He who has pity on the poor makes a debtor of God. (Prov. 19:17)
Jesus told a story about a man with a huge debt. He owed it to his master and was unable to pay. When he was dragged before his master, he begged for mercy. Strangely, the master was so moved by the man’s begging that he forgave him the entire debt. This same man, Jesus said, turned around and had a poor man thrown into prison for a very minor debt. When the master learned of this injustice, there was a serious reckoning: the man was delivered to the “torturers” until he could pay his own debt.
Debt is serious business. Indeed, it is pretty much the business of our culture. America owes trillions of dollars – to itself, to others, to one another. Everybody owes somebody! Of course, in our land, there is an occasional reckoning. Some go to prison for failure to pay their taxes. Some lose their homes for failure to pay their mortgage. Others have their debts forgiven (particularly if they are “too big to fail”).
There is a deeper debt, something that makes money look like child’s play (and it is). That debt is the burden created by the injuries we do to others. Many of those burdens could never be reduced by any amount of money. We generally do not think of those who owe us money as “enemies” – it’s usually only our “friends” who owe us money. But the level of emotional and spiritual debt owed by our enemies can be enormous. Such debts only grow older with time.
There is a spiritual burden created by the debts of our enemies. They keep us from true prayer and they block our journey to the heart. I have been told by many that they “have no enemies.” I suggest that everyone who owes you a debt is your spiritual enemy. Some are simply more pernicious than others. I have rarely encountered a heart so pure that no resentment or grudge could be found in it.
In the parable, the only possible way for the first man to settle his debt was for the master to let it go. He, of course, was promising to pay and begging for more time. The debt of the second man was small and could likely have been paid over time. But there was no mercy in the heart of his creditor, only resentment, and bitterness. His resentment and his bitterness created the “tortures” in his sentence.
My experience in life is that no one has the power to pay the emotional/spiritual debt owed to others. Nothing erases a memory or removes the injury itself. People fantasize that an apology would suffice. It doesn’t. It may restore some small measure of self-esteem, but the injury remains. I have listened to people who have returned to an injury year after year and marvel at their inability to forgive.
My experience has also shown me something else. There are those in my life whose “stock” is large. My love and communion with them are such that I easily overlook their sins against me. I find it easy to explain away their actions and make excuses for them. These are what constitute our “friends.” As St. Paul notes, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”
Essentially, the difference between our enemies and our friends are the allowances we are willing to make for them. Friends have credit accrued from a variety of things. Our enemies are bound in poverty.
There is only one way forward. The debts of our enemies must be treated as the debts of the poor. Our enemies will not have enough to pay us. If these debts cannot be paid (and they can’t), then they can only be forgiven. Or, perhaps, someone else can loan them what is needed.
And here we come to the verse from Proverbs: “He who gives to the poor makes a debtor of God.” The Scriptures add: “And He will pay him.”
The penury of our enemies is the deepest poverty of all, truly an inescapable cycle. It can only be broken by an act of radical generosity. But the generosity is not being asked of us. God will repay the debt. Whatever it is they have done, however much they owe, God will pay it.
I have long placed this thought in a prayer: “O Lord, you know what my enemies have done to me. On the day of judgment, do not hold it against them on my account.”
Set them free. Get serious about laying up treasure in heaven. Make a debtor of God.
God knows how much I needed to read these words today (and probably every day). Thank you Fr. Stephen and Glory to God for All Things.
Hard, hard words, Father! Many thanks for them.
Amen. Thank you father.
Spot on Father. The only way out of the spiritual prison created by our spiritual debts to others and theirs to us is to forgive. I find praying for the welfare of an enemy has helped me to let go of the angst I feel at the injury done to me. I am struck by the prepositions in Greek of the Lord’s prayer in the phrase forgive us our debts as (the preposition is better translated “just as”) we forgive our debtors. It is to the same measure, quantity and quality that we are forgiven as we forgive others. I have found that the holding on to the debts owed me makes me a prisoner of that person even long after they have passed. My only release is to pray for them with an earnest heart.
Thank you Father.
“O Lord, you know what my enemies have done to me. On the day of judgment, do not hold it against them on my account.”
What a beautiful prayer! Thank you Father Stephen!
‘My experience in life is that no one has the power to pay the emotional/spiritual debt owed to others’
This struck me deeply – whatever debt I am owed for what has been done to me, there is no single person, human. who can in reality repay, remove or fix that debt…I hear myself fighting against that truth wanting it to be different, but it isn’t. But that is what I am insisting people CAN do when I hold on to(in any way, shape or form) any harm they have done or are perpetuating. That is a hard reality – my heart is pounding. I have wanted to believe that my enemy could pay up by apologizing and repenting…but they really do not have any power over this very real debt… I have been looking in the wrong direction for debt reduction. Never mind the debt I owe to others….I can’t remove it from those I have harmed either…
The weight of this debt (that I owe or am owed) has been very real to me in my life experience…but I have believed humans had the power to pay up – and we do not – we are poor. My enemy isn’t witholding anything from me no matter if he apologizes or repents or not…and I do not need to keep going to him to try and wrest something out of him he does not have. What freedom. Being poor or associating with poor people – none of us can get anything from each other. So we go to Our Father who is rich in mercy.
Forgiving ourselves is the biggy!!
Thank you for this post, Father. It strikes close to home.
Same time ago, I said some things to a co-worker that caused real emotional harm. I owe her a huge debt, but I do not know how to repay it. She will no longer speak to me. In fact, my superiors at work have forbidden me to speak to her, so I am unable to apologize and ask her to forgive me.
I understand that God has forgiven my sin, and I am grateful for that. But what about her? How do I pay my debt to her if I cannot speak to her?
Father, is it not the shame I feel because if the acts or non-acts of others that leads me to condemn them and refuse to forgive?
My late wife was deeply shamed by her family: physical and emotional abuse from her father combined by enabling of her mother and sister.
My late wife could never forgive anyone of anything because that was allowing her family to get away with what they did to her.
She was an extrodinarily talented woman with an amazing heart, but severely damaged.
I find it difficult to speak with her sister to this day because she still adamently maintains that my late wife was at fault for everything. Over 60 years later and everybody else dead.
I guess I need to forgive that too? When she comes out with that stuff it is literally like getting slapped in the face.
Oh my…more work.
Nancy, I would suggest it is not in our power to forgive ourselves. That possibility is realized only in forgiveness of others and giving alms.
“We do pray for mercy and that same prayer teaches us to render deeds of mercy.”
Without mercy there is only the law.
I DEEPLY sympathize with what you shared regarding your late wife. I just feel the gravity of it…
…never forgive anyone of anything because that was allowing her family to get away with what they did to her.
…Over 60 years later and everybody else dead.
…it is literally like getting slapped in the face.
I feel it, brother.
In regard to your sister-in-law I am reminded of what Christ said “If the light that is in you is darkness, then how great that darkness is.”
+ Lord have mercy on us and save us.
For me condemning someone for committing a wrong against me has been connected to believing I am responsible to make it right or to not let them ‘get away with it’ , and that I could make it right by condemning or prevent others from being hurt by holding on. What I have failed to accept as truth is that there is NOTHING I can do or should do, because no human can make it right, not my enemy or me.
Father, This is truly a great post. Finding the way to forgive others and genuinely pray for them, is sometimes a very hard struggle, but it must be done. When I was able to do that for people who had caused me a great deal of pain and/or harm, and could truly pray for them, and that God would not hold any of what they did to me against them. The freedom from the bondage of anger and hurt was wonderful. We forgive that we may be forgiven.
Hard, hard sayings. It is hard to see one’s enemies as truly carrying the image of God.
“Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him: because evil is but a chance misfortune, an illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”
~ St. John of Kronstadt
“You must bear the spiritual infirmities of your brother gladly, and without annoyance. For when someone is physically ill, we are not only not annoyed with him, but we are exemplary in our care of him; we should also set an example in cases of spiritual illness.”
~ St. Moses of Optina
Good quotes, Byron.
learningtobestill: prayer can do amazing things, in my experience. Even if you can’t speak to your co-worker, you can pray for her, you can pray for yourself, and you can ask God to heal (and pay for you, as Fr Stephen says!). It is incredible what communication happens on levels that are not the earthly norm. I’ll pray for you too.
To all: I personally need to distinguish between full reconciliation and forgiveness. Forgiveness is letting go, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to walk back into another temptation or harmful situation. It does mean I pray a lot! And I don’t “return” the debt, that’s up to God too. (“Vengeance is mine. I will repay.”) It clears the books. Discernment remains the key, “wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” Not easy, but then Christ calls us to something better than easy.
PS I should add that God has provided me with opportunities for me to show mercy and love where I first needed to forgive. Wow. Taught me about love and the reserves of love that one might be capable of, also turned the whole bad situation upside down. It doesn’t mean the ones I needed to forgive treated me perfectly well, but it does mean that it was all in God’s hands and that I got the relief of feeling love somehow. Situation ongoing — Michael Baumann, I *might* have a clue what your wife went through
To all: I personally need to distinguish between full reconciliation and forgiveness. Forgiveness is letting go, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to walk back into another temptation or harmful situation.
Janine, I recall that Father once wrote here that forgiveness is the reestablishment of relationship. However, depending on the situation, it may require distance. We should always remember that relationships are not of a single form; some things that will never work in close proximity can blossom in a healthy manner with space. May your prayers be blessed!
Thank you Byron! God bless you!
I think your distinction is healthy. We may sometimes choose to again face an enemy in a vulnerable manner – but that is a voluntary offering of self-sacrifice – something that is not demanded of us (otherwise it wouldn’t be an offering). In my experience, until the original wound is healed, I stand before such enemies repeatedly. They wound us again and again. These are difficult matters. But God gives grace and healing is possible.
A number of years ago a man hurt me, shamed me in front of a couple of others. The pain of it went to my very core. It was very hard for me later to even be in his presence. I started praying, “God, you know exactly what I am feeling, how I am suffering. I desperately need your help!” Well, after that I began praying not only for myself but for the man. At first I think I was just going through the motions. Later I began to pray that Christ would bless the man, that he would make his life to prosper. And as I prayed this way for him, the hurt in my heart started to disipate. And I began to truly mean what I was praying. This occurred over a period of several years. I moved out of state and was never personally reconciled to him. Some years later I learned that he had died. But now, the sting was gone. I can sincerely pray for his soul asking that God grant him mercy. God paid this debt for me, one I could never have paid myself. Thank God for the forgiveness He extends to us all and for His constant loving-kindness. He truly alone is worthy.
Seems to put a whole new light on substitutionary atonement.
Thank you so much Father Stephen! Indeed it is so — and if only I knew in advance what forms that repetition would take! Part of the problem for me, and I suspect this is not unusual, is that I had to recognize the sin first. As a child my coping skill took on the form of not feeling, or believing a sin was somehow deserved or good for me or whatever, the list is endless. But those are lies that also repeat themselves. I think we can’t forgive unless we see through our own denial. Always Christ — at least that’s what my experience seems to say — wants us with our eyes wide open. Alert, awake — it takes on so many meanings. Also, I think someone else up there said it as well — I had to separate what was my fault or responsibility from what was not. I’m not responsible for how people respond, I can’t *control* them. But I am responsible for how I respond. It seems to me Christ on the Cross and in His Passion really teaches us this. ..
The love of enemies takes, I think, a lifetime to learn. As a protestant convert, I still, at times, expect a “sudden moment of change” instead of glimpses of grace and a slow process that brings one close to God (Who is never far). I was struck by this quote in our parish bulletin, on the Sunday of the Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council. It is so very difficult to live and truly love your enemies! How much more difficult when we have loved them first as friends….
If a man insults me, kills my father, my mother, my brother, and then gouges out my eye, as a Christian it is my duty to forgive him. We who are pious Christians ought to love our enemies and forgive them. We ought to offer them food and drink, and entreat God for their souls. And then we should say: “my God, I beseech Thee to forgive me, as I have forgiven my enemies.”
–St. Kosmas Aitolos who was instrumental in maintaining Orthodox Christianity among the Greek people during the Turkokratia, for which he was martyred in 1779
Shades of Job! Lord have mercy.
The first time I heard the Akathist dissmissal, I must have been new in attending the services, because I thought this was a normal payer – I heard…
Priest: For those that hate us, and those who love us…
People: Lord Have Mercy.
I thought to myself – this faith has enshrined this prayer in its services for over 1500+ years, how beautiful! It’s one thing to talk about it, to give a sermon once or twice a decade about it, but its quite another thing to incorporate it into the formal fabric, to be recited in the public prayers of your faith – multiple times a year…
I was impressed.
I still have not forgotten the way Debbie tied the words “thankyou forgiving us” together in the last post. I want to say again, that really is having a profound affect on me. And now this post about this very subject. I was about to add a thought, “Forgiveness is for giving.” But somehow that seems too cute and cuddly, nicely wrapped in comfort, hallmark paper impossible to unwrap. And yet I can’t shake myself of this:
Years ago, a person who exhibited all the signs of hate and malice raised a gun (which was loaded and chambered in front of me) to shoot and kill me, but by the grace and mercy of God, the gun went off (the person pulled the trigger) just before taking aim and the bullet hit the ground just in front of my feet. We were only about six feet apart. In that instant, that person’s terrifying look of intent from a lifetime of stored hate and anger flashed at me in a frozen frame I can never forget. I cannot now bear to imagine the poverty that person is carrying to this day as I had repeatedly asked why, what did I do, and if anything, please forgive…me. (You would think it would be the other way around)
And now, I have to this second, been totally stopped in thanking, in giving in forgiveness myself. Just as I think I’ve forgiven, the image described above returns. So, I now share in this person’s debt. If I feel in debt…as a victim and unknowing cause of such deep hate, I am, even as I write these befumbled words…beyond comprehending that person’s tremendous burden, no doubt hidden and buried in the deepest depths. We are both now bound up in unspeakable debt. After countless confessions, prayer, years of sleepless nights, appeals to others for mediation, it seems quite…impossible. And yet God becomes the debtor. So, where is the relief? The discharge? So far, the interest is killing both of us beyond anyone’s wildest expectation of return.
Somehow, the answer sits just within grasp of Debbie’s pearl: “Forgiveness is for giving.” It is for Christ to give. I want to ask, “Then, what is he waiting for?” But I should know better. “Bear alittle shame?” Debt seems to be coming back around to shame…and my hands tremble and shake at the gift I’m unable to tear open.
Forgive me Priest Stephen. My husband and I have been inquirers going on two years now. I was grotesquely hurt by a fellow “inquirer” (he’s been attending the church for several years –pretty much considered a member and is very well loved and respected by the priest and the rest of the church.) who’s actions put me under so much stress it could have been the reason why I miscarried four days later. (My husband and I have no children) Being a woman in a “man’s” world, this mans inappropriate actions towards me have only been taken seriously once a fellow woman (who’s a member) stepped in for my defense. When the priest confronted the man in private, we were told this man felt very sorry for what he did and wants to apologize. I find it very hard to trust this man….of course he’s going to act sorry in front of the priest! He wants to save face! I’m sorry, Priest Stephen, but I have so much anger. I don’t feel like the church takes these sort of issues seriously. Sometimes I feel as if the church would like to keep these grotesque sins hush-hush for their image sake….or maybe it’s just plane ignorance and church leaders don’t know how to confront these matters appropriately and with justice. I know I need to forgive….I have loads of bitterness from past assaults that I go back and forth with in terms of forgiving then getting embittered again. I don’t know what to do with these immediate feelings. My husband and I truly love the Orthodox Church, but we’re heart broken and torn and we don’t know if we can stay…. Plus, for my souls sake, I need to forgive….but it’s not as easy for me.
In conclusion, when my husband and I meet with this man for his apology….how should I respond? How would you respond? If you have a daughter, how would you want her to respond? Please pray for us….this sadness is almost too much to bear.
I surely have a lot to learn…
I sympathize with you. Here is how I almost always condition an apology I make to another person. “I apologize. Please, forgive me. I make no excuse for what I did. And you are under no obligation to forgive me.”
When someone has hurt another person. They are obligated to the injured person to acknowledge what was done with no excuses and to free that person from a sense of obligation to forgive.” The reason why that last part is important is that the assumption that the injured party is obligated to forgive puts the offending person in control of his victim’s behavior AGAIN. The offender was exerting control when the offense occurred and now the offender is in control of the reconciliation.
You are under NO obligation to forgive.
Given that the offense was grievous, the offender is under obligation to implore forgiveness with no expectation of forgiveness. The offender is there to bear responsibility for his offense, not impose his will on you again just so that he can have peace of mind.
As you heal you will offer forgiveness as God gives you grace.
And it should be noted that acknowledging that an apology has been given is not the same as forgiveness. One is simply acknowledges what has been offered. The other comes with grace and time.
What you describe is truly horrific. How could someone apologize for possibly causing a miscarriage? I mean by that, that there is nothing he could say that will ease the pain or improve things. If you and your husband are willing to meet with him, it would be a great act of mercy on your part – a generosity that may very well be completely undeserved. I do not suggest that in the short term you should try to forgive in the sense of feeling different about things. For one, your grief at the loss of your child needs to be honored and you need to take time with it. There is a service (we use it in the OCA) called a “Molieben for those who grieve” that was written specifically to be used with families who have had a miscarriage. It might be of use in your grief.
It is also possible that your priest has failed in some manner. I certainly have plenty of times. In very emotionally-laden settings it’s very easy to make mistakes and handle things badly. I think this is probably not an Orthodox problem – it’s just a human problem that happens everywhere. We mess up – it’s tragic and people get hurt.
How would I respond? I would share how I feel – how it hurt – if necessary, together with your husband, you might require groundrules for any further interaction – proper boundaries. You did not describe the exact nature of his actions – whether they were physical, emotional, verbal or what. Those things could make for a very different conversation. You do not have a responsibility to make this man feel better. If he apologizes, you might respond, “May God have mercy on you.” You do not have to declare “I forgive you.” “God have mercy on you,” is more than sufficient.
For yourself, and your own soul, this is not going to be easy or quick. It will take time. It will take grieving. It will require a great measure of grace from God. I would pray, “Oh God help me, give me grace!” or to that effect. If it is possible to bear all this and remain at the parish – that itself is a great measure of grace.
If this man’s action is not an isolated event – if it’s the sort of thing he’s done to others – it would be appropriate to ask the priest to insist that he leave. Making the Church safe is a pastor’s responsibility. But, without knowing more details, I can only make that as a general observation.
I would encourage you to get counseling – outside the Church if possible. This is the kind of situation that sets up “complicated” grief that is hard to heal. You’ll need help. I will pray. If you would like to email me privately, I would gladly be of any help I can.
It also okay to tell your offender that you are not ready to confront him. Forcing you to confront your offender before you are prepared may only deepen your wounds or create new injury.
Do not allow anyone to pressure you to do something that you are not prepared to do.
You don’t want or need an apology. You need a sincere admission of guilt.
David is right.
I have commented on this blog post in thanksgiving to Fr. Stephen Freeman for posting. I have read these comments and I truly appreciate all who have encouraged “May God have mercy on you” as a response in place of “I forgive you” This is what I believe Our Lord has encouraged me to do throughout years and situations concerning enemies, true enemies who have killed and hurt my family and those I love. My husband and I say an Orthodox Christian prayer “For our Enemies” daily and we have had our house blessed when a particular person and situation appeared especially dark and menacing. I also appreciate the encouragement to pray prayers of grief and offer molbien. Thank you all for your love and faith and encouragement to know Our Lord is the Lover of Mankind.
Dear Lily Jo,
I’m so sorry for what you have been through. Peace. Prayers for you. I have been scandalized in church and hurt more times than I can count — some seriously enough so that I left that particular church (not the Orthodox faith, just one troubled parish with a very hostile member where the problem wasn’t going to be resolved). All I can offer you are my prayers for love to permeate your life; it’s God’s love we need isn’t it? And thank you again to the posters here and to Fr. Stephen for your responses to Lily Jo (and to me).
Dear Priest Stephen Freeman,
Please forgive me for my words against this man. I know I am not his judge and I do not want to add any more judgement on myself bc of him. Thank you for your counsel and insight. If I could have your email so I could speak with you in more detail on this matter, I would greatly appreciate it. Yes, I am actively looking for counseling from a PhD in Psychology…I hope to get something set in stone today. Again, I am sincerely grateful for your prayers and wisdom.
As a first time poster, thank you all for your wisdom and grace towards me. I haven’t been sleeping much so my post was kind of made as a “cry for help” with much emotion. Thank you all for your kindness. God bless you all.
I wanted to add my love for you and your husband to the comments you already received… You are in my prayers, as I know the pain of loosing a child this early. But stay close to God and He will comfort you and bless you according to His Will for you..
I want to encourage you to not hold the offences you experienced against the Church. The Church is Christ’s presence in the world, His Body available to us to experience and partake of. It’s the only place where this is possible.
Long ago I heard Fr. Tom Hopko say that many people are not in the Church “for God”… They are there for many reasons, except to truly meet God. If you remember that, you can begin to shift your focus, forgive and yourself enter God’s presence. That is the only thing that matters.
I also encourage you to find the Prayer Nicolaos posted at the end of previous discussion. It’s a truly life transforming prayer. May God heal and comfort you.
Lily Jo – thank you for being vulnerable in the midst of such heartache – I am praying that God will provide His grace in your pain, so that you know He is helping you carry it – and His grace to accept your heart’s journey of forgiveness whatever paths and however long it may take. Please do not be rushed. And lease forgive us if in our desire to help we add to your grief.
Byron – thank you for expressing mercy to Lily Jo and all of us who may be imprecise as we struggle to put words to our darkest moments.
I think it best not to make further discussion of Lily’s comment, it’s sensitive and easy to say something unhelpful or worse.
Fr. Stephen, Lily, and others,
Forgive me if my comments have caused anyone grief. Though I meant no harm, I was, perhaps, a little too blunt. I lost my peace, my patience, and wasn’t as gracious as I ought to have been.
Pray for me, a sinner.
MattZ – no problem. Prayers for us all!
Clarifying…I am Debbie and not Debbie A.
“The penury of our enemies is the deepest poverty of all, truly an inescapable cycle. It can only be broken by an act of radical generosity. But the generosity is not being asked of us. God will repay the debt. Whatever it is they have done, however much they owe, God will pay it.”
Interesting how folktales often reflect something of our Generous Father.
“O Lord, you know what my enemies have done to me. On the day of judgment, do not hold it against them on my account.”
Or the variant: “Save, O Lord, and have mercy on them that hate and wrong me, and make temptation for me, and let them not perish because of me, a sinner.”
These are hard prayers for me to say, namely because when I say them all of the people that I myself have wronged and hated, and led into temptation and sin, come to mind. I always have to immediately pray for my victims who I’ve preyed upon, that I not be the cause of their fall in anyway.
I am at times a hateful and vicious sinner. I should realize this and expect no one to be condemned for their actions against me. I think maybe this is the point of the last line of the prayer -“let them not perish because of me, A SINNER.” It seems to be more of a statement of fact than a petition.
In other words, “who am I that anyone should be condemned over their actions towards me? I am nothing more than a miserable, hateful sinner.”
Psalm 51 says, “For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight—That You may be found just when You speak, And blameless when You judge.”
I get the impression from these verses that whatever condemnation we might reap isn’t for what we may have sown with respect to another. We are condemned for what we have done to ourselves in transgressing another. Each and every human heart is a temple of God, a house of prayer. And by our transgressions we make our house of prayer a den of thieves. In other words, we have desecrated ourselves as temples of God. In ourselves, we have sown corruption and alienation. And in ourselves we shall reap corruption and alienation. Wherever we have sown alienation and corruption, we have sinned against God.
I would suggest that we should see your “Who am I?” statements as affirmations of ourselves as collateral damage in another person’s wayward course because truthfully just because we haven’t committed murder…doesn’t mean that we haven’t committed it in our hearts.
If it only matters that I AM a miserable hateful sinner and nothing more (and so “deserving” of who knows what), then there was no reason for Christ, the Son, to manifest as one of us. We may commit sin, but we ARE much much more — and touched by the very Godhead to teach us so. That is the whole root of our salvation.
Michael Bauman: Praying for you. In similar situation as your wife in my family. I wanted to suggest that forgiveness is one thing; talking to people still in delusion is another. Perhaps now is the time to limit your interactions with your wife’s sister, kindly telling her it’s too painful to discuss, and ceasing contact with her if she won’t respect boundaries. You can pray for her, light a candle, etc. but forgiveness doesn’t mean that you have to sustain contact that is abusive. I also wanted to suggest a marvelous, marvelous book about forgiveness, that I have read many, many times, really try to read once a year. “The Hiding Place” by Corrie Ten Boom. It is the most marvelous story of what it means to take up your cross and follow Christ. And at its heart it is also about forgiving the unforgivable.
Seems that I’ve reached bankruptcy here. I guess this blog is too much for me. I’ll go back to lighting incense and carrying candles. God bless you Father. Please pray for me…the accused.
I’m not sure what you mean by bankruptcy. Care to elaborate?
Thank you for your response. It offered me some clarity.
To be honest, I’m not completely comfortable with my comment. Simply because I am wary of anything that diminishes the significance of the injustice people suffer. We are icons, temples of God, made in God’s image and intended for his likeness–don’t jostle the icons! At the end of the day I want to say that we are the source of own sin and any condemnation that we receive isn’t because of the deeds we have done, but because of the condition of our hearts.
I’m hoping Fr. is going to weigh in on this.
This topic, when turned to the self, is indeed full of potholes. “Who am I” is, on the one hand, always evocative of shame because shame centers around that very question. The experience of shame can be toxic and deadly, or, when it is voluntarily borne by a great soul, actually salvific. But, mostly, when speaking to us muggles – it carries a fair amount of toxic baggage.
The deeds we have done are – in the final analysis – quite temporary and ephemeral. Only the impact on a soul gives them lasting power…and that power is not in the deed itself, but in the soul (it’s injury, etc.).
One reason it is important to remember that we do not save ourselves is because we simply do not have the tools required to do the work. As St. Gregory of Nyssa says, “Man is mud, that has been commanded to become a god.” Of course, we waste a lot of time complaining about how muddy we are. That I am not a god is not a matter for judgment or shame.
In truth, we are healed by “beholding His face.” I am not healed by beholding my sin. I cannot even rightly understand my sin by looking at it. It is only as I behold His face that my sin is revealed in its truth…but even then…my attention should not turn from His face to the sin.
What’s up? Tell it like it is brother, if you care to. If not, I respect you either way.
Thing is, I can easily read into your words something that’s not there. Like you said before “they’re just words”….but we read your words….all of them.
Thank you for your input above. We look to your words for some kind of perspective. We do spend a lot of time thinking about how muddy we are…that tension is always there. But you give the only meaningful answer…behold His face. We (our being) are not our sin, we are “in Him”. It’s hard for our finite minds to totally grasp this, but nevertheless, it’s true.
It seems it comes down to Faith and trust…and not “reason”.
(By the way, I just learned a new word..”muggles”…!)
Lately I have been thinking about Anatoly from the movie The Island. He is covered in coal stains, but he is NOT his coal stains. I think the coal, pile of coal he sleeps on, and coal stains are most likely a cinematic metaphor for sin.
And, worth noting, Fr. Anatoly sleeps on a pile of coal (which is similar to the location of his great sin), but there is the very clean inner room, with just the icon of Christ and a candle. There he enters secretly and prays…he never takes anyone else into it other than God…and he never points out its existence to others. There alone, he is not the fool.
What you share is powerful because we all know what it feels like to be on either side of a slight.
What has helped me the most in forgiving and forgetting a slight is a change of perspective offered to me several years ago.
There are two types of forgiveness. Human forgiveness and Divine forgiveness.
With human forgiveness, one person is slighted, and usually along with some sort of indemnification, that person gets to play the “1 up” position and forgive the other person, though they usually don’t forget.
With Divine forgiveness, one realizes that there was never a slight to begin with, that the situation that one is working through is a divine gift that gives us an opportunity to improve ourselves, typically in the form of grinding down our sense of self-importance. When this occurs we can see the situation with gratitude as opposed to resentment, as we understand it was the Divine working through that situation to prepare us to receive his gift of love in totality.
As I young child I experienced a very abusive life. Using Divine forgiveness, I am able to see that the people who abused me were hurt too, and use the experience in a positive way, particularly when it comes to other people trying to work through the same kind of pain. I could not help the thousands of people that I have, if I had never had the experience. I am grateful for that experience as it not only because I used it to help define who I am, it helped me help others through the darkness that abusive situations create for people.
When we see the Divine working through our lives in every aspect of our life, it creates a sense of security that makes it possible not to have to feel threatened by or fear other people.
That’s right. That Anatoly doesn’t point out the room’s existence to others reminds me of Jesus parable of the treasure in the field. The treasure is found, the field is purchased, the treasure reburied, and evidently the intention is not to tell others of the field or what is inside it.
I love that you used the word “muggles.” 🙂
Your observation about the connection between Fr. Anatoly’s living situation and, I’ll phrase this as, the content of his soul is very helpful. Every time I’ve watched that movie, I’ve wondered how refusing the Abbot’s offer to live with him in his cell was an example of humility. I knew it was, but wasn’t sure of the mechanics of it, so to speak. Your comment makes me speculate that, in his humility, he was bearing a little shame (or a lot) by how he lived and the constant reminder of his sin. Surrounding himself with soot and coal was keeping him grounded in this sense, whereas if he had left to live with the Abbot, he would have forgotten himself. Which is very beautiful, but doesn’t make for easy living this side of Paradise.
Funny you should mention the movie “The Island”. It is sitting in my favorites, yet to be viewed. The person who recommended that movie to me was subdcn Andrew.
The coal heap is his cross. I think of it like the copper serpent Moses raised up in the dessert. It was serpents that delivered the sting of death and so a copper serpent was raised up on the tree. Anatoly’s refusal of the Abbott’s offer was him refusing to lay down his cross. In effect, the Abbott was saying to him “Take it easy Father you do not have to suffer this fate” and Anatoly in effect said “Get behind me…” He wasn’t sleeping in the coals as an ascetic discipline. He was bearing his sin and no one was going to take the weight of that from him.
“The deeds we have done are – in the final analysis – quite temporary and ephemeral. Only the impact on a soul gives them lasting power…and that power is not in the deed itself, but in the soul (it’s injury, etc.).”
It’s the souls of other’s that my deeds have injured that weigh on me most. I cannot save them and make “mud into gods,” as you say, but it seems I can injure their souls in a way that makes them resistant and/or neglectful in entering into their own journey of theosis. I can lead astray.
Yes, I am ashamed, and it must be the toxic kind since I am not a saint. But my main concern isn’t only for relieving my own shame (that seems a bit selfish to me, to only be concerned about making myself feel better about myself. Not that I’m not selfish. I do think of my own relief), my main concern is for the one that I potentially assisted in being lost. I hope for universalism, but if that doesn’t happen then I could potentially assist in someone elses soul’s damage, and thus be a cog in the mechanisms that lead to their turning away from God.
For example, an atheist parent drives atheism into their child’s head, injuring the child’s soul. The then the child has a hard time with not being resistant to God.
Maybe the parent eventually realizes the truth. Sure, maybe they feel some toxic shame, but who cares? What they are really concerned about is their child’s damaged soul. Unfortunately for them the child grew into young adulthood, became even more faithless and damaged for various reasons, and then committed suicide in that state. Bummer.
It’s comforting to know that it is all on God to make mud into His likeness. But if universalism doesn’t happen I cannot imagine how this parent can be comforted.
I do hope for universalism. I am not a universalist, though. I don’t have that kind of insight to be able to confidently declare it.
This hypothetical parent I mentioned, I don’t have a clue what truth could possibly be revealed in His Face concerning their sin in light of the disastrous end it aided their child toward. At least not any truth of comfort if their child ends up in an eternal state of hell. But I guess that’s just because I haven’t seen His Face yet.
Just so everyone knows, I’m not on here just to be a Debbie Downer. I know their is a lot of wise people on here, and I am awaiting their wise council. It may help some people out there who feel they’ve led someone astray in a bad way.
“In truth, we are healed by “beholding His face.” I am not healed by beholding my sin. I cannot even rightly understand my sin by looking at it. It is only as I behold His face that my sin is revealed in its truth…but even then…my attention should not turn from His face to the sin.”
In light of this statement, I am having a difficult time understanding why Anatoly’s sleeping on coal is a good thing. If he is constantly looking at (sleeping on) his sin, how is that “beholding His face” instead of beholding his sin? I realize that this is his act of voluntary shame, but it seems almost toxic to me. How is this trusting in the forgiveness of Christ? I love this movie, but I see Anatoly’s actions as rejecting the work of healing.
I would appreciate any insight.
Just my thoughts. I would suggest that Anatoly’s “heart” is in the inner chapel. It is “where he dwells” though it is not visible to others. Anatoly rightly takes responsibility for what he believes he has done – killed a man. And, in a proper (and quite devout) Orthodox manner, he does penance for that action. Just as his friend’s life was ended while they were hiding in the coal pile (more or less), so he continues his watch on the pile of coal, always praying for the soul of the warrior Tikhon. It is his steadfastness, and a true loyalty to a man who did him no harm but was a victim of his (Anatoly’s) cowardice.
It is not an either/or. The inner chapel, that is so completely clean, is the heart. But the heart does not forget the reality of consequence of sin (which is another man’s death). He stays on the coal to pray for Tikhon. The work of healing is complete when he sees that Tikhon is alive and well. Then all is complete and he dies in peace – also saving the soul of the troubled priest-monk who carries the Cross for his grave.
Penance?? How does a person decide what is appropriate for penance?
It’s something worked out with a confessor – quite tricky to decide for oneself. It’s not a matter of earning, or paying back, or proving we’re sorry or any such thing. It’s a pity that the word “penance” is what I used – that’s a Latin word with lots of legal ramifications. The Orthodox word is “epitimia.” The Romanians often call it a “canon.” It’s something done that adds power to our repentance (and more).
Christ’s word to the Rich Young Ruler, “Go and sell what you have, give it to the poor,” could be rightly understood as an epitimia.
The commandment to “go and wash in the pool of Siloam” was an epitimia. There is a great mystery in them.
Thank you so much for this, Father. I’ve suffered a lot of abuse and injustice in my life. I didn’t think I harbored any grudges, because most of the time I was so focused on getting through and out of the situations closing in on me. But now, nearly 40, and finally in a wonderful marriage, these emotions are getting a chance to settle, and I am confronted with this terrible bitterness, sorrow, and anger that come over me as I remember these past events – and while I don’t sit and think on them, so many things trigger my memories – and I don’t remember them, I re-live them. I’m just left with this fear – fear of how much they hurt me, fear that it can happen again with other people. My mind plays these things over and over uninvited, like an avalanche. I knew that I hadn’t forgiven, but I simply didn’t know how. Previously, I had just considered all the different reasons why these people would have done these things, reasons they couldn’t control, etc. – and also that I myself am an imperfect sinner, too, so I shouldn’t judge. Well, that had kept me from holding a grudge, but it couldn’t take away the pain, the fear, and then the anger – the anger really grew slowly over the years, and now it’s turning into bitterness. It’s really only now that I realize that I haven’t forgiven them. I have tried praying for them, and it’s a first step, but it hasn’t brought me all the way there – it hasn’t delivered me from the fear and confusion
Anyway, I have a feeling that your analogy here is really going to help! It makes me understand it in a new way – it delivers me from the confusion which causes me to fear – to keep scanning and re-scanning, looking for clues, trying to understand, worried it can happen again, etc. I really have hope that this perspective you’ve presented is what I need to learn to forgive – not just the past, but of course in the future, too, and also myself. Thank you again!
Thanks for your reply.
I guess I have had a different take on the ending of this movie. Anatoly, not being able to bear the consequences of his sin, lives a life of hard penance (not given by his priest). It is as if he has put himself in prison (not the monastery, but how he lives there). Even his Abbot is befuddled. This is like a demon which doesn’t allow him to accept the full forgiveness of Christ. When he meets Tikhon’s daughter and prays out her demon, he exorcises his own demon (in a manner of speaking) and is healed. Is this a Protestant interpretation of the movie?
About penance. Does God need our repentance to be more powerful or is it for us? How would we know this?
Thanks for your help,
Diana, I would say that Tikhon’s daughter is brought to Anatoly as part of the reordering that God’s grace provides. It s a consummation of Anatoly’s life of repentance. It is a feast. Then Anatoly is released to pass on.
I going to attempt to answer my own concerns about how the hypothetical parent could find comfort:
I think the answer lies within Christ’s words to Pontius Pilot, “You could have no power at all against me, except it were given you from above.”
Even my hypothetical parent would have no power to inflict injury to the soul of their child lest God allows it. If God allows it Athen ultimately in the end it will work toward His Good Will, despite our meaning it for evil (like Joseph’s brothers throwing him in the well). If that somehow doesn’t mean universalism, and their is still somehow an eternal hell for some, then I am stumped as to how that will look in the midst of God’s fully accomplished Will in the Last Day. But the parent can at least find comfort in knowing that they could not have even harmed their own child except that God allowed it ultimately for His good purpose. Not that leading their child astray is good, but that somehow God allows it for accomplishing His Good purpose.
But if the parent drowns in toxic shame over what kind of person they must be to commit such evil, despairing over themselves in self pity, without looking to Christ for forgiveness and restoration, then they risk becoming like Judas. Judas was hung up on himself, falling into misery over the emptiness of his actions. Peter also despaired over himself but looked back to Christ for restoration, knowing, as he had said, “Lord, to whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Perhaps we should look to Anatoly’s real persona in Pyotr Mamonov’s amazing sermon found here:
It is said that Pyotr played himself, here a quote taken from the intro to this movie on youtube:
“The Island” is a 2006 Russian biographical film about a 20th century Eastern Orthodox monk. Pyotr Mamonov, who plays the lead character, formerly a rock musician in the USSR, converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in the 1990s and lives now in an isolated village. Film director Pavel Lungin said about him that “to a large extent, he played himself.” Mamonov was first very hesitant to play in the film, but then was urged by his confessor to play the character. After the filming, one of the movie crew staff decided to stay on the island and live there as a hermit.
I will offer my level best understanding…but, take everything I say with a many grains of salt.
First, God is under no obligation to offer us comfort or to make us comfortable. I like the character Anatoly. He seeks God’s mercy. He is offers the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51). But, he doesn’t seek to be comforted. He bears his inconsolable penance for thirty years. So, with respect to your hypothetical parents perhaps the should bear the shame for what they did. Fine. I imagine that sincere repentance does not seek relief from shame, but the strength to bear it.
As for the fate of the child, there are good reasons for hoping that all men will be saved. First and only reason I need for that hope is this: God is good and loves mankind. God doesn’t give us all the answers. Fine. However, I imagine that all the answers we would probably ever need are implicit in God’s character and most everything that we need to do can be done in prayer. Also, in Orthodoxy it is completely appropriate to pray for mercy and pardon for the deceased.
We can always come up with hypothetical questions ‘What about this? What about that?’ There is a story in physics about an old professor who is working in a lab with some younger colleagues. And they are busy philosophizing and asking “What about this? What about that? Could this be true? How do we know?” and the old man finally says “Just shut up and calculate.” This is how I feel about many things. There are important questions that deserve attention and they should be given attention. But, for many others I just think to myself “Just shut up and pray.”
I don’t know that it’s a Protestant interpretation. Many things in the movie echo various stories in Orthodox saints lives. The notion of penance is pretty unknown to Protestants. And, of course, we’re not given a lot of information. The character is aware, despite the burden of his sin, that he is becoming a saint and that he carries the life of the whole community on his shoulders.
We are so “forensic” or “legal” and psychological in Western Protestant take on things, that we tend to think that once we’ve asked forgiveness, it just happens. It becomes a sort of legal fiction. “Saved by grace” becomes a ready “get out of jail free” card that means we really never have to suffer for our sins at all. Of course, it would be possible to abuse the notion of suffering for our sins.
Fr. Anatoly, in a very Orthodox (and very Russian) way, prays and prays, and does a life of penance, waiting for some sort of release from God. We can see in the film that God has used that very burden to make him a saint.
There is a story from the life of St. Silouan. When he was a young man, he was at a party in a village and there was another man who was singing and dancing. Silouan asked him, “How can you dance since you killed a man?” (the man had been involved in the death of another some time back and had gone to prison). The man said to him that he prayed and prayed and asked God for mercy. God took it from him. The young Silouan was deeply moved by this reality and learned the importance of prayer.
In that man’s case, prison was a wonderful penance which he did not waste.
I think about Fr Anatoly’s experience as quite similar. His own burden is lifted when he meets Tikhon face to face (before the exorcism). He speaks of “angels fluttering” in his chest. It is possible in the movie to see the girl’s suffering as God’s providence bringing Anatoly and Tikhon back together again. For both of them.
God does not need our penance – but we do. St. John the Baptist says, “Bring forth fruit that befits repentance” (Matt. 3:8).
Thank you for the link. It was beautiful to read Pyotr Mamonov’s words.
Your response has been helpful. I can relate to Anatoly and his human experience. I know God loves me and forgives me freely, but I often still bear the burden of remembering my sin and sometimes suffering the consequences. I have always felt guilty about this because it seemed to me that my burden was because of a lack of faith. I figured if I knew my sins were forgiven, I should just merrily go my way. It isn’t that simple.
A few months ago I watched The Island for the second time. Afterwards, when I was struggling with life or guilt, I would say to myself “Just keep shoveling your coal, Diana.” It became my mantra, and somewhere deep inside I was beginning to understand. I think that after reading your blog for several years, that idea of bearing shame and continuing doing what God has given us to do, with thanksgiving, has taken root. I still often get confused by many statements made on this blog, but I deeply appreciate your patience (and others here) to continually explain.
“We can see in the film that God has used that very burden to make him a saint.”
I think it is worth pointing out that Anatoly did not actually murder Tikhon. Anatoly did not know that. Given the circumstances he had every reason to believe that he had. BUT, God would have known that Anatoly had not murdered Tikhon. Even so, Anatoly’s penance for his sin (that he actually had not committed) became the means for becoming a saint.
What does this emphasize about repentance?
Also, Anatoly was not trying to become a saint through ascetic discipline. I don’t see much intentionality behind his behavior. There is something non-Cartesian about Anatoly. He is not self-aware. Anatoly is simple, humble, and penitent. Anatoly is just being Anatoly and in the process God makes a saint of him and he genuinely cannot understand why. He is not trying to do anything.
My life is littered by things that I am trying to do.
Father and Diana,
Thank you for your discussion on penance, it was very helpful.
Father, when you said “God does not need our penance – but we do”, it reminded me hearing Fr. Zacharias say how he thinks of all those “canons and penances” not as a punishment for sins, but an indication of what effects specific sins have on our soul. He would bring up stories of desert monks who punished themselves very severely (for example years in exile) for a small sin of judging another… Somebody commented that this “seemed excessive”, that is was an unnecessary exaggeration…. But it was not an exaggeration for this particular soul, which was more pure and more sensitive to the effect of the sin… I often think about that and it helps me see my sins more clearly, all of them from the most obvious to the more hidden and known only to me and the Lord.
May God grant us to know our souls and stay away from all sin that harms it…
Good observations. Particularly that Fr. Anatoly is not trying to become a saint…He is looking to God for healing, forgiveness and release. He does it from within the Tradition.
I think Americans are a “can-do” people. Give us goal, we’ll make a plan and try to make it happen. It’s also a way of saying that we are people of the “modern project.” God has a very different project. Fr. John Behr called it “the human project.”
This hypothetical parent I mentioned, I don’t have a clue what truth could possibly be revealed in His Face concerning their sin in light of the disastrous end it aided their child toward. At least not any truth of comfort if their child ends up in an eternal state of hell. But I guess that’s just because I haven’t seen His Face yet.
Michelle, it may be something as simple as the fact that He never leaves us. If we fear that our children may go to Hell, perhaps, instead of fearing, we should instead trust God to care for them even there. Or perhaps, as others have mentioned, the trial will simply be for their salvation. Our role in it may simply be for our own salvation through repentance. Just thinking out loud. May God grant His Grace.
“So, with respect to your hypothetical parents perhaps the should bear the shame for what they did.”
I can imagine my hypothetical parent desiring to bear the shame for what they did in utter despair, purposely drowning themselves in hopeless sorrow, and possibly even committing suicide themselves, all as a self-inflicted judgement. They would be sentencing themselves, and drawing out the punishment upon themselves, all for the sake of “bearing their sin” (maybe this is a more apt picture of Judas’ end). But this would be the result of the deadly toxic kind of shame. What would be the qualitatively different inner motivations and workings of a saintly desire to bear the full brunt of one’s shame without seeking comfort from God? Holy fools come to mind. What makes them tick?
As far as why I conjured up such a hypothetical? Well, because for thousands upon thousands, if not millions of souls out there this is their much-to-real reality. There are lots of parents out there who actually have played a major role in damaging their child’s soul to the point of steering them towards suicide. I know people personally who have battled thoughts of suicide in which it is blatently obvious that their parents are the main factor in their own despair and suffering. These are people I love and think of often. So, yes, I sit and
do battle with these ideas. I try to do it prayerfully, with sincerity and faith. I seek out God’s answer to the people I love’s situation. I try to do it for the sake of increasing faith, not diminishing it. I don’t always succeed at this and often get lost in my own thoughts, but when I catch myself slipping away I try to turn myself back to God’s presence in faith.
Thank you for the conversation. Believe me when I say your responses have been edifying for me. Even when taken with grains of salt 🙂
I appreciate the use of hypotheticals. They draw out the implications entailed by our assumptions. There is much that I could, but I’m not sure what point you’re trying to get at. What is the question(s) that is really working on you? Please, be specific.
That’s a really tough hypothetical case that you pose…
It seems to be that everything boils down to relationship and mercy. First and foremost ones relationship with God and with others. (The greatest commandment) In any case of suicide (or even accidental death) of a child a parent would be wrought with “what ifs”. Even if that parent has begun the journey of reconciling their relationship with God – the child in the case you offer has not – except I am thinking of an example Fr Stephen offered in a prior post – that a monastic saves seven generations of their family (I don’t remember the exact example Fr Stephen). We are all connected. We are not saved alone – and so I would think that this hypothetical parent finding and embracing the Faith enhances the process of salvation in that family – similar to the example of monasticism that Fr Stephen offered a prior post.
If parent has truly found Faith then this terrible Cross would be an opportunity to pray for their child’s soul – which might be the only Balm for the extraordinary mingling of unbearable grief and shame that parent would carry. It’s a debt that only Christ could bear.
I am not sure I believe in universalism but a merciful loving God, YES. If a child has truly been raised astray, against the Lord – and in a society stiff necked and at arms against God – and that child dies estranged from God – how can our God – Who sent His only Begotten Son to find His friend Adam ( who knew Him and betrayed Him) to raise him from the grave do anything but also search out the lost soul of one who was raised in enmity against Him?
We must allow for the mystery of God’s love & mercy – while also sleeping on and shoveling our own heaps of coal in hope, repentance and prayer.
I had similar thoughts as I looked through the recent comments. The relatively new novel, Laurus, that unfolds the story of a Holy Fool, is of a man who is in large part responsible for the death of a woman (whom he should have married) and her child. His negligence and shame prevented her from the confession and communion she desired and possibly caused her death. He considers suicide and is essentially engaged in a passive act of just doing nothing until he dies, when a Holy Elder appears and sets him on the path in which he will become a Holy Fool. There are many elements of various lives of Holy Fools woven into his story. It, I think, might well become a classic in Orthodox literature.
I think that, rightly understood, the Holy Fool is an example of the true Christian life drawn with crayons.
Our connectedness – particularly as we struggle for salvation – is deeply important and deeply Orthodox. We do not struggle for ourselves alone, and we perhaps struggle best if we are doing so on behalf of others.
I know I’m kind of going all over the place, and my points are not being made well. I think I’m trying to hard to articulate what I’m feeling about all of this, so I’ll start over:
My initial comment to Fr Stephen was regarding the two prayers I reacted to. The “Who am I?” wasn’t supposed to be about self-loathing, but somewhere along the lines of this,
“A brother in Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to him, saying, “Come, for everyone is waiting for you”. So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug and filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said, ” what is this, father?” The old man said to them, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.”
So, I guess I likened myself to this Saint who could not judge another before he judges his own sin. Well, I know I’m not a saint, but his disciples did not need to be saints either to understand his point.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think it takes saintliness to understand that nobody can actually accumulate debts owed to me, not even to my wounded soul. Not even if I suffer the worst kind of injury imaginable. And I get that the kind of “debt” Father is presenting is not moral recompense based on a forensic/judicial fiction, but a “debt” of healing what’s been broken. He says the person who harmed us needs to suture the cut and bind the wound. That’s the debt they owe us. But it is not that the monk in the above quote simply realizes the convicted person’s inability to satisfy their rightful duty as soul surgeon, and so the only thing left to do is to just forgive them. And this is the fault that I see, that it is not the expected debt itself that Fr Stephen criticizes, but rather the inability of us muggles to forgive the debt even after realizing the debtor’s inability to serve it up. However, what the monk actually realizes in the above quote is that we are not willing to look upon and judge our own sins, but we still rush to pronounce with certainty that some kind of debt is owed to us. But it doesn’t take a saint to realize that we don’t actually have the ability to assess the truth of what another person “owes,” if anything at all, without first understanding the truth about ourselves.
So when I read prayers like, “O Lord, you know what my enemies have done to me. On the day of judgment, do not hold it against them on my account,” I feel that knowledge of the nature of our own “account,” and knowledge of whether a debt can be held against it (even the “debt” of healing, and not that of a forensic nature) will be in light of true understanding of our own sins. And this is what we actually have a hard time doing –understanding our own state.
The Saint above says we don’t even see our sins. They are behind us. We don’t even know about them. And if we don’t even know what we ourselves have done then we cannot actually know what another person has done. A newborn baby may know the pain of broken ribs, but they do not have knowledge of the one shaking them. If the baby grows into adulthood and abuses and shakes his own newborn, then he will finally have knowledge of the one who shook him. Then he will know what “debt” a violent person owes his innocent victims. Then this man can paradoxically declare the insurmountable debt he owes his own child, and his inability to pay it, while at the same time acquiring a broken heart over his own abuser brokenness and declaring with burning love and compassion for them that they have never owed him anything at all. He will declare in truth that no such debt ever even existed for his abuser. This will be true judgment and accounting of debts. But us wounded souls cannot make this pure judgment without first knowing our sins in truth.
Furthermore, someone may try to persuade the small babe of its innocence and the debt owed by its abuser due to it, but when we look at the small babe’s point of view we will also find one who declares no debt over its abuser. Just look at real life small children who are daily abused by their own parents. If you ask a toddler whom they love the most they will answer, in utter innocence and purity, that they love their mommy and daddy.
It is only those of us wounded souls who are not innocent babes, nor deem ourselves to be the most vicious of sinners, who do not criticize the “debt.” Rather, we establish the debt, but only innocent babes and vicious sinners really have any knowledge of the truth, and thus are the only one’s in a real position to make any standing declaration on the subject. And this is why I have a hard time saying a prayer such as, “O Lord, you know what my enemies have done to me. On the day of judgment, do not hold it against them on my account.” I sit in ignorant darkness between pure innocence and realizing myself as a vicious sinner, so I simply have no weight in the subject of “accounts” and “debts” owed to my wounded soul.
Now, concerning my trailing off into the influence a parent has on their children towards their own demise, and possibly damnation, were in response to Father’s statement in one of his comments,
“The deeds we have done are – in the final analysis – quite temporary and ephemeral. Only the impact on a soul gives them lasting power…and that power is not in the deed itself, but in the soul (it’s injury, etc.).”
He seemed to be bringing the attention back to one’s own personal wound again. I wanted to refocus the attention back on to our own sinfulness, making us aware of the gravity of the effects we have on our victims, in order to bring it closer to the one of the two kinds of people who actually have authority on the subject (the innocent babes and the vicious, heartbroken sinner). I can’t relate to a Pure Innocence, but I can try to examine the sins that pour out of my pail behind me in order to try to have any real understanding of the subject of “debts.”
Admittedly, here I got hung up on what it could possibly look like for Saints to have joy in the Last Day while sinners are burning in eternally states of hell. I used the example of a parent being the eternally joyful Saint, while their own child, that they aided toward damnation, burned eternally. This really was a detour from my initial complaint as stated above. It’s just something I ponder a lot.
But anyway, I can see now that none of this was clear in any of my comments. What I was feeling and thinking was not transferring well into text. I did a poor job, but hopefully this attempt is a little better.
And as far as my last comment goes, it was more of a reflection on Fr Anatoly in The Island that everyone has been referencing (I also own this wonderful movie). This was also just another trailing off. I really resonated with Diana’s questions. My own question was this,
“What would be the qualitatively different inner motivations and workings of a saintly desire to bear the full brunt of one’s shame without seeking comfort from God? Holy fools come to mind. What makes them tick?”
Fr Anatoly’s sin is not much different than my hypothetical parent’s sin. They both have led to someone else’s possible eternal demise. There seems a fine line between someone who puts it to task to bear their shame in a spiritually damaging way in comparison to a spiritually edifying way. What are the differences in the two persons? It would be easy to look Fr Anatoly sitting on his heap of coal and conclude he is despairing, much like my hypothetical parent.
Thank you, Victoria, for you lovely response. It reminds me of St Xenia’s story, how she dressed in her deceased husband’s clothes, and only went by his name, in repentance on his behalf.
I guess I was interjecting the hypothetical that it is somehow known that in the end the child is in a state of eternal hell. What then? As if St Xenia’s husband in the end was found to be in a state of eternal hell? Well, obviously with St Xenia’s story we are encouraged that that won’t be the end (which is why I keep her story close to my heart). But what if some people do end up experiencing hell in the end, perhaps including my hypothetical parent’s child? If we are not committed universalist then this is a real possibility. And it’s the idea of this possibility that stumps me.
Another verse from the Old Testament cones to mind, in which we are promised that God will indeed pay the debts of those who have injured us:
“And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten…” Joel 2:25
Thank you for reminding us that we should stop looking to those who have injured us for restitution. We must seek healing from God.
Thank you for this post and all of the thought provoking comments. I am offering some quotes below from Mother Gavrilla that seem appropriate to much of this discussion, especially the questions posed by Michelle. May they offer some light on this often quite difficult path of forgiveness.
You should know… that when you submit yourself to the Power and Love of God, you will comprehend that everything — listen well, EVERYTHING, in capital letters — is done either because God Wills it or because God Permits it. There is no third version! Therefore, since God Wills it, I accept it with all my heart; since God Permits it, again I accept it with the same joy. For He has His reasons… Never dare ask “Why?” NEVER!
~Mother Gavrilia, The Ascetic of Love, p. 243.
Everything in this world happens either because God Wills it or because God Permits it. As far as I’m concerned, whatever gives me joy is by God’s Permission; for God is All Merciful and All Good… And… He also Permits some other things that are necessary for the perfection of my soul. These things may be most unpleasant to me, but then… how can coal be transformed into a diamond?
…The more you progress in spiritual life, the more you will see imperfect ones coming to make you still more perfect. They are sent by God and you should welcome them; for each of them comes in His Name. The one will come to train you; the other to love you; a third to comfort you; a fourth to upset you. Remember: EVERYTHING happens either by Divine Dispensation or because the Lord has Willed it. Once you realize that, life becomes so interesting!
~Mother Gavrilia, The Ascetic of Love, p. 308.
When someone speaks to us improperly, do you think that this does not happen by Divine Dispensation? It happens because God permits it for our own perfection… If we descend to the other’s level, all our efforts will be to no avail. It is difficult… naturally… Still, that man… becomes for a moment the instrument of another Power, to put us to the test… even within the same family, each one is a test for the other… And above all, you must never stop loving these persons.
~Mother Gavrilia, The Ascetic of Love, p. 305.
Think and see only the Light. Everything else is irrelevant and should not affect you in any way… By reliving regrettable incidents of the past, you cause much harm to yourself… We should take all our sorrow and place it at the Feet of Christ. Because He suffered on the Cross for our sins, and for our sorrows, and for our problems, and for all the gloom of our souls. For everything! And when you remember that the Blood of our Lord is cleansing us from everything, that’s the end of it! Nothing of all these exist anymore… Place them at the Feet of Christ… and then go forth as a joyful person.
~Mother Gavrilia, The Ascetic of Love, p. 334-335.
Never wish for anything but the Will of God, and accept with love any trials that may come your way… Never ask, “Why has this happened to me?” …Instead, pray God to grant you the vision of the other shore. Then, like the Angels, you will be able to see things as they really are: Everything is in God’s plan. EVERYTHING… The Lord sends trials only to those who are His, so that they may awake, become aware, and repent… Never regret something that has happened… The more we talk about something that has happened, the more it lingers in our life, whereas normally it would have faded away in due time… Every morning, when a new page is opened before us, let us sign on the blank paper “carte blanche,” and let the Lord write down whatever He wills… When you love the Lord, you accept with patience His Divine Will… God works in Eternity… Everything will be done in the time and the way He wills.
~Mother Gavrilia, The Ascetic of Love, p. 341-342, 347-351, 362.
Never identify a person with the wrong way in which he is treating you, but see Christ in his heart… Give no thought to what people may say to you or what they may do to you… You feel free when the behavior of other people does not affect you… We must love people and accept them in our hearts as God presents them to us… Behave with people as you would if Christ were present. And so you will never have regrets about for anything or anyone… Where there is no respect for the person, there is no respect for God. And vice versa… Human relationships become difficult when the “I” stands above the “You.” …When the “I” breaks and becomes “You,” and the “You” also breaks so that they may both become “He,” then we all become “His.”
~Mother Gavrilia, The Ascetic of Love, p. 341-342, 344, 349, 351, 364, 366.