Forgiveness for All the Sundays to Come


I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word;  (John17:20-21)

The Elder Sophrony, together with St. Silouan, wrote about the “whole Adam.” By this, they meant all the human beings who have ever existed and those yet to come. For Silouan and Sophrony, this was something known in the present tense, a “hypostatic” knowledge of the fundamental unity of the human race. Sophrony described it as a necessary component in the Christian life of prayer. We have not been taught to pray, “My Father,” but “Our.”

This primal unity is completely present in Christ. His death on the Cross is not His alone – He dies the death of every single human being – bearing the sins of all. The insight of the saints tells us that this same reality must be ours as well. Christ has not done something for us in our absence. The Cross He endured is the same Cross He invites us to take up. And that Cross is also a universal Cross (the Cross of the whole Adam). We do not go there only for our own death, but for the death of everyone (and thus the resurrection of all).

The privatization of our religious faith has obscured this fundamental reality. We hear the command of Christ as directed solely to ourselves as a private matter. But the nature of that Cross includes its universal aspect. The Cross cannot bear my sins if it does not bear the sins of all. It is one of the primary meanings of Christ’s title, the “Second Adam.” For He is not a mere repeat of the First, but the recapitulation of all, just as the First Adam was the head of all. (Romans 5:18-19)

I am often aware of the burden of sin that we inherit (ancestral sin). Most of the problems that infect the world are not of this generations’ making (as is always true). We do not enter the world as a blank slate. Our DNA, our cultural inheritance, the vast sum of what will be our existence is given to us in a deck that has already been stacked. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann once said, the spiritual life consists in “how we deal with what we’ve been dealt.” And it is even more complex than that. We are sitting at a table in which every hand in play has this same givenness. We are all playing in a game that we might not have chosen for ourselves.

I am also growing ever more aware of those who will come after me. As a grandfather, I observe the inevitable inheritance within my own family, to say nothing of the world they will inherit. When I think of the generations to come my mind is also drawn to the vast multitude of those whose lives have been destroyed in the silent violence of our modern world. This is a bitter planet and one that gives too little thought to such things.

But when we pray as the whole Adam, then we must give thought to all of these things. Is it any wonder that the Church teaches us to cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” over and over again? I think of the advice given to Raskolnikov, the axe-murderer in Crime and Punishment. After confessing his crime to Sonya the prostitute we read:

“Well, what to do now, tell me!” he said, suddenly raising his head and looking at her, his face hideously distorted by despair.

“What to do!” she exclaimed, suddenly jumping up from her place, and her eyes, still full of tears, suddenly flashed. “Stand up!” (She seized him by the shoulder; he rose, looking at her almost in amazement.) “Go now, this minute, stand in the crossroads, bow down, and first kiss the earth you’ve defiled, then bow to the whole world, on all four sides, and say aloud to everyone: ‘I have killed!’ Then God will send you life again. Will you go? Will you go?” she kept asking him, all trembling as if in a fit, seizing both his hands, squeezing them tightly in her own, and looking at him with fiery eyes.

He was amazed and even struck by her sudden ecstasy. “So it’s hard labor, is it, Sonya? I must go and denounce myself?” he asked gloomily.

“Accept suffering and redeem yourself by it, that’s what you must do.”

We take a burden far greater than Raskolnikov’s into Great Lent. Bow down, kiss the earth you have defiled, then bow to the whole world, on all four sides, and say aloud: “Forgive me!”


  1. Debbie,
    My first thought was to say, “My dog ate it.” 🙂

    But. I thought the comments were beginning to make for a tedious conversation. Perhaps it was just me. But thinking about pulling a thread back into something less tedious felt exhausting for me (I’ve been on the road almost a whole week).

    The fault, I think, is mine. Sometimes a post provokes various difficulties for people. If that’s true, then it takes much more care to write it in a way that resolves most of those difficulties. I dashed that off while sitting in an airport. Too little time, too little thought. As Lent is beginning, I thought we could use our time in a better way.

    I should add that not all comments are seen by readers. Some never make it to the blog (they get moderated and deleted). But I see them all.

    Forgive me.

  2. I converted to Orthodoxy from Protestantism. It was, to say the least, an experience which changed my whole world.
    Then came my first Forgiveness Sunday.

    I cannot express in mere words my experience. It was literally something I had never known before.

    To not only be asked for forgiveness but to also ask forgiveness at the same time of the same people and to do so in love with no ulterior motives for no other reason that because God asks us to do so and because God loves us is the most humbling and beautiful service in all of Christianity.

  3. Fr. Stephen you got that right! A Border Colllie Is respected by the sheep and not feared provided the shepherd of the flock has patience. I prefer the Border collie because they work quietly. Thankful to know all comments are not seen as discussing the attributes of some breeds may be seen as prejudice.
    Your insight is appreciated.

  4. Fr. Stephen,

    RE: Border Collies of Paradise…I thought it was a great post. If I’d known it was going to disappear, I would have gone to bed earlier rather than posting my last comment (a very good lesson for me, BTW). Time to put a muzzle on myself.

    I apologize for the many times when my comments have added to the tedium and stress for you. I appreciate all that you do. Forgive me (and get some rest).

  5. Dear Fr. Freeman,

    Once again here I am to ask you questions. Please bear with me. (It’s only that, after reading your articles for the past six years or so, many things seem to be coming together in my thoughts, regarding many practical existential questions I had about my personal struggles, and the coin seems very much on the verge of dropping, but has not yet quite dropped. So I keep asking you questions in the hope that I’ll finally get some clarity that I so desperately seek, so that I may live the life of repentance in the way that God would want me to.)

    1. How is “cultivating virtue” distinguished from “pursuing moral excellence?” You have written warning against the focus on moral excellence and also supporting the notion of growing in virtue. I’m not clear about the difference between the two. So far I was under the impression that striving for virtue was that it was a fine-tuning of the “view from the inside” i.e., trying to “hack” my mindset so that the “view from the outside” i.e., concrete moral actions would be accomplished. Sort of like, if the engine of your car is in good condition, you’ll be able to have a pleasant & enjoyable drive. But after reading your articles, I’m wondering if I have got something wrong. Could you please explain the distinction between striving for moral excellence and growing in virtue in greater detail?

    2. Previously, when “moral excellence” was my goal in life, I had self-defined milestones that I wanted to reach (i.e., “effective time-management” as proved by reviewing my daily time-sheets where I record how I spent each hour of the day, “good study habits” as proved by passing a certain examination, a lesser count for the number of times I fall into a particular sin, such as thoughts of anger or impurity, within a particular time-frame, etc..) But are there any milestones in the life of repentance, or is it just groping in the dark till our hearts are finally purified (on God’s timetable) and we can see things in the Divine Light?

    3. How do I fight against temptations to despair when I give up the notion of “Moral Progress?” The saints did even the littlest thing motivated by the Love of God and the desire to repent and do penance to purify their hearts, but (no doubt because of my unpurified heart) this reason does not give me the “fire in the belly” or in other words, the emotional motive fuel to tackle the concrete problems of life as a self-centred reason would (i.e., to achieve moral excellence so that I could look at myself and feel pleased). So what do I do?

    4. You have spoken in your writings of learning ways to fulfill your duties in spite of your handicaps such as depression and anxiety. Why is it that you don’t count this “achievement” – if one might call it that- as an instance of “moral progress?” Are these things too purely dependent on God’s timetable (like your story of how you gave up smoking when a couple approached you after a talk and offered to pray for you) no matter how much we may try or want to overcome our handicaps?

    As usual, thank you for your patience, Fr. Freeman!


  6. As we approach Forgiveness Vespers I am reminded how good it makes one feel to forgive another and to let all the anger and hurt drain away. When I was young I concentrated on being forgiven, but now I realize forgiving others is far more important. It is like being healed of a death dealing infection.

  7. Father Stephen
    You have posted similar words before…. maybe even the same article (last year?). And here is a crazy thing I took it literally.

    I went out into my back yard and did it…. I kissed the ground on all four sides (It reminded me of what the monastics do….) and asked forgiveness aloud of the whole world.

    Anyhow I highly recommend it. I thought I would feel like a fool – well maybe I felt like a fool – but it was awesome (if anything like that can be awesome – it’s probably not the right word…)

  8. Victoria,
    Yes, the article is a reprint. Of course, the advice on kissing the earth and asking forgiveness is from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. But your experience comes as no surprise.

  9. “We do not enter the world as a blank slate. Our DNA, our cultural inheritance, the vast sum of what will be our existence is given to us in a deck that has already been stacked”
    Certainly this is true and I am sure most people begin to see more and more their connection to their parents as they get older in character traits and behaviour . If we want we can recognise that which is inherited that is good and beneficial and work with that or we can get overwhelmed and ensnared by the negative traits that seem to flow down the family blood line. I Do.
    Cultural inheritance though I find perplexing in regards to salvation .
    Recently while watching a documentary on the daily life of a North Korean citizen , I found myself wondering about how this culture that exists in a bubble (by todays global trends, religions and scandals etc..) can connect to the Cross and its message. Obviously there are people all over the world in educated ,”free thinking” , information rich countries who can know about Christ but choose not to believe , thats one thing, but what about when your “cultural inheritance” denies us even the basic knowledge or traditions of the Church . Quite simply , millions will never even hear the name of Christ or know the Cross in North Korea as its not anywhere to be found in their “cultural tradition” . I know the same can be happening for a peasant farming village in rural India for example and many other parts of the world and not to mention the thousands of years before the modern information age.
    I know God is everywhere present , I am not doubting God is always at work for the salvation of all at all times but I find this puzzling , that someone like my self can have access to the Scriptures and any number of books about the Church. I can also access the sacraments of confession , Im baptised etc .My parents raised me in a Christian home , thats a good start many don’t have, and then some are given absolutely nothing. The cultural tradition they find themselves born into gives them nothing and then they die.
    The spiritual life consists in “how we deal with what we’ve been dealt” . Does this statement by Fr Schmemann run parallel with “To whom much is given , much will be required . ”
    Does this in turn mean that the smallest act of kindness or self sacrifice by someone in North Korea , can be more powerful than acts of kindness by those who read books upon books about the Saints and are baptised in the Church? How does that small act of kindness become a work of salvation for an individual who is in total innocent ignorance of Christ, who also tells us “No one comes to the Father except through me.”?
    Thank you for your article Fr. Stephen.

  10. NSP,
    1. Moral excellence would mean outward conformity – doing the correct thing. Virtue is the actual character of goodness – it is the result of becoming “the kind of person” who would do the right thing. It is a work of grace with which we cooperate. It is a transformation. I do not think of the acquisition of virtue as a “progress.” Its foundation is in humility and laying down our life – and is the work of God in us. I cannot be said to have made progress if what I have is not the result of my effort but the gift of God. “Progress” cultivates a false consciousness in us.

    2. Don’t set big goals. Set small goals that are daily in nature. Love God. Be kind. Be honest. Be generous. When you fail get up and start again and don’t worry about how you’re doing.

    3.We fight despair with prayer. I feel “good” about myself because my life is a gift from God and I give Him thanks. Ask for what you want – if you need more fire, ask for it. The stuff we produce in ourselves (by ourselves) is very poor fuel for the long burn necessary in our lives.

    4. Because if I thought of anything as an achievement it would drive me crazy. I’ve been down that road and been crazy. It’s better to simply rejoice in God’s goodness and not worry about ourselves so much. Many of the things I really “hate” about myself are things I can’t do much about anyway (like the stuff that is produced in my life by an ADHD brain). I have “shame storms” frequently as a result of such things. But if I bear a little shame, and turn to God, He comforts me. That itself is about the only thing that works for me.

  11. Aust
    I assume that no act of kindness, generosity, goodness, is ever forgotten or overlooked by God. There is a mystery that surrounds much of salvation – when we speak of what we know (i.e. the Orthodox faith), we speak about what has been given to us to know. There are plenty of things we have not been given to know.

    What I know, for example, is that God is good and that He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” Having said that doesn’t mean that God has give us license to create a theory that explains how that will work. We know what we know.

    I also believe that no one comes to the Father except through Christ – because there is no Father apart from Christ (nor Christ apart from the Father). There is a simple meaning to that statement, and there is also a fullness hidden within it that belongs to what we do not know.

    But we know that God is good.

  12. Thank you Fr. Stephen .
    There are indeed plenty of things we have not been given to know . Sometimes the unknowing part can rattle me a bit but I know that’s a fault within me . We can’t just create theories about the unknown as you mention .
    We know what we know .

  13. Aust
    If we will give ourselves to what we know, and make it the meditation of our heart, we will be nourished in a manner that will sustain us. We make too little use of what we have been given and chase after what is not ours.

  14. Michael,
    I would not say “who we are.” Virtue answers the questions, “What kind of person am I?” So, perhaps, “How I am.”

    For what it’s worth, “virtue ethics” was, once upon a time, pretty much the normative language of the Church. Aristotle’s Nicomachaen Ethics was very much about this topic. In time, and for a variety of reasons, virtue ethics began to be ignored (largely in the Protestant world). It has made a bit of a comeback over the past number of decades.

    Alasdair MacIntyre is a major philosophical figure you did work in it. Stanley Hauerwas (whom I studied under at Duke) is perhaps the most prominent name on the topic today. He does a lot with Aristotle, Aquinas, and others.

    There is a small book, originally a dissertation, Fellowship of Life: Virtue Ethics and Orthodox Christianity, SVS Press. It’s quite readable and does a very clear job of demonstrating its place in Orthodox thought.

    Virtue, as an approach to the moral life, could be described as “ontological.” Our actions depend on our character in the long run – on the “who we are, or what kind of person we are.”

  15. I like border collies. I suspect the sheep that was pictured was not too fond of them. They’re great if they’ve been trained correctly and have a good handler. Same with us.

    Sadly, Father, I fear I am the pug of Orthodoxy! I find the couch quite comfortable, although I do try to love most everyone! 😉

  16. God kissed the earth with the Incarnation. It is a great gift, and a gift of Grace to be able and willing to do the same. Thank you for this reminder from this great book! May the blessings of Great Lent feed the aspirations of your heart.

  17. Dear Fr. Freeman,

    Thank you for your gracious and detailed answers to my questions. As usual, I sense that each answer of yours brings me closer to the point where I hope to finally “get it,” but I’m not quite there yet.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *