by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware 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