschwitz itself, nearly all the buildings had been constructed of brick. It could pass for a solidly-built military post. It would not have been hard to convince a naive visitor, so long as he didn’t look behind the wrong doors, that the conditions of life at Auschwitz weren’t so bad. Why, there was even an orchestra! On the other hand, were a visitor to be taken inside the buildings, he would have soon discovered that there are hells in this world worse than any hell he might imagine in the next. For example, there was Block 10—the domain of Nazi doctors carrying out the most vile medical experiments. One of the physicians, Josef Mengele, became known as the “Angel of Death.” Block 11 served as a “prison within the prison.” A small court operated here at which many were sentenced to death. The basement cells were for those deprived of all food and water. Among ten men sent to die in one such cell, now marked by a tall Paschal candle, was Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to take the place of a young husband and father. Kolbe was the last to die, enduring two weeks of starvation, thirst, and neglect. He has since been canonized by the Catholic Church.

We stopped for a time in the yard between Blocks 10 and 11. This had been used as a place of summary execution for those convicted of breaking camp rules. Even a baseless accusation could mean death before a firing squad. Here Metropolitan Kallistos led us in a prayer, long silences between each phrase, both for those who died here and for the guards who had caused so much suffering. We prayed with the awareness that, while the Nazis themselves despised Christianity, centuries of Christian anti-Semitism had helped create an environment of contempt and hatred without which the Shoah would have been impossible.

The charts, maps, and photos we saw in the various buildings we passed through effectively told the story of the creation and uses of Auschwitz and its surrounding network of camps, but what made the deepest impression were the many items the SS had failed to destroy as, the Red Army fast approaching, they made their hurried retreat in January 1945. We passed through room after room containing the mute evidence of people who, after stripping naked for a delousing shower (so they were told), were gassed by the hundreds at a time—all children younger than fifteen, their mothers, the elderly, those judged unfit. Among those condemned on arrival, the lucky ones were those closest to the shower heads—they died immediately—while those further away took upto twenty minutes to breathe their last.

Even as they were dying, their possessions were being carefully sorted. We saw a mountain range of shoes, thousands of reading glasses, the train tickets more affluent passengers had purchased for the privilege of riding to Auschwitz first or second class instead of traveling in freight cars, and countless suitcases bearing names and addresses of the doomed. We saw dense piles of hair that had been cut from the bodies of women after they were removed from the gas chamber. The hair was for use, Teresa told us, as a commercial component in making textiles. Finally we saw empty canisters of Zyklon B, the substance from which the lethal cyanide gas was released.

Our final stop in the original Auschwitz was the camp’s one surviving place of gassing and body burning. It had escaped destruction because, when much larger gas chambers and crematoria were built at Birkenau, this smaller building had been converted into a bomb shelter. The adjacent crematorium, with its tall square chimney and just two ovens, was also left intact.

Birkenau, about a mile away, didn’t bother with brick structures for housing its captives. It was a gridiron of quickly-erected wooden barracks filling a vast area, barrack after barrack as far as the eye could see. Though a small number of barracks survive, in most cases only the foundations remain. The one brick building left standing is at the entrance to Birkenau, a one-storey structure crowned with an observation tower in the center under which prisoner-bearing freight trains arrived from every part of Europe. A few hundred yards beyond the station, truly the end of the line, was the area where an SS doctor presided over the selection process. Some were judged healthy enough to work—a slow death-sentence for all but a few—while the rest were led away to the nearby gas chamber. About 75 percent were killed on arrival.

Auschwitz barrack interior

We visited two barracks, one of them still containing the deep, wooden bunks on which inmates—up to a thousand per barrack—were stored at night like cigarettes in a carton. The shed-like structure provided almost no defense against the elements.

Walking from place to place in the two camps, I felt as if I had turned to wood. Words failed me—indeed my emotions failed me, and they still do. It’s not possible to respond in word or sentiment in an adequate way to evil of such magnitude. The awful images are inerasable. Having been there in the flesh, the events that happened in this rural corner of Poland are forever real to me. Any pilgrim to Auschwitz is brought closer to the mainly anonymous people who died here.

One thought kept running through my mind. This human-made hell could never have existed without fear and obedience. Those who ran the camps, from the commandants to the lowest ranking soldier, knew they would themselves be killed if they failed to obey orders. While no doubt some of the staff were already psychopaths, most of those who were assigned here were, at least at the start, ordinary people, probably relieved that they hadn’t been sent into combat.

Adolf Eichmann, the chief bureaucrat of the Holocaust, claimed that he had no ill feeling against Jews. He did what he did because it was his assigned duty. He was “just following orders.” We have heard the same justifications from everyone involved in all concentration camps: “I was just following orders.” The same was true of those who created and staffed the Gulag Archipelago or who dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or who firebombed Tokyo or Dresden or Coventry or London. It remains true of those today whose daily work involves killing. Only psychopaths want to kill. The rest of us are “just following orders,” whether because of a sense of duty or driven by fear of what the consequences would if we dared to say no.

In his Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann, Thomas Merton reflected on the fact that psychiatrists testifying at Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem found Eichmann perfectly sane. “The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless,” Merton commented. “A man can be ‘sane’ in the limited sense that he is not impeded by disordered emotions from acting in a cool, orderly manner, according to the needs and dictates of the social situation in which he finds himself. He can be perfectly ‘adjusted.’ God knows, perhaps such people can be perfectly adjusted even in hell itself. And so I ask myself: what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as one’s own?”

Perhaps sanity has come to mean merely the capacity to live successfully in a toxic society and follow orders. Following orders is made easier by propaganda—slogans inciting fear and hatred, slogans to kill by. For everyone involved wants to believe the murderous work he or she is doing serves, at least eventually, some larger good.

Underneath such adaptation is fear—fear of punishment, fear of exclusion, fear of death. Thus we conclude that it’s better to remain alive by becoming a murderer than to die without the stain of innocent blood on our hands.

During the visit to Auschwitz, I kept thinking of Easter and the resurrection of the crucified Christ from his tomb, an event which, for Christians at least, ought to equip us not to fear death and no longer to be prisoners of hell. But how rare are the Paschal people—and how numerous those who obey orders no matter how deadly the consequences.

Leaving Auschwitz, I remembered the words of one of its victims, Etty Hillesum: “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty, to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.” IC

Photos of the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum can be viewed at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157628042735399/with/6437478257/

Enlarge Photos

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012

Who of These Is Not Like The Others? by Alex Patico

by Alex Patico

The Traveler

He wonders, what did I do wrong? Should I have realized that this was a risky time, what with all the threats coming out of Tehran and Washington? Should I have postponed my trip, even though my aunt in Isfahan is not getting any younger and may not be around much longer? Was there something wrong in the way I answered their questions in the windowless side-room at Imam Khomeini Airport? Would it have been any different had I flown into Mehrabad? A thousand questions in order to avoid asking the only important question: Will I make it home alive?

The Interrogator

He does not like this job, but it is a job. Most of the young men in his family are unemployed, even the ones with university degrees. It could be worse; he could be one of the guys who work in the back end of Evin Prison, the ones who can use (in fact, who are encouraged to use) any technique they can think up—just like in the old days under the Shah. But still, his job is boring and tedious. The “right” answers rarely come, nor are they necessarily required, if the bosses decide to proceed with a prosecution. At least he is serving the Revolution, which seems to be getting off-track lately.

The Motorcyclist

He throttles down, partly to avoid having his wheels catch the edge of the joob (an open drainage ditch bedside the roadway, sometimes five feet deep), partly so as not to alert their target. He approaches the car, parked beside an apartment building in North Tehran. His companion readies the device so that it can be affixed to the car’s side panel, just behind the driver’s side door, and they can roar away before anyone in the car or on the street has time to react. They will be out of blast range at the crucial moment, ideally with no one having gotten a good look at them.

The Scientist

He thinks about the meetings he has scheduled for the afternoon, about going home to have lunch with his wife. He will change out of his office trousers and into comfortable, pajama-bottom-like shalvor while she brings his tea—served in a small glass, accompanied by the irregular lumps of sugar called qand. He will place the qand behind his teeth and sip the hot, flavorful tea through it. They will talk about the children, how they’re doing in school. He hears a slight “click” on the side of the car, before he hears nothing…ever again.

The Marine

He feels oddly ecstatic, though he’s not sure whether it is their victory in the skirmish, or just the fact that he’s alive, when he didn’t necessarily expect to be. Though buoyed by the “win,” he’s also still jittery, hopped up on battle adrenalin. And there is the bitter rage that bubbled up inside him when he saw his bunkmate get it in the head, not eight feet from where he was crouched. Taking a leak has always been “the pause that refreshes” but it never felt as good as this. Take that, he murmurs, as a crooked smile splits his face.

The Talib

He looks down on his now-useless earthly body, which he had put so much effort into building up. Now, he is beyond being surprised by anything that human beings might do. Still, it doesn’t feel right, to see the khareji, the foreigners, desecrating the body that Allah had given him to use. He wonders whether his family members will see the pictures the other young man is taking. He muses about what his brothers in Islam will do when they see it. They will take offense, he knows. They may be energized by this new insult to our honor. It may lead to more killing.

Comprehension Quiz

Which of these is a child of God?

0 The Traveler

0 The Interrogator

0 The Motorcylist

0 The Scientist

0 The Marine

0 The Talib

0 All of the above

From the blog, Red Horse Down. Visit Alex’s blog and read his thoughts on Iran. Alex was a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran in the sixties and since then has kept abreast of events in Iran even as he maintains relationships with Iranians and Iranian-Americans. www.redhorsedown.blogspot.com

 

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012

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

by Met. 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 BlakeThe stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naïve forgive and forget; the wise forgivebut do not forget.—Thomas Szasz

HE IS FREE because he forgives. In the book by Kevin Andrews, The Flight ofIkaros, there is a story that sums up the essence of forgiveness. Andrewswas studying medieval fortresses in Greece. The year was 1949. He wastraveling through a land devastated by the German occupation during the SecondWorld War and cruelly divided by the post-war struggle between Communists andanti-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 beenburned 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 theResistance during the German occupation. But, some villagers betrayed their hidingplace: They were captured and never seen again. About the same time, his wife diedfrom starvation. After the Germans had left, Papastavros was living alone with oneof his married daughters and her baby son. She was expecting her second child in afew weeks. One day he returned home to find his house in flames, set on fire byCommunist partisans. “I was in time,” he recounted to Andrews, “to see them dragmy daughter out and kill her; they shot all their bullets into her stomach. Then theykilled the little boy in front of me.”

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

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

Two phrases stand out in this account: “There exists no other way,” and “He is freebecause he forgives.” There exists no other way. Certain human situations are socomplex and intractable, so fraught with anguish, that there exists only one way outbut to forgive. Retaliation makes the problem worse, as Mahatma Gandhi observed, “An eye for an eye leavesthe whole world blind.” Solely through forgiveness can we break the chain of mutualreprisal and self-destroying bitterness. Without forgiveness, there can be no hopeof a fresh start. So Papastavros found, faced by the tragedies of enemy occupationand civil war. Surely his words apply also to many other situations of conflict, notleast in the Holy Land.

He is free because he forgives. In the words of the Russian Orthodox starets StSilouan 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—thenwe shall find ourselves in what the Psalms call a “spacious place” or “a place ofliberty”: “We went through fire and water, but Thou broughtest us out into a placeof liberty” (Psalm 66:12). Forgiveness means release from a prison in which all thedoors are locked on the inside. Only through forgiveness can we enter into what StPaul 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 quoteanother Russian Orthodox witness, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (1914-2003),“Forgiveness is not a little brook on the boundary between slavery and freedom: Ithas 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 itto the point of shedding your blood.” The same can be said of forgiveness. Sometimesthe struggle to forgive is indeed nothing less than an inner martyrdom, to the pointof shedding our blood.

FORGIVENESS SUNDAY IN the Orthodox Church: How shall we set out in ourexodus across the “Red Sea” of forgiveness? Let us consider first the way inwhich the Orthodox Church offers to its members an annual opportunity tomake a fresh start on what is known as “The Sunday of Forgiveness.” This will leadus 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 aphimi used in the Lord’s Prayerfor forgive, “let go”? Does this mean that to forgive is to condone, or at any rate toforget? 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 forgivenessclause of the Lord’s Prayer: “…as we forgive.” Why should the scope of God’sforgiveness be seemingly restricted by my own willingness to forgive? We shall endwith 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 atPascha. The human animal, it has been said, is not only an animal that thinks, ananimal that laughs and weeps, but much more profoundly an animal that expressesitself through symbolic actions. With good reason, then, the Orthodox Church affordsits 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 isMatthew 6:14-21, beginning with Christ’s words, “If you forgive others theirtrespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgiveothers, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Then in the evening, atthe end of Vespers, there comes a ceremony of mutual pardon. Usually the priest gives a homily, concluding with anappeal to his flock to forgive him for all his mistakes and shortcomings in the pastyear. Then he comes down the sanctuary steps to the floor of the nave where thepeople are standing, for there can be no genuinely mutual forgiveness unless I putmyself 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 “MayGod 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 theyexchange the same words, “Forgive me….God will forgive.” Then, having first kneltbefore the priest, the members of the congregation go around the church kneelingbefore 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 clutteredup 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 ourwill. It is a decision, which then requires to be given practical effect. There is alsothe opposite danger that some worshippers, growing accustomed to this ceremonyyear 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 emotionalismand formalism, it remains true that for very many Orthodox Christians, this annualservice 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 andagain 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. Letus not underestimate the power of ritual. Even if there are times when it becomesossified, on other occasions it can and does act as a potent catalyst, enabling us togive expression to what would otherwise remain unacknowledged and repressed.Those too hesitant or embarrassed to call at one another’s homes and embark on alengthy verbal explanation can make a new beginning within the framework of sharedprayer. The Vespers of Forgiveness serves in this way as a genuine breakthrough, thesudden vision of a fresh landscape.

The burden of unhappy memories means, not surprisingly, that the Vespers ofForgiveness is somewhat subdued and somber. We cry out in sorrow, “Turn not awayThy face from Thy servant, for I am in trouble. Hear me speedily, hearken unto mysoul 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.” Asthe mutual pardon is being exchanged between priest and people, in many churchesthe choir sings the Resurrection hymns that will be used seven weeks later at Paschalmidnight—to forgive is to rise again from the dead. St John Climacus, abbot of MountSinai in the seventh century—whose book The Ladder of Divine Ascent is speciallyappointed for reading in Lent—has a phrase that exactly describes the spirit of theVespers of Forgiveness: charopoion penthos, meaning “mourning that causes gladness”or “joy-creating sorrow.”

Sometimes people have told me that they find the phrase commonly used at theservice, “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 assurethem that they are forgiven by God, for they already know that. What is required isthat we should forgive them. This, however, is to overlook an essential point.Forgiveness is first and foremost a divine act, for “Who can forgive sins but Godalone?” (Mark 2:7). If, then, I am to forgive someone else, and the other person is toforgive me, in the last resort this is possible only in so far as we are both of us inGod. More specifically, we are able to forgive each other solely because we are bothof us already forgiven by God. Our forgiveness is rooted in His, and is impossiblewithout it, for “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Since, therefore, forgiveness is not primarily our human action but a divine actionin which we humans participate, it is vitally important that in the process of mutualforgiveness, we should allow space for God to operate. At the beginning of theEucharistic service in the Orthodox Church, the Divine Liturgy, the deacon says to thepriest, “It is time for the Lord to act” (see Psalm 119:126), thereby affirming that thetrue celebrant at the Holy Mysteries is not the priest but Christ Himself. The phraseapplies equally to our mutual forgiveness. Here, too, it needs to be said, “It is timefor the Lord to act.” Our attempts at reconciliation often fail precisely because we relytoo 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 thespirit in which we reply at the Vespers of Forgiveness, “God will forgive.”

(This was the first part of a three part series. The next two parts will appear inin the next two issues. We are seeking permission to print the whole article as a booklet,which we will produce after the third part is published. The entire essay was presented as apaper by Met. Kallistos at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship Study Day in Amsterdam last year.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 Honor of Andrew Louth. Thebook was published by Brepols Publishers in August, 2011.)


❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 62 / October 2011

 

Interview with Jim Forest – Work Hard, Pray Hard. by US Catholic Magazine

By editors of US Catholic Magazine

Few have written authoritative biographies of the 20th-century spiritual giants Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, and Thomas Merton, the celebrated Trappist monk and writer. Fewer still knew them both. But Jim Forest, a former Catholic Worker himself, did, and his unique insight reveals the human side of two figures many Catholics revere as saints, if as yet uncanonized.

Why the interest in these two people, both dead for decades? “Merton is just a perennial, like certain plants that refuse to stop blooming no matter how many years pass,” says Forest of the monk, who died in 1968, but whose writings are still not all published. “There’s a new book by him coming out every year or two.” As for Day, with whom Forest lived as a member of her staff, “Her canonization proceedings have gradually made people more and more curious: Who is this Dorothy Day?”
The close friendship between Day and Merton, rooted in their common commitment to nonviolence and the works of mercy, is a fact known to few of their admirers. At heart, they shared a desire to restore to the church its early refusal of violence for any reason.

“If you were to be baptized in the early centuries, you had to make a commitment not to kill anybody, period,” says Forest. “How did we lose that? Merton and Dorothy were two of the people in the 20th century who helped to unpack those boxes that had been pushed up into the attic.

”Dorothy Day lived in New York City among the poor, and Thomas Merton was a monk in rural Kentucky. How did you come to know them both?

When I first came to the Catholic Worker in 1960, I was still in the Navy. I was 19 years old, working at the U.S. Weather Bureau as a young meteorologist and taking kids to Mass on Sunday from a little institution in Washington where I was volunteering in my spare time. I found copies of Dorothy’s newspaper, The Catholic Worker, in the library at this particular parish, Blessed Sacrament, and became curious about the woman. One weekend I went up from Washington to New York to see what the Catholic Worker was all about.

In New York I was given a bag of mail to take to her in Staten Island. She was sitting there with a letter opener at the end of a table with a half dozen people sitting around. One of the rituals of life, as I discovered, was Dorothy reading the mail aloud to whoever happened to be there and telling stories.

One of the letters was from Thomas Merton, and I was absolutely astounded that Dorothy Day, who was very much “in the world,” was corresponding with Thomas Merton, who had left the world with a resounding slam of the door. Of course, they were both members of the Catholic Church and both writers, but Merton had taken the express train out of New York City for good, and Dorothy lived at its very heart.

Dorothy periodically got arrested; Merton certainly did not. Dorothy was very much under a cloud from the point of view of many Catholics because of her anti-war activities, and Merton was regarded as one of the principal Catholic writers in the world. But if they had been brother and sister they couldn’t have been very much closer.

How would you introduce these two figures to someone who doesn’t know them?I might start with a photo: Dorothy Day between two policemen, awaiting arrest at age 75. It was her last arrest, and you can see that this is a person worth knowing about, somebody who never stopped being disturbed about things that were disturbing, and she did it without hating anybody. She had a gift for seeing injustice and responding without rage but with persistence.

She’s looking at these two policemen like a concerned grandmother of two kids who have their water pistols ready to open fire on grandma—but she’s definitely not in a state of enmity with these two boys and their big guns. In the case of Merton it’s more difficult because monastic life is so removed. The average age of a monk at Merton’s Abbey of Gethsemani now is 70. Today there aren’t a lot of young people thinking of becoming monks, whereas 50 years ago a lot of people were. I remember when I first saw Merton—there were no author photographs on his books, so you had no idea what he looked like—I sort of imagined some skinny person fasting all hours of the day, certainly not a person with a sense of humor. When I actually saw him for the first time in the monastery, he was on the floor with his feet in the air and clutching his tummy, laughing so hard that he was a shade of red.

What was he laughing about?

Merton had invited me to come down to the monastery, and I hitchhiked down because of my economic situation. It was in the middle of winter, 1962, and by the time Bob Wolf, one of my friends at the Catholic Worker, and I arrived, it had been two and a half days of the worst weather I’d ever experienced.

When we finally got to the abbey, we hadn’t had a shower in two and a half days, so we probably had a pretty rich aroma. I had gone into the chapel loft at the monastery to pray, as I was excessively pious in those days. Bob more sensibly had collapsed on his bed in the guest house. Soon I could hear in the distance this funny sound that seemed like laughter but, of course, it couldn’t be laughter because this was a monastery. I followed the noise into Bob’s room, where I found both Merton and Bob laughing. It was, of course, the “Catholic Worker perfume” that had been inhaled by Merton that set him off.

Why was meeting Merton such a big deal to you?

I can only compare it to meeting someone like Oprah Winfrey today. You could not walk into a bookshop in America then without finding Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. For tens of thousands of people, it was a life-changing book. It’s a perennial bestseller, probably the most important religious autobiography that had been written in 200 or 300 years. It was the beginning of a succession of books by Merton, all of which were automatic bestsellers. Most of the people who read it didn’t become monks. But they did discover a kind of monastic place inside themselves where they could live a more coherent spiritual life. They found a core, a center, an anchor of some kind, and it opened their eyes in ways they hadn’t been opened before.

Was Dorothy Day as well known?

No, but on the other hand you could not walk into a Catholic church in America and not run into somebody who knew about the Catholic Worker. There were Catholic Worker houses of hospitality all over the country. The Catholic Worker newspaper was one of the most widely read Catholic publications in the United States with 100,000 copies printed every month. And once you became interested in Day, you were likely to read her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.
How did Merton and Day become friends?

It was a friendship of letters; they never actually met. Their oldest surviving letter is from December 1956, from Dorothy to Merton. She had received the news that he had offered Christmas Mass for her and the Catholic Worker and wanted him to know that “this has made me very happy indeed.” She goes on to say, “We have had a very beautiful Christmas here and quite a sober and serious one, too. There have been occasions in the past when the entire kitchen force got drunk, which made life complicated, but you must have been holding them up this year. Please continue to do so.” You get a sense of the frankness of their exchanges.
The next letter that escaped the vicissitudes of time is also from Dorothy, from June 1959. It’s a reply to a letter from Merton, and she apologizes for not having answered more quickly and also recalls with gratitude the copies of The Seven Storey Mountain he had sent to her way back in 1948. That might have been the beginning, just Merton sending her a box of books. So Merton’s interest in Dorothy goes back at least to 1948.

Why do you think Merton was interested in Day and the Worker?

The big decision for Merton was whether to be part of Catherine Doherty’s Friendship House in Harlem near Columbia, where he was studying, which was like the Catholic Worker, or to go to Gethsemani and become a monk.

Monastic life tilted heavily toward prayer, and ultimately Merton realized there was just something mysterious in him that pulled him toward that vocation. He didn’t feel it was necessarily as high a vocation as the works of mercy, but it was the one that God was calling him to. But that tension was always there, and he had a sense of gratitude that the Catholic Worker existed. Having a relationship with Dorothy allowed him to be a part of the work he hadn’t been led to do. As he wrote to Dorothy in December 1963, “If there were no Catholic Worker and such forms of witness, I would never have joined the Catholic Church.”

How did they influence each other?

I think Merton probably had less influence on Dorothy than she had on him, actually. Merton was trying very hard to write through the church censors— the abbot-general of his order blocked some of his writings about war and peace, for example. But Merton mainly wanted to reach Catholics who were bewildered by the idea of nonviolent, disarmed life, with works of mercy as a core of Christian life. I think he tried harder than Dorothy to communicate with people who didn’t completely share a pacifist view, and she was impatient with him for doing so.

Dorothy was very outspoken: no footnotes, no commentaries, just bang, there it is. Merton would make a great effort to meet people midway, which I think was one of his talents.

Merton’s voice changed all the time depending who he was talking to. If he was talking to a Quaker, he might use Quaker vocabulary. The same if he was talking to a Muslim. He created spaces in which dialogue occurred that might not happen otherwise. Merton had this facility to study and appreciate radically different points of view and somehow integrate them into his style with some people.

Dorothy didn’t have a vocabulary for talking to Buddhists—she was so Catholic. I can remember having to argue Dorothy into publishing articles by Thomas Merton in The Catholic Worker because he wasn’t taking the pacifist position that Dorothy took. Can you imagine having to convince the editor of The Catholic Worker to publish an article by Thomas Merton? Did he influence her in terms of prayer? Dorothy was there already. She wouldn’t have lasted five years at the Catholic Worker if she didn’t pray.

Of all the people I’ve known in my life, including Thomas Merton, I haven’t known anybody with a more disciplined spiritual life than Dorothy Day: Mass every day, rosary every day, confession every week. A community of Benedictine monks sent us prayer booklets for use during the day at the Worker—lauds, vespers, compline. We used them until they were worn out and then they’d send us more.

How was Day’s approach to war and peace different from Merton’s? I can remember going with Dorothy one night when she was speaking at New York University on Washington Square. I was impressed by how much hostility there was from some of the students because of her antiwar stance. The Cold War was very cold, and anybody who was seen as a little short on the patriotic side—which meant an uncritical, enthusiastic support of the military activities of the United States government—came under suspicion. One of the students said, “Well, Ms. Day, you talk about loving enemies, but just what would you do if the Russians were to invade?” Dorothy said, “I would love them the same as I love anybody else that comes here. Jesus has said to love your enemies; that’s what I try to do. I would open my arms and do my best to make them feel welcome.”

It was an absolutely scandalous answer, but it was straight out of the New Testament. It was like a lightning bolt, this shocking simplicity of the gospel. Dorothy knew enough by that time to be able to speak that way without apology or embarrassment.
I suppose the young man who asked that question has never forgotten the answer. He probably will come back to it again and again and move from scandal and shock to maybe even thinking she was onto something. It wasn’t just words. Dorothy was in situations time and time again when she was confronted with people who were dangerous, and she did exactly what she hoped to do. She responded to them in a caring, motherly way. How do you think Merton and Day would respond to today’s wars? Dorothy would be doing the kind of things Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and other peace activists are doing: going to Iraq, going to Afghanistan, meeting with people, helping them, making known through writing and photography what the world is doing to human beings in these situations.

I saw a picture on a poster in Milwaukee a couple of days ago that peace activists use at a weekly vigil on the Marquette campus. It is an American soldier—helmet, battle fatigues, gun at his side—holding the dead body of a child, the soldier obviously weeping. That’s the kind of imagery we’re not seeing on the front page of any newspapers in America, but that’s the reality of war, and Dorothy would be encouraging young people to bring it out.

One of the things Merton stressed that we’re missing in our discussions of war is what he called the human dimension. We have to try to bring the face of suffering people to the fore and see what we can do to make that suffering happen less often, with less dreadful consequences. You’ve talked about Thomas Merton’s sense of humor. What about Dorothy Day? Was she ever funny?
One of my favorite stories of Dorothy was the moment when a quite well-dressed woman came in to the Worker. She took a diamond ring from her finger and handed it to Dorothy. Why she was moved to do that, I have no idea. Dorothy thanked her politely with no more fuss than she would if the woman had brought a dozen eggs.

A little while later a woman that we didn’t particularly enjoy seeing showed up. I think her name was Catherine, but we called her “the weasel.” She was, as far as we could tell, genetically incapable of saying thank you. Dorothy reached into her pocket and said, “I have something for you”—and gave her the diamond ring.

I don’t know if it was me or somebody else who went to Dorothy afterward and said, “You know, Dorothy, I could have taken that ring up to West 47th Street to the Diamond Exchange, and we could have paid her rent for years to come.” She responded, “Well, if she wants to sell the ring and go to the Bahamas, she can do so. But she might also like to just wear the ring. Do you think God made diamonds just for the rich?”

Despite their differences, how are Day and Merton most similar? You would think that they wouldn’t have much in common, but the more you look the more you see how much they complement each other.

I think they both represent a radical search for a deeply rooted spiritual life that is not separate from the world. We always hear the commandment, “Love God, and love your neighbor,” but one or the other usually takes priority. Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day were both remarkably successful in finding that balance point in terms of their own unique identities. The balance is slightly different, but the scales are very similar, which makes them convincing to us today, each in their own way. USC

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 62 / October 2011

The Challenge of a 20th Century Saint, Maria Skobtsova

by Jim Forest

Mother Maria Skobtsova
Mother Maria Skobtsova

Mother Maria Skobtsova — now recognized as Saint Maria of Paris — died in a German concentration camp on the 30th of March 1945. Although perishing in a gas chamber, Mother Maria did not perish in the Church’s memory. Those who had known her would again and again draw attention to the ideas, insights and activities of the heroic nun who had spent so many years of her life assisting people in desperate need. Soon after the war ended, essays and books about her began appearing in French, Russian and English. A Russian film, “Mother Maria,” was made in 1982. Her canonization was celebrated in May 2004 at the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky in Paris. Among those present at the event was Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris and Jewish by birth, who subsequently placed St. Maria on the calendar of the Catholic Church in France. One wonders if there are any other saints of post-Schism Christianity who are on both the Catholic and Orthodox calendars?

We have no time today for a detailed account of her life. I will only point out that she was born in Riga in 1891 and grew up on a family estate along the Black Sea. Her father’s death when she was fourteen was a devastating event that for a time led her to atheism, but gradually she found her way back to the Orthodox faith. As a young woman, she was the first female student at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. In the same period she witnessed the Bolshevik coup and the civil war that followed. Like so many Russians, she fled for her life, finally reaching Paris, where she was among those who devoted themselves to serving fellow refugees, many of whom were now living in a state of destitution even worse than her own. At that time, she worked with the Student Christian Movement.

The tragic death in 1926 of one her daughters, Anastasia, precipitated a decision that brought her to a still deeper level of self-giving love. In 1932, following the collapse of her marriage, her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy, encouraged her to become a nun, but a nun with an exceptional vocation. Metropolitan Evlogy blessed her to develop a new type of monasticism — a “monasticism in the world” — that centered on diaconal service within the city rather than on quiet withdrawal in a rural context.

In a time of massive social disruption, Mother Maria declared, it was better to offer a monastic witness which opens its gates to desperate people and in so doing to participate in Christ’s self-abasement. “Everyone is always faced … with the necessity of choosing between the comfort and warmth of an earthly home, well protected from winds and storms, and the limitless expanse of eternity, which contains only one sure and certain item … the Cross.”

It was clear to her that it was not only Russia which was being torn to shreds. “There are times,” she wrote, “when all that has been said cannot be made obvious and clear since the atmosphere around us is a pagan one and we are tempted by its idolatrous charms. But our times are firmly in tune with Christianity in that suffering is part of their nature. They demolish and destroy in our hearts all that is stable, mature, hallowed by the ages and treasured by us. They help us genuinely and utterly to accept the vows of poverty, to seek no rule, but rather anarchy, the anarchic life of Fools for Christ’s sake, seeking no monastic enclosure, but the complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.”

She saw that there were two ways to live. The first was on dry land, a legitimate and respectable place to be, where one could measure, weigh and plan ahead. The second was to walk on the waters where “it becomes impossible to measure or plan ahead. The one thing necessary is to believe all the time. If you doubt for an instant, you begin to sink.”

The water she decided to walk upon was a vocation of hospitality. With financial support from Metropolitan Evlogy, in December 1932 she signed a lease for her first house of hospitality, a place of welcome and assistance to people in desperate need, mainly young Russian women. The first night she slept on the floor beneath the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. A small community of co-workers began to form. To make room for others, Mother Maria gave up her own room and instead slept on an iron bedstead in the basement by the boiler. A room upstairs became a chapel.

The first house having become too small, in 1934 the community relocated to a three-storey house at 77 rue de Lourmel in an area of Paris where many impoverished Russian refugees had settled. Now, instead of 25 people, the community could feed a hundred. Stables in back became a small church.

The vocation of hospitality is much more than the provision of food, clothing and a place to sleep. In its depths, it is a contemplative vocation. It is the constant search for the face of Christ in the stranger. “If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person,” she reflected, “he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery …. He comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world, with a reflection of the mystery of God’s incarnation and divine manhood. And he needs to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God in his brother. Only when he senses, perceives and understands it will yet another mystery be revealed to him — one that will demand his most dedicated efforts…. He will perceive that the divine image is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil…. And he will want to engage in battle with the devil for the sake of the divine image.”

By 1937, there were several dozen women guests at 77 rue de Lourmel. Up to 120 dinners were served each day. Other buildings were rented, one for families in need, another for single men. A rural property became a sanatorium.

From a financial point of view, it was a very insecure life, but somehow the work survived and grew. Mother Maria would sometimes recall the Russian story of the ruble that could never be spent. Each time it was used, the change given back proved to equal a ruble. It was exactly this way with love, she said: No matter how much love you give, you never have less. In fact you discover you have more — one ruble becomes two, two becomes ten.

Mother Maria’s day typically began with a journey to Les Halles to beg food or buy cheaply whatever was not donated. The cigarette-smoking beggar nun became well known among the stalls. She would later return with a sack of bones, fish and overripe fruit and vegetables.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh provides an impression of what Mother Maria was like in those days: “She was a very unusual nun in her behavior and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time. I was walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse. In front of a café, there was a table, on the table was a glass of beer, and behind the glass was sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. I was young then and held extreme views.”

Mother Maria felt sustained by the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount: “Not only do we know the Beatitudes, but at this hour, this very minute, surrounded though we are by a dismal and despairing world, we already savor the blessedness they promise.”

Life in community was not easy. Conflicting views about the relative importance of liturgical life were at times a source of tension. Mother Maria was the one most often absent from services or the one who would withdraw early, or arrive late, because of the pressing needs of hospitality. “Piety, piety,” she wrote in her journal, “but where is the love that moves mountains?”

Mother Maria saw blessings where others only saw disaster. “In the past religious freedom was trampled down by forces external to Christianity,” she wrote. “In Russia we can say that any regime whatsoever will build concentration camps as its response to religious freedom.” She considered exile in the west a heaven-sent opportunity to renew the Church in ways that would have met repression within her mother country.

For her, exile was an opportunity “to liberate the real and authentic” from layers of decoration and dust in which Christ had become hidden. It was similar to the opportunity given to the first Christians. “We must not allow Christ,” she said, “to be overshadowed by any regulations, any customs, any traditions, any aesthetic considerations, or even any piety.”

Russians have not been last among those enamored with theories, but for Mother Maria, all theories had to take second place. “We have not gathered together for the theoretical study of social problems in the spirit of Orthodoxy,” she wrote, “[but] to link our social thought as closely as possible with life and work. More precisely, we proceed from our work and seek the fullest possible theological interpretation of it.”

While many valued what she and her co-workers were doing, there were others who were scandalized with the shabby nun who was so uncompromising in her hospitality that she might leave a church service to answer the door bell. “For many in church circles we are too far to the left,” she noted, “while for the left we are too church-minded.”

In October 1939, Metropolitan Evlogy send a priest to rue de Lourmel: Father Dimitri Klépinin, then 35 years old. A man of few words and great modesty, Fr. Dimitri proved to be a real partner for Mother Maria.

The last phase of Mother Maria’s life was a series of responses to World War II and Germany’s occupation of France.

Her basic choice was the decision to stay. It would have been possible for her to leave Paris when the Germans were advancing, or even to leave the country to go to America, but she would not budge. “If the Germans take Paris, I shall stay here with my old women. Where else could I send them?”

She had no illusions about Nazism. It represented a “new paganism” bringing in its wake disasters, upheavals, persecutions and wars. It was evil unveiled, the “contaminator of all springs and wells.” The so-called “master race” was “led by a madman who needs a straightjacket and should be placed in a cork-lined room so that his bestial wailing will not disturb the world at large.”

Paris fell on the 14th of June. With defeat came greater poverty and hunger for many people. Local authorities in Paris declared the house at rue de Lourmel an official food distribution point.

Paris was now a prison. “There is the dry clatter of iron, steel and brass,” wrote Mother Maria. “Order is all.” Russian refugees were among the high-priority targets of the occupiers. In June 1941, a thousand were arrested, including several close friends of Mother Maria and Fr. Dimitri. An aid project for prisoners and their dependents was soon launched by Mother Maria.

Early in 1942, with Jewish registration underway, Jews began to knock on the door at rue de Lourmel asking Fr. Dimitri if he would issue baptismal certificates to them. The answer was always yes. The names of those “baptized” were also duly recorded in his parish register in case there was any cross-checking by the police or Gestapo, as indeed did happen. Fr. Dimitri was convinced that in such a situation Christ would do the same.

In March 1942, the order came from Berlin that a yellow star must be worn by Jews in all the occupied countries. The order came into force in France in June. There were, of course, Christians who said that the law being imposed had nothing to do with Christians and that therefore this was not a Christian problem. “There is not only a Jewish question, but a Christian question,” Mother Maria replied. “Don’t you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the star. The age of confessors has arrived.”

In July, Jews were forbidden access to nearly all public places. Shopping by Jews was restricted to an hour per day. A week later, there was a mass arrest of Jews — 12,884, of whom 6,900 (two-thirds of them children) were brought to a sports stadium just a kilometer from rue de Lourmel. Held there for five days, the captives in the stadium received water only from a single hydrant. From there the captives were to be sent to Auschwitz.

Mother Maria had often thought her monastic robe a God-send in aiding her work. Now it opened the way for her to enter the stadium. Here she worked for three days trying to comfort the children and their parents, distributing what food she could bring in, even managing to rescue a number of children by enlisting the aid of garbage collectors and smuggling them out in trash bins.

The house at rue de Lourmel was bursting with people, many of them Jews. “It is amazing,” Mother Maria remarked, “that the Germans haven’t pounced on us yet.” In the same period, she said if anyone came looking for Jews, she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.

Fr. Dimitri, Mother Maria and their co-workers set up routes of escape to the unoccupied south. It was complex and dangerous work. Forged documents had to be obtained. An escaped Russian prisoner of war was also among those assisted, working for a time in the Lourmel kitchen. In turn, a local resistance group helped secure provisions for those Mother Maria’s community was struggling to feed.

In February 1943 Mother Maria, her son Yuri, Fr. Dimitri and their collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky were arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the camp at Compiegne.

In December, Yuri and Fr. Dimitri were deported to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany and from there to Dora, 40 kilometers away. On the 6th of February, Yuri was “dispatched for treatment” — a euphemism for being sentenced to death. Four days later Fr. Dimitri, lying on a dirt floor, died of pneumonia. His final action was to make the sign of the Cross. His body was disposed of in the Buchenwald crematorium.

Mother Maria was sent to Ravensbrück in Germany, where she endured for two years, an achievement in part explained by her long experience of ascetic life. “She was never downcast, never,” a fellow prisoner recalled. “She never complained…. She was on good terms with everyone. Anyone in the block, no matter who it was, knew her on equal terms. She was the kind of person who made no distinction between people [whether they] held extremely progressive political views [or had] religious beliefs radically different than her own. She allowed nothing of secondary importance to impede her contact with people.”

By March 1945, Mother Maria’s condition was critical. She had to lie down between roll calls and hardly spoke. Her face, a fellow prisoner Jacqueline Pery recalled, “revealed intense inner suffering. Already it bore the marks of death. Nevertheless Mother Maria made no complaint. She kept her eyes closed and seemed to be in a state of continual prayer. This was, I think, her Garden of Gethsemani.”

She died on Holy Saturday. The shellfire of the approaching Red Army could be heard in the distance. We are not certain of the details of her last day. According to one account, she was simply among the many selected for death that day. According to another, she took the place of another prisoner, a Jew. Jacqueline Pery wrote afterward: “It is very possible that [Mother Maria] took the place of a frantic companion. It would have been entirely in keeping with her generous life. In any case she offered herself consciously to the holocaust … thus assisting each one of us to accept the Cross…. She radiated the peace of God and communicated it to us.”

We now know Mother Maria as St. Maria of Paris. Her commemoration occurs on July 20.

Every saint poses a challenge, but Mother Maria is perhaps among the most challenging saints. Her life is a passionate objection to any form of Christianity that seeks Christ chiefly inside church buildings. Still more profoundly, she challenges each of us to a life of a deeper, more radical hospitality, a hospitality that includes not only those who share our faith and language but those whom we regard as “the other,” people in whom we resist recognizing the face of Christ.

Mother Maria was certain that there was no other path to heaven than participating in God’s mercy. “The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need…. I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”

We can sum up Mother Maria’s credo in just a few words: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.”

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A more detailed account of the life of St. Maria of Pais is posted at:

http://www.incommunion.org/2004/10/18/saint-of-the-open-door/

A collection of links about her, and those who worked with her, is in this section of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site:

http://www.incommunion.org/st-maria-skobtsova-resources/

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Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship . He is also the author of numerous books, including “Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue,” and wrote the introduction to “Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings” (Orbis Books, 2003).

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Jim Forest
www.jimandnancyforest.com

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date: November 8, 2011