Anyone familiar with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazovshould remember the teaching in that novel of the Elder Zossima. He states that “each man is responsible for the sins of every man,” and holds this realization as the key to the life of paradise. The great novelist is not inventing a new idea, but simply allowing one of his characters to give voice to a teaching that is essential to the Orthodox life.
We are told in a variety ways that we should pray for all, including our enemies – though the Scriptures do not always say much about how that is to be done. Many people find it hard to pray for enemies, much less forgive them.
The Tradition of the Church, particularly surrounding the life of prayer, has much to say about such prayer. The Elder Sophrony, following the Tradition of the Fathers and most specifically his spiritual father, St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, offers perhaps the most complete teaching on prayer to be found in modern writings.
His teaching is very much related to the understanding of prayer as communion (koinonia) with God (which I mentioned in yesterday’s post). But his teaching expands that communion to include communion with others and finally with the whole world. Thus, when we are praying for another, when we pray our best, it is not as one autonomous individual talking to God about another autonomous individual, but instead we speak as a Person who is in communion with the one for whom we pray, and thus their sins become our sins and we pray for them as Christ prayed for us.
The Elder Sophrony referred to this kind of prayer as hypostatic prayer (hypostasis being Greek for Person). To exist truly as a person is indeed to exist in a state of communion with other persons (including the Tri-personal God). It is this communion that is the ground of our true being in Christ.
Elder Sophrony used the image of an “inverted pyramid” to describe the way of the Cross. Christ descended to the depths of Hades (downwards towards the point of the pyramid) and there He bore the weight and burden of the sins of all. It is this downward movement of humility that Christ invites of us when He says that “whosoever would be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” We are invited into the downward movement in which we share in the “fellowship (koinonia) of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). It is in this manner and from this position that we can pray for the world. From such a position we truly have made ourselves responsible for the sins of all, just as Christ Himself “became sin that we might become the righteousness of God.”
When I visited the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England, two summers ago, I found a community of monks and nuns who had been nurtured deeply in the teachings and living Tradition of Elder Sophrony and St. Silouan, and through them the Living Tradition of the Church (for they are the same). Most of the services in that monastery follow the “cell rule” of Mount Athos and consist of about two and a half hours of the Jesus Prayer, recited by different leaders, in a variety of languages.
One of the common variations I heard there was: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us and on Thy whole world.” This is prayer that unites itself with the very heart of God who wills only salvation for the world, regardless of what the world wills for itself. It is prayer as communion – both with the Good God Who Loves Mankind, and with all mankind, saint and sinner alike.
Thus when we confess before communion, “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first…” it is not an exaggeration begotten of piety, but a true communion with the worst of all sinners, because we stand before Christ as Adam and all of his progeny. I am responsible for the sins of all and am thus worthy to be called, “the worst of all sinners.”
And it is in this state alone that we find the fullness of communion with God, for Christ did not come to save the righteous but sinners.