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

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