Our Common Life

dostoevsky1872I have long been intrigued with the notion of our common responsibility, or rather, that I am responsible for the sins of the whole world. I think I first came across the notion in a quote from the Elder Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov. And even there, Dostoevsky was only putting on the lips of his fictional Elder the sentiments of the saints and the common teaching of the Church.

At one time I mostly thought about all of this as having something to do with the fact that there is only one human essence, that our common humanity is a sharing in one being (ousia). Though this is a way to think about it, I have come to believe that it is not the specific teaching of the Church. In a way, the Western notion of Original Sin is far more akin to this. There is only one essence, and Adam took us down with him – a kind of Federalism as it is known.

Instead, I tend to understand this now as something potentially centered in us as persons. There is a freedom involved in accepting the common reponsibility of humanity for all of its sins. I can say, “Yes,” to this, or I can refuse it. As Fr. Sophrony writes, our very refusal, however, is a repetition of Adam’s sin, who refused to acknowledge any culpability in his own act. The problem was with God, who gave him “that woman.”

It also centers the problem squarely within the realm of love (which can only exist where there is freedom). I am not utterly free, there are many givens within my life and situation. And yet there are many things that I can choose to embrace or refuse to acknowledge. This embracing or refusing is the action of our heart towards others and ultimately towards God (”inasmuch as you did it to the least of these my brethren”).

Thus I cannot argue on some objective ground that you are responsible for the sins of all. You may want to refuse that kind of unity with the whole of humanity. But it you do so, you will not be able to pray for them. You cannot pray for the other as though you had no connection to them. Praying as though you had no connection is mere noblesse oblige, our pride that somehow we are different (and superior) to those for whom we pray.

Prayer, in its final analysis, can only be accomplished as we stand in union with Christ, and Christ will not seperate Himself from others. He has “become sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Thus if we are to pray in union with Christ, we will also have to pray as though “having become sin.” Thus we can honestly pray and say that we are the chief of sinners.

But this must not be something we embrace as theoretical. We cannot theoretically pray. God is not a theoretical God, but He Who Is. If we embrace others and accept responsibility for their sins, then we do so only as an act of love that unites us to them and to God who has so humbled Himself. If we refuse them then we can at best find ourselves lost in our own righteousness, which, before God, “is as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:5). But by embracing all, and becoming responsibility for all, we unite ourselves with Christ “who is through all and in you all.”


  1. Dear Father, bless!

    The image that comes to mind are those Charles Dickens type moments where some school boy has infringed a school rule with disastrous consequences, and the headmaster is trying to smoke him out for punishment. Rather than turning him over to his fate, his classmates, in a moment of heroic solidarity, all one by one claim responsibility for the infraction themselves in order to protect the real culprit.

    I also think of the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” Surely not all of them were adulterers, and yet they all slunk away one by one. I don’t think they would have done this had not the Presence of the Holy One made them aware of the common root within them of the various manifestations of sin and consequently their solidarity with that woman in her guilt.

  2. Fr. Bless

    Is this not also the spirit in which Sait Paul speaks of “making up that which is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.”?

    Something niggles at the back of my mind and I wonder whether this has found expression in the West (albeit rather distortedly) in the idea of the treasury of merit of the saints?

  3. I have wondered, as you make a strong point here, what of stronger points? It seems to me from scripture as a father (even as a husband) I bear the sins of my children and wife. Would it not be good to confess their sins as my own and along with my own during confession? I don’t like going on gut feelings, but my gut is strongly pulled this way.

    This is doubly true with the loss of my 10 year old son to cancer prior to our conversion to Orthodoxy. I would ask that God pass any spiritual lack of his onto my shoulders which are unworthy of illumination because of my failures as a father. Ever since my baptism I have thought this thought, that I should cross out my own name in the Lamb’s Book of Life to write his in my stead.

    Every convert has to deal with the thought of loved ones possibly outside the Church, beloved grandparents, trusted friends, etc. But what of those of us who are to be held responsible for the spiritual welfare of them in this way? No one has the responsibilities to their grandfather as a father does to his son.

    Maybe if I can learn to take Isaac’s sin as mine, then I could some day learn to take my enemy’s as my own as well.

  4. David, I had something of the same thought. A person has to start somewhere, and the logical place would be our family.

    While I don’t have the death of a child on my shoulders (and my heart goes out to you for your loss), my thought was that it may be easier to see that my family’s sins are my responsibility and to learn to pray for them, and from there take on our enemy’s sins and learn to love and pray for them.

    Father, I am glad you can post from Florida. I really needed this post today.

  5. “Praying as though you had no connection is mere noblesse oblige, our pride that somehow we are different (and superior) to those for whom we pray.”

    Wow, that one hit me where it hurts!

    David, as for mentioning others’ sins as your own, I know my priest told me to avoid whenever possible revealing someone else’s sins in my confession. He was specifically speaking about mentioning someone else in such a way that identifies them.

  6. William,

    I agree that there is great danger in confessing someone else’s sins. We know so little of others’ hearts; all too often we may identify as sins those things that annoy us. I know I need my whole lifetime to understand and confess my own sins. I don’t have spare time to confess someone else’s.

    At the same time, I agree with Father Stephen’s point, that we can accept a common burden of sin. I remember the touching scene in Little Men where Father Behr, in punishing a boy, has the boy beat his hands, rather than Father Behr beating the boy’s. This was far more effective a lesson for the boy, who understood the shared effect of his sin and its consequences.

  7. The problem of delegating justice as a restorative measure becomes quite puzzling.
    Can you talk about the responsibilities of a parent when the superiority or at least the separation of sin from the parent to the child is lost?
    Also involved is the question of judges in regards to delegating consequences for sin.

  8. William, no definitely not that! Rather I’m considering confessing them as mine because they are mine. I would never say, “My son disobeyed me.” But rather, “I did not honor my father.” I suppose there might be something in between, “I did not teach my son to honor his father.” But that tempts the very thing you are concerned about.

    Damaris, I doubt that I know my own heart. There are sins of mine which I know not. I don’t know how not knowing all my son’s (in this example) matters.

    Jeremy, I’m not sure I’m delegating, as much as sharing. I am responsible “as well as”, not “instead of”.

  9. You are forgiven William. I am sharing in David’s forgiveness. Wait is that possible too? 😀

  10. Our common sin is a great mystery. Primarily it should help us to know that we share this in common and that we are not better than others. It gets quite difficult when it gets very specific and at such a time can use a spiritual director/confessor. I would tend to say that rather than confessing the sins of another, I pray for them as though they were mine.

  11. I agree with Father, we pray for them rather than confessing, and that is why we start and end our Services with the LORD’s Prayer.

    We are given the LORD’s Prayer so that we share it in common from the begining to end. It is not singular it is all about us. “Our Father,….Give us this day,….Forgive us….Lead us not…..Deliver us…. This is all for that common purpose.

  12. When I read Brothers Karamazov I was struck by this idea that you have written about, Father, and I re-read it several times – how can it be explained that it has really affected me yet I can’t for the life of me understand it? Yet it seems so true.

  13. >

    What a wonderful lesson. As a still-repenting calvinist I’m grateful for your help to see how often I start in the wrong place to understand puzzles, like how our sin relates to Adam’s and his sin to all mankind.

    The church simply says our place is in Christ who won’t separate himself from sinners.

    I need not look back to Adam without Christ. I have NO unity to find there except through Christ who gives us Adam and all mankind, whole and healed. To see them otherwise is to find sin in Christ who stands for them to any judge. Lord have mercy.

    Thank you.

  14. Michael,

    Well put. It’s our refusal to live the “common life” that is the root of sin. There is an old German proverb, for what it’s worth:

    Ein Mensch ist kein Mensch.

    One man is no man.

  15. “Our common life”–how true it is! That is why Jesus Christ taught us not to judge others because the minute we pronounce judgement on others, we pronounce judgement on ourselves. When we condemn others, we condemn also ourselves. We have a lot in common with our enemies

  16. Dear Father, bless!

    Zoe, your comments remind me that the emotional and motivational dynamic involved with an unhealed sense of shame means that in what I condemn myself, I will necessarily end up condemning others as well. I have a tendency to want to fool myself that I am much harder on myself than I am on others because I don’t like to think of myself as harsh, but the fact is if I am harsh and if I am angry with myself, I will be harsh and angry with others as well (even if only in the secret places of my own heart). There is an unavoidable connection. I have to remind myself that true repentance is not self-condemnation, but the self-forgetfulness that is the result of focusing on and dwelling in the Presence of Christ in His mercy.

  17. Very well said. Whenever I hear someone being harsh and judgmental toward someone else, something inside me says, “I’ll bet their even harder on themselves,” which is also to say, “I’ll bet I’m seeing a small corner of the hell that still infects their heart.”

  18. When I consider how profoundly affected I am by the common life of the the Church despite how little I actually know of it, I can only surmise that the real communion of the saints must be overwhelmingly spectacular, something that can only be bourn by living in a deep sense of contrition.

  19. Father, bless.

    It is fitting that this post comes after the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, which is the parable of rejection of responsibility par excellance, and Forgiveness Sunday, the portal into Great Lent.

    Last year, in our first Great Lent since my family’s baptism and chrismation, I struggled to understand why I should ask all these people, many total strangers, for forgiveness. In a rare bit of inspiration, I realized that I could never know the implications of any sin, even the most trivial. One never knows the impact of one’s sins on others. Perhaps a nudge over the edge into licensiousness or despondency, which creates a ripple out into the world. So I ask forgiveness for the effects of my sins which are wrapped in anonymity but nonetheless known by God in all their terrible effect.

    We also by our sins bring judgement on those who may have given us that very push. In a sense, we can by sinning sin against those who caused us to sin, leading in a long chain back to Adam. What I’m suggesting is that there is a kind of “compound interest” of sin which goes forward and backward in time. By this measure, I can truly say that “no one has sinned as I have” and “I am the chief of sinners”.

    Perhaps this is what Dostoevsky is suggesting by this notion, that there is no truly victimless crime, but that the opposite is true: every sin victimizes everyone at all times.

    Your servant in Christ who begs your forgiveness and forgives you (all) as God forgives,

    Glenn Martin

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