I commend the collection The Inner Kingdom, volume 1 of Bishop Kallistos Ware’s collected works. Writing in essay on martyrdom, Bishop Kallistos, offers the following observation and stories:
This notion of exchange, of solidarity in suffering, forms one of the master-themes of Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim. It is said of one of the most attractive of the Hasidic teachers, Rabbi Zusya, “He felt the sins of the people he met as his own, and blamed himself for them.” So powerful was his sense of identification that he could say of a certain man who was a sinner, “I climbed down all the rungs until I was with him, and bound the root of my soul to the root of his.” It is recorded of Rabbi Moshe Leib, who was ill for two-and-one-half years, racked with pain: “He grew more and more certain that he was suffering for the sake of Israel, and his pain did not grow less, but it was transfigured.”
To make others’ sufferings His own, to climb down all the rungs until He is with the lowest sinner, to bind the root of the sinner’s soul to the root of His own, to suffer for the sake of Israel, both the Old and the New – that is exactly what Christ has done; and the martyrs are enabled to do the same precisely because they are convinced that Christ is suffering in and with them. Applying Father Alexander Elchaninov’s test of catholicity, we may define the martyr as the quintessential churchperson: “‘And when one member suffers, all the members suffer with it’ (1 Corinthians 12:26) is said of the Church. If we do not feel this, we are not within the Church.”
…. Solidarity, mutual sharing, is also a dominant feature in the voluntary martyrdom of the monastic life. Not only does the monk living in community share with others his daily work and daily prayer, together with all his possessions, but he may also be called to express this solidarity on a far deeper level as well. St. Symeon the New Theologian prayed to God, so he tells us, “with scalding tears and with all his soul,” that his brethren might enter heaven with him, or else that he might be condemned to hell with them: “Spiritually bound to them by a holy love in the Holy Spirit, he did not want to enter into the Kingdom of heaven itself if it meant that he would be separated from them.”
Bound as he is in this way to his brethren, the monk – like Zusya – takes their guilt upon himself and joins them in their repentance. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers there are a number of stories such as the following:
Two brethren journeyed to the market to sell their handiwork. In the city they went different ways, and one of them fell into fornication. After a while the other monk met him and said, “Let’s go back to our cell, brother.” But the first answered, “I’m not coming.” And the other questioned him, saying, “Why not, my brother?” And he said, “When we parted, I fell into fornication.” Then the other, wishing to win him back, began to say to him: “When I left you, the same thing happened to me. But let us go and do heavy penance, and God will forgive us.” So they returned and told the old men what had happened to them; and the old men enjoined on them the rules of penance that they were to perform. So the one offered repentance on behalf of the other, just as if he himself had sinned. God, seeing his labor of love, after a few days revealed to one of the old men that, because of the great love of the brother who had not sinned, He had forgiven the brother who had. That is what it means to lay down one’s life for one’s brother.
I will add a short story of my own. In 1988, a very difficult year of transition in my life, a young couple, Christian friends but not parishioners, came to me to tell me of their concern for the fact that I was a smoker (very sad but it was true). They told me that they were persuaded that my ministry would be far more effective if I didn’t smoke. They were extremely careful not to make their conversation into a question of guilt. Instead they said, “We know it is very hard for you when you have tried to quit. We have taken on a weekly fast for you [they were setting aside a day on which they would eat nothing] asking God to give you the grace to quit. We only want you to let us know when to stop fasting.”
I responded with gratitude and did not take on guilt (they had offered none). Indeed, I did nothing with it until Lent of that year. At Lent I laid my tobacco aside, and though there was a struggle, I did what I had failed at so many times before: I quit – and stayed quit. The grace of God, the prayers of friends, their voluntary sacrifice on my behalf, all of it lightened my burden to a point that I could do what had been impossible before. It was a profound moment of change in my life and one of the most poignant experiences of grace I have ever known – particularly stretched, as it was, over a period of weeks and months. “Suffer with those who suffer.”