Living Large and Love

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It is common to both the writings of Dostoevsky [particularly in the Brothers Karamazov] and in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony and St. Silouan, that each man must see and understand himself to be responsible for the sins of all. This can be a statement that troubles some – as if doing this were a mere spiritual game – or a violation of others’ responsibility. It is, in fact, a profound understanding of what it means to be a human, created in God’s image. The following short passage from the Elder Sophrony’s St. Silouan the Athonite provides some excellent commentary on the subject.

On the Difference between Christian Love and the Justice of Man

People usually interpret justice in the juridical sense. We reject the idea of laying one man’s guilt on another – it is ‘not fair’. It does not accord with our idea about equity. But the spirit of Christian love speaks otherwise, seeing nothing strange but rather something natural in sharing the guilt of those we love – even in assuming full responsibility for their wrong-doing. Indeed, it is only in this bearing of another’s guilt that the authenticity of love is made manifest and develops into full awareness of self. 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 realize 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.

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 realize 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, savors 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, without exception. According to the second commandment, 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 each human person-hypostasis, created in the image of the absolute Divine Hypostases, is capable of containing in himself the fulness of all human being, in the same way as each of the Three Persons of the Godhead is the bearer of all the fullness of Divine being (the profound purport of the second commandment) then shall we all contend against evil, cosmic evil, each beginning with himself.

 I cannot help but quote again, with emphasis,  the Elder Sophrony’s statement: 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.

17 comments:

  1. Father,

    Thanks for posting more on this topic (When I forward these to my friends, they all tell me I need to read Charles Williams).

    Can someone tell me how this plays out exactly in day-to-day life? How are we able to take on other’s sins…and presumably their consequences, if I understand this right…in a way that is godly and not weirdly co-dependent. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that if we were to actually live this way to the fullest, the world (and even many of our Christian friends) would be telling us we need to have a healthy separation between what we are responsible for and what others are responsible for…Boundaries perhaps!

    Can one feel the weight of the sins of our spouses and friends and even enemies, and 1) not be crushed? or 2) maintain an appropriate detatchment & still suffer for others?

    As always, thank you!
    Christ is risen!
    Alyssa

  2. Father,

    Is this the same thing as saying that when I see a homeless man and do not feed him I contribute to his hunger. His problem is my problem. To love our neighbor as ourself is is to totally give of ourself. In the cosmic sense we are all the same and share common qualities (and faults).

    This is a deep truth that we need to understand.

  3. I think it is at least saying that the Homeless man is not entirely separate from me, and that can embrace His need as though it were my own. It is indeed a deep truth.

    Not to feed him is to deny the unity of our humanity.

  4. Alyssa, wrote:
    Can someone tell me how this plays out exactly in day-to-day life? How are we able to take on other’s sins…and presumably their consequences, if I understand this right…in a way that is godly and not weirdly co-dependent. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that if we were to actually live this way to the fullest, the world (and even many of our Christian friends) would be telling us we need to have a healthy separation between what we are responsible for and what others are responsible for…Boundaries perhaps!
    Can one feel the weight of the sins of our spouses and friends and even enemies, and 1) not be crushed? or 2) maintain an appropriate detatchment & still suffer for others?

    I think this plays out first in prayer. That we pray for others knowing that their life and mine have a commonality. I don’t think it need be co-dependent in the sense that I am taking away from someone else what they need to do themselves (and yet we sometimes use the language of co-dependence to relieve ourselves of any particular responsibility at all).

    It is also true that, as you read Fr. Sophrony, etc., that this does become a very difficult weight, and we reach points where we have to step back, if only to come back to it again later. We’re not Christ, we cannot carry the sins of the world as He did. But carrying them to some measure is not incorrect. Fr. Sophrony is quoted as saying, “Stand at the edge of despair [this is the place of the sins of the world] until you can’t stand it, then have a cup of tea.” Don’t try starting with everything, but with small things, in prayer, in almsgiving, etc. And pray for others and the world not as though they were somehow different than us.

  5. Could you clarify the Orthodox teaching on human nature? We all share one human nature? So, the first human sin in Eden, it corrupted human nature for all subsequent humans?

    Also, I didn’t understand what Elder Sophrony was meaning by “the profound proport of the second commandment,” in regards to the Trinity.

    Thanks for a great blog!

  6. Generally, Ben, human nature is one. We share a common being or ousia. Thus when Adam falls it effects us all – not so much that it “corrupts” human nature, but generally makes it impossible for us to live in fulfillment of the nature God has given us. Christ renews human nature in His union with us and makes it possible for us, through His grace, to live in proper fulfillment of human nature, and, more than that, to become partakers of the life of Christ such that we become even more than we would ever be without him.

    I will have to read and meditate more to see what Fr. Sophrony is implying by his reference to the second commandment.

  7. Father —

    Many thanks for your words and wisdom. The deepest witness is a truth lived, or, as one minister put it, “Truth through personality.” All of us who read your words have the joy of receiving such truth from you.

    Alyssa asked, “How this plays out exactly in day-to-day life? How are we able to take on other’s sins?”

    An awareness of our responsibility for others is what people do in the presence of God. Cain’s reacts to God’s call by saying he is “not his brother’s keeper” — i.e., he deepens his guilt by by denying his responsibility. Isaiah responds to a vision of God in the Temple by seeing that he is “a man of unclean lips, and of a people of unclean lips” (a more modern translation might be that his whole nation has “filthy mouths”). When encountering the holy angels, people seem startled by sinfulness — thier own and others, too.

    In the celebration of the Passover, every Jewish person “of every generation” must tell how he himself left Egypt — how the signs and wonders personally happened to him.

    I do not know how one takes on others’ sins, and the words quoted of the Elder do not answer your question. But the standard response of people — belivers and unbelievers alike — to a brush with the Holy God is intense fear, together with a deep sense of accountability for others.

    May we all come into the knowledge of the One Whose perfect love casts out fear.

  8. It seems to me that the most approachable application in everyday life in is marriage and extended into the family. Certainly, if we really believe we are “one flesh” when we marry, there can be little distinction between us on the sin front. If my wife is angry, perhaps that is my sin, not hers? Our sin together, but certainly how easy is it to say under my breath: “this woman you (God) gave me….arrrg!”

    I grew up in the 1960’s, I do feel responsible for all of the nihilist garbage my generation dumped into the world even though I was not a particularly active participant. My silence gave consent and it did leave scars on my own soul.

    Archmandrite Zacharias in speaking of the training the novices receive when they come to St. John’s (the monastary Elder Sophronny founded) says they begin by learing to pray for themselves, then gradually, as they can bear it, the circle of their prayers is increased, some 50 fold, some 100, some only a few.

    Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.

  9. May we all come into the knowledge of the One Whose perfect love casts out fear. Amen.
    Great post Fr. Stephen. I am still reading St. Silouan, taking him and The Archimandrite in slowly, small bites, small sips. Such a deep well from which to drink.
    All of Orthodoxy is like this, we just find a pool and dip a toe in, for we know not how deep the water truly is. Each of these saints and their experience with our Lord, for a beginner can be overwhelming without water-wings.
    And a noodle. You are a great life guard.
    Christ is Risen!
    the handmaid,
    Mary-Leah

  10. ‘Archimandrite Zacharias…says they begin by learning to pray for themselves, then gradually, as they can bear it, the circle of their prayers is increased, some 50 fold, some 100, some only a few.’

    Thank you for this, Michael. ‘…as they can bear it…’ Makes me think that only Orthodoxy faces so squarely how very difficult it is truly to pray, much less to pray for others. Such a crucifixion this love thing….

  11. “May we all come into the knowledge of the One Whose perfect love casts out fear.”
    Amen.
    Thank you Father for another great post. I am still reading Saint Silouan the Athonite. He is such a deep pool that I come to the side and just stick my toe in and test the waters and see how I do. All of the great ones in Orthodoxy are like this, deep pools of wisdom that teach us about our Living God.
    Beginners need water-wings and a noodle, and of course, the wise and vigilant life guard, to keep us from going in too deep.
    Your are a great life guard, Fr. Stephen, thanks.
    Christ is Risen,
    Mary-Leah

  12. Coroebus,

    Well made point. What the Elder describes is not a mere psychological sense of the sins of others, but quite ontological, that is, on the level of our being. Thus it is not a very thing at all, nor entered into lightly, nor borne lightly. But it is, indeed, and must be, an act of freedom and love, that is, one that is truly personal (hypostatic).

    There are many today, in the name of a political correctness, that would make guilt collective by virtue of birth or socio-economic status, gender, etc. They are speaking about something completely different and of this world.

    I have met the Archimandrite Zacharias, and heard him speak. I’m very interested in getting the book that was done on the basis of his talks a year or two back. He is among the most humble men I’ve ever met, with nothing artificial about him. I will also have to say that I’ve rarely seen a priest work any harder than he and the other elder at the Monastery. On Sunday busloads of pilgrims arrive, mostly from London, in addition to the services, liturgies, parastas, etc., there are confessions very late into the evening. The spiritual burden of such a day staggers me.

  13. Both the book of Archmandrite Zacharias’ talks, The Enlargement of the Heart and CD’s of his latest excursion into Wichita (The Hidden Man of the Heart) are available from 8th Day Books.

    When I heard him talk in Wichita in 2001, I honestly did not really comphehend a word he said. The words were understandable but the task of which he spoke was beyond me. However, just being in the presence of a genuinely humble man spoke loud and clear. Now having the book I hope to be able to allow the wisdom he carries to penetrate a little.

    As Coroebus says, real prayer for others, even for ourselves is indeed a difficult task.

  14. Surely acknowledging our shared burden of guilt is the foundation of humility. It seems to me this is seen most clearly in the prayers of the pharisee — who thanked God that he was not like other men — and the tax collector. I think a question of mine has also been answered here. I have begun praying the Jesus prayer as I can, and have heard comments that this is a selfish activity, since I pray for mercy for myself and not others. However, the posts here imply that this is only the beginning and that as we humble ourselves like the tax collector, we can begin to bear others in prayer. Am I on the right track?

    Perhaps more posts on this issue of personal and intercessory prayer would be helpful someday, if others feel the need.

  15. Damaris, I will refrain from giving spiritual advice, only to say that what you say seems to me to gibe with so much that I have read. Speaking of which, I feel myself on much firmer ground recommending without reservation the book Father and Michael Bauman recommend above. I dipped into it again last night, and oh my if it is not so very meaty yet at the same time so very accessible for us lightweights. I too have met Father Zacharias, in Essex, and I too am humbled by his deep humility, and also by his quiet joy and by the delight he so evidently takes in each of us strangers he meets and takes into his heart. Truly it brings tears to my eyes to recollect.

  16. Thank you, Coroebus. I will ask my priest about it. I think he must own every book ever printed!

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