Who’s To Blame?


I frequently buy used books (indeed with the used books feature on Amazon, I often can only afford to buy used books). You try to get a good, clean copy, but occasionally they come with marginal comments.  My volume of St. Silouan the Athonite is used, and has a number of marginal comments from my anonymous predecessor.  Sometimes the comments themselves are interesting.

Reading today, I ran across marginal comments that said: “Nonsense…This is plenty enough guilt…blah, blah, nonsense.”

That will definitely make you want to stop and read. What on earth could Fr. Sophrony have written that got such a rise out of a reader?

The section was entitled, “On the Difference between Christian Love and the Justice of Men.”

I’ll quote some of the offending sections:

…What sense is there in enjoying only the pleasurable side of love? Indeed, it is only in willingly taking upon oneself the loved one’s guilt and burdens that love attains its multifold perfection.

Many of us cannot, or do not want to, accept and suffer of our own free will the consequences of Adam’s original sin. ‘Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit but what has that to do with me?’ we protest. ‘I am ready to answer for my own sins but certainly not for the sins of others.’ And we do not realise that in reacting thus we are repeating in ourselves the sin of our forefather Adam, making it our own personal sin, leading to our own personal fall. Adam denied responsibility, laying all the blame on Eve and on God who had given him this wife; and by so doing he destroyed the unity of Man and his communion with God. So, each time we refuse to take on ourselves the blame for our common evil, for the actions of our neighbor, we are repeating the same sin and likewise shattering the unity of Man. The Lord questioned Adam before Eve, and we must suppose that if Adam, instead of justifying himself, had taken upon his shoulders the responsibility for their joint sin, the destinies of the world might have been different, just as they will alter now if we in our day assume the burden of the transgressions of our fellow man.

For those Orthodox who have a knee-jerk reaction to the phrase “original sin,” be at peace. This is not an endorsement of that particular doctrine. Instead it is the common teaching of the Church that, as Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima said, “Each man is responsible for the sins of all men.”

This is only so because we are one humanity. Indeed it is a common teaching that we cannot pray for the world if we are unwilling to take the sins of the world upon ourself. Christ does precisely that. If we are to pray as He prays, then we must pray for all as though we are all. We cannot pray for our enemy as though he were somehow other than ourselves, guilty and condemned while we stand justified and condemning.

I understand the provocation of my predecessor and the caustic remarks (made only to oneself) in the margin of the book. It is a hard teaching. But this is the full revelation of love. I cannot condemn because I do not see you as somehow different from me.

As Fr. Sophrony goes on to say:

We can all find ways of vindicating ourselves on all occasions but if we really examine our hearts we shall see that in justifying ourselves we are not guileless. Man justifies himself, firstly, because he does not want to acknowledge that he is even partially to blame for the evil in the world, and, secondly, because he does not realise that he is endowed with godlike freedom. He sees himself as merely part of the world’s phenomena, a thing of this world, and, as such, dependent on the world. There is a considerable element of bondage in this, and self-justification, therefore, is a slavish business unworthy of a son of God. I saw no tendency towards self-justification in the Staretz. But it is strange how to many people this taking the blame for the wrong-doing of others, and asking for forgiveness, savours of subjection – so vast the distinction in outlook between the sons of the Spirit of Christ and non-spiritual people. The latter cannot believe it possible to feel all humanity as a single whole to be incorporated in the personal existence of every man. Love thy neighbor as thyself, each of us must, and can, comprise all mankind in our own personal being. Then all the evil that occurs in the world will be seen, not as something extraneous but as our own.

If you listen to the words of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, then you hear the constant refrain that reveals that we are not only no different than the great sinners within Scripture – we are worse. Is this just pious language? Do we utter pious nonsense when each Sunday we say “Thou camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first?”

I do not know if I would choose to use the language of guilt, with all of its forensic implications, but ontologically, on the level of my being and existence, I know that I am responsible for the sins of all.

As one modern monk once said to me, “The contemplative need look no further than his own heart to see the source of all violence in the world.”

Who’s to blame? I am.


  1. Steven CC says

    A wonderful selection.

    This is a difficult topic. Perhaps it is easier to understand negatively, not positively, so speak. We are guilty for all because we have done nothing to set the world aright. It’s not a question of what I’ve done, but what I haven’t done. Meat spoils when it lacks salt.

    I believe the recently reposed Elder Paisios spoke to this effect. If only I was a better person, perhaps God would listen to my prayers. If only I was a better person, perhaps I could make a difference in the lives of my fellows. What sorts of lives would they live if only they could see the Love of Christ in me? But I have failed them.

    Psalm 51 also has counsel to this effect. “Create in me a clean heart, o God . . . Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by your generous Spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your Ways, and sinners shall be converted to You.”

  2. Alyssa says

    My first Forgiveness Sunday…and I can see some of this understanding of responsibility, but wow! this is a radically different teaching from my generic, interdenominational protestant training. No comments on content. I am no where near qualified.