In Dostoevsky’s great last work, The Brothers Karamazov, the story is told of Markel, brother of the Elder Zossima. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he is dying. In those last days he came to a renewed faith in God and a truly profound understanding of forgiveness. In a conversation with his mother she wonders how he can possibly be so joyful in so serious a stage of his illness. His response is illustrative of the heart of the Orthodox Christian life.
‘Mama,’ he replied to her, ‘do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we don’t want to realize it, and if we did care to realize it, paradise would be established in all the world tomorrow.’ And we all wondered at his words, so strangely and so resolutely did he say this; we felt tender emotion and we wept….’Dear mother, droplet of my blood,’ he said (at that time he had begun to use endearments of this kind, unexpected ones), ‘beloved droplet of my blood, joyful one, you must learn that of a truth each of us is guilty before all for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain this to you, but I feel that it is so, to the point of torment. And how could we have lived all this time being angry with one another and knowing nothing of this?’ [He spoke even of being guilty before the birds and all creation] …’Yes, he said, ‘all around me there has been such divine glory: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone have lived in disgrace, I alone have dishonored it all, completely ignoring its beauty and glory.’ ‘You take too many sins upon yourself,’ dear mother would say, weeping. ‘But dear mother, joy of my life. I am crying from joy, and not from grief; why, I myself want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not know how to love them. Let me be culpable before all, and then all will forgive me, and that will be paradise. Am I not in paradise now?’
As difficult as it may sound, the reality described by Dostoevsky can be summed up very simply: forgive everyone for everything. Stated in such a blunt fashion, such a goal is overwhelming. How can I forgive everyone for everything? This life of forgiveness, which is nothing other than the life of Christ within us, is our inheritance in the faith. The life of blame, recrimination, bitterness, anger, revenge and the like are not the life of Christ, but simply the ragings of our own egos, the false self which we exalt over our true life which is “hid with Christ in God.”
The rightness of a cause, or the correctness of our judgment do not justify nor change the nature of our ragings. For none of us can stand before God and be justified – except as we give ourselves to the life of Christ, who is our only righteousness.
The question of forgiveness is not a moral issue. We do not forgive because it is the “correct” thing to do. We forgive because it is the true nature of the life in Christ. As Dostoevsky describes it: it is Paradise. In the same manner, the refusal to forgive, the continuation of blame, recrimination, bitterness, etc., are not moral failings. They are existential crises – drawing us away from the life of Christ and Paradise, and ever deeper into an abyss of non-being.
I have lately spent some of myprayer-time each day with a modified form of the ‘Jesus Prayer.’ It runs, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner, and forgive all those who hate me or do me harm. Forgive them freely without reproach and grant me true repentance.” I offer no great authority for this prayer – indeed, as I pray it, I find that it changes from time to time. But it is a way of offering prayer for my enemies – of teaching my heart to “forgive everyone for everything.”
There is a further thought that is of great importance. Forgiveness and unforgiveness are not private matters. As Christ taught the Apostles, “Whosoever sins you loose are loosed, and whosoever sins you retain are retained.” This, of course, has a particular meaning for the Apostolic ministry given to the Church. But it also alludes to another reality. My refusal to forgive is a force for evil in this world – binding both myself and others around me. It may not be an intentional binding – but bind it will. In the same manner, forgiveness is the introduction of Paradise into this world – both for myself and for others around me. Whether I intend it or not, Paradise comes as a fruit of such love.
Forgive everyone for everything. Will we not be in Paradise?
This week I have been in Dallas, Texas, for the funeral of Archbishop Dmitri, beloved Apostle to the South. At the conclusion of the funeral vigil (as is normally the case for all Orthodox Christians) the primary celebrant of the service comes to the open coffin of the deceased. Placing his stole over the head of the body, he reads the words of the final absolution (this same prayer is used in the sacrament of Holy Unction).
May our Lord Jesus Christ, by His divine grace, and also by the gift and power given unto His holy Disciples and Apostles, that they should bind and loose the sins of men (For He said unto them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whosoever’s sins you remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever’s sins you retain, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). “And whatsoever you shall bind or loose on earth shall be bound or loosed in Heaven” (Matt. 18:18) and which also has been handed down to us from them as their successors, absolve this my spiritual child, N., through me who am unworthy, from all things wherein, as a human, he has sinned against God, whether by word or deed, wheher by thought and with all his senses, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, whether by knowledge or in ignorance. And if he be under the ban or excommunication of a Bishop or of a Priest; or if he has brought upon himself the curse of his father or mother; or has fallen under his own curse; or has transgressed by any oath; or has been bound, as a human, by any sins whatsoever, but has repented of these with a contrite heart, may He absolve him also from all these faults and bonds. And may all those things that proceed from the infirmity of human nature be given over unto oblivion and may He forgive him everything, for the sake of His Love for Mankind, through the prayers of our most-holy and most-blessed Sovereign Lady, the Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, of the holy, glorious and all-praised Apostles, and of all the Saints. Amen.
We who expect to receive such great mercy at the time of our own death – should we not extend the same mercy to all while we are yet among them?