Lessons Learned from a Protestant Minister

This summer, after a life of relative ignorance, my personal weakness towards the passion of anger came painfully close to the surface. At the recommendation of a respected friend, I started reading two books by Hannah Hurnard, a Protestant missionary living in Israel in the previous century, who, during the course of her life, became purified and wholly radiant with Christ’s light. In her two books Thou Shalt Remember and The Kingdom of Love, she describes all the steps which led her away from bondage to fear: her stutter, her tendency to judge, her irritational character, etc. Though there are many things from her books that I would like to take to heart and practice, there are two particular lessons that I would like to share with you today: the secret to forgiveness, and creative love thinking, which I would like to call “seeing the other as transfigured.” 

Painting of the Song of Songs by Ana Lackner-Popadić

Hurnard describes how, in her work as a missionary, no matter how hard she tried, she could not get over her occasional feelings of resentment. She knew that as a Christian, she was called to “forgive and forget,” but, for some reason she just could not. There was something blocking her towards this path of Christian virtue. Now, before I continue, I remember a priest once telling me that “we Orthodox” forgive but that we are not called to forget. The memory stays with us, but we let go of our resentment. However, released from all anger, the memory no longer has the same power over us. We no longer go over the event again and again in our minds. Instead, it simply becomes a memory of something that happened. Neutral, without pain. 

Nevertheless, this is exactly what Hurnard could not get her head (or rather: her heart) around. So, as she used to do – and this is a beautiful Protestant practice that the Orthodox sometimes have forgotten – she simply asked the Lord to help her with learning how to forgive. And the Lord gave her an answer. 

The secret to forgiveness

In her autobiography Thou Shalt Remember, Hurnard describes how one night, still in Jerusalem, she heard a knock on her door. Hurnard opened and suddenly a woman stood in front of her, someone she had never seen before. The woman mysteriously smiled and told our Hannah how God had summoned her to Hurnard’s door to tell her the secret to forgiveness. The road to Christian virtue was announced to Hurnard by a messenger (lit. angellos in Greek), just as the beginning of our salvation was proclaimed to the Theotokos by the archangel Gabriel. Though a bit long, the strange woman’s message is worth quoting in full:

She said, “I will tell you the secret of how to forgive and forget. As long as you talk about this thing and discuss it with others, just so long will you never get free from it. But if you will take this wrong done to you to the cross of our Lord, and confess it to him exactly as though it was a wrong done against himself, and ask him to forgive it completely and to forget it, just as you ask him to forgive and forget our own sins against him, and if you will leave it there at the cross and promise him never to touch it again, namely, that you will never speak of it to anyone else, but act as though the wrong had never been committed at all, and if you refuse to listen to anyone who mentions it, you will go free and forget it altogether.

Thus the key to forgiveness is to “take it to the cross, and leave it there, and promise never to touch it again.” What struck me in this quote was the “as though” in the “as though it was a wrong done against himself.” We know from the reading of the Sunday of the Last Judgment, one of the Sundays before Lent, that everything we do to “the least of them” we do unto Christ (Matt 25:45). But I have never thought about the implication of this saying, that everything that is done to us is also done unto Christ. When we are hurt or in pain, the deeper reality is that our “enemy” is hurting Christ. When we bring our pain and grief to the cross, through this practice recommended by the strange woman, we acknowledge the deeper reality of what has happened, and with that we are able to let go. 

The second thing I would like to highlight in this quote is the phrase “just as you ask him to forgive and forget our own sins against him.” This is something I, and perhaps you, tend to forget whenever we are hurt and in pain. Usually when we resent someone for the distress they have caused us, our anger becomes so big that we no longer see the reality of our own tendency to distress and hurt others. Perhaps we might be prone to rehash the event in our head, trying to find a better way to win the argument. Perhaps we are tempted to tell everybody within listening distance about the horrible things our enemy has done to us. Or perhaps we might simply find ourselves stuck in resentment with no way of letting go. In either of these cases, the “demon of anger” has taken over and we no longer see clearly the reality of our own sins. Bringing our pain to the cross and asking for forgiveness, not only for the sins of the other person (which are often just our projections anyway) but also for our own shortcomings, allows us to get back in touch with reality and to find ourselves, in front of the cross, as lost sheep in search of a shepherd. 

Thirdly, I would like to bring your attention to the messenger’s advice never to speak of the event again. This is, perhaps, the most difficult part of the practice that will take the most time to truly incorporate into our lives. If you’re the kind of person who likes to “talk about their feelings,” you might be prone to describe the perceived injury to everybody around you, telling them how horrible the other person is and how much they were in the wrong. While this might seem neutral—we just need to express our feelings, right?— Hurnard explains how this tendency, in fact, leaves us in bondage to our pain. Continuing to tell the story of our resentment naturally keeps our resentment in place. The moment we no longer mention what has happened, and perhaps even begin to speak positively about our former enemy, we have begun to participate in the reality, not only of the cross, but of the Kingdom to come. 

Seeing the other as transfigured

Apart from the secret to forgiveness, there is another lesson from Hurnard’s writings that I’ve found particularly helpful, and that is the practice of “creative love thinking.” While the person still in the grips of the “old man” tends to cast every human being along the way in the bleakest light possible, rejoicing in their shortcomings in order to feel slightly superior for a moment, the one who has begun to “put on Christ” learns to see through these shortcomings or might not even notice them at all. 

This transformation is exactly what Hurnard describes in one of her final chapters of the Kingdom of Love. “Creative love thinking,” she writes, “does not mean refusing to recognize sin, or pretending it does not matter,” but it indicates for her a “completely transformed reaction to sin, and to any faults and blemishes which may appear in others.” Instead, these occasions

present us with a challenge to see exactly the opposite, namely to image what a person would be like if completely delivered, radiant, loving, happy, praising, perfect in grace with the beauty of the Lord shining upon them; and to join with the Lord in claiming the beginning and the continuation of that transformation, at the same time shutting out completely the picture of the actual, present condition of that person.

What Hurnard describes here is essentially an act of the will and the imagination: to no longer accept our “fallen” image of the other and to cultivate a radiant image of the other instead. While to erudite readers this might seem dangerous—don’t the Fathers strongly condemn the imagination after all?—this practice is far more natural than it seems. Instead of an act of the imagination in the sense of “moving away from the real” and being deluded by the image-producing faculty of our soul (or fantastikon, if you like to be fancy), the practice of “creative love thinking” allows us to see the reality of the other person as they are in the light of Christ. Seeing the Other as transfigured is not a delusional, though hopeful practice, but actually allows us to move away from our delusion. More likely than not, our negative picture of the other might be full of our projections. When we cultivate a more loving view of the other, we clean our inner eye of the passions that block our perception and we are free to see the other as they are: eternally loved, and as they are called to be: eternally radiant, rejoicing in God’s light. 

This practice of seeing the other as transfigured is particularly helpful if you might be prone to imagine yourself as slightly better or slightly worse than others most of the time. Lifting the other towards the light of Christ allows us, for a short moment, to let go of our obsessions concerning ourselves and enjoy the light with them. There is nothing happier than raising our friends or former enemies towards Christ and seeing them as joyful and radiant as possible.

It also reminds me of a passage in the book the Ascetic of Love about Mother Gavrilia (one of my favorite modern saints), where she says that the most important thing we can do for another human being is to raise them towards Christ and ask God to do His will in their lives. Imagining the other as transfigured allows us to do just that: it is an act of saying “here God, here is this little human being you have created and whom you love so much. I know that you want them to be saved and eternally rejoice in your light. Please let Your will be done to them today.” Perhaps this powerful prayer might even, mystically, allow this light to become more manifest in the lives of those who have now become your friends.