Another obstacle to spiritual growth is a preoccupation with the past, more specifically actively remembering evils done to us. This is a bit complicated, however, since some of what we experience at the hands of others is indeed wrong, unjust, if not an outright moral outrage. As such, we think that these events demand a specific response or an accounting of some kind. This reaction to the offense seems reasonable not only because we have actually been hurt, but because the act itself was so wrong and because others could be hurt if it is not addressed. It simply cannot be left unanswered. Take, for example, the victims of criminal activities within the Church. Things like theft, fraud, or sexual abuse. Given the nature of these offenses we may not want to “forget” about them until they have been exposed and until we seek help from ecclesial or civil authorities. It is important to note, however, that this is not what the Church calls the “remembrance of wrongs done” since the gravity of the offense and the possibility of additional harm simply demands an overt and aggressive response.
Fortunately, we are rarely subjected to such grave and consequential offenses. Even so, many of us tend to view everything except the most trivial infractions as “severe” and we often overreact with intense, lasting anger, which often spills over into our ongoing interaction with others. So, given the wide range of offense-severity, a good place to start this discussion of this growth-obstacle is to make sure our response is commensurate with the “crime. Is what happened really of such consequence that it justifies an aggressive response? Or is it something which, while uncomfortable, has few if any lasting consequences?
But, even in the case of the inconsequential offense we often harbor a demand for recompense which generates “a desire for the injury of the one who has provoked you…” (Ladder Step 8) This often leads to anger which is focused on those bad actors. But, this is more than a simple recollection of a wrong. It easily morphs into an obsession, which uses anger as a means of deliberately keeping the intensity of the feelings associated with that wrong from fading. It is like throwing salt into our own wounds, so that by continually feeling the pain of the offense, we make sure that we never forget what was done or abandon our desire for “revenge.” Sadly, this active remembering of wrongs is, as St John writes, ”…intentionally stoking the fires of some long-past offense is a sure way of bringing disturbance to the heart… [it] prevents God’s presence [it is] the “ruin of virtues…” (Ladder Step 9) The absence of active virtues leads to a proliferation of unholy vices which by their very nature create additional problems and so the senseless anger of calling remembrance of wrongs spawns its own wicked offspring.
This “remembering” diverts our attention away from the most important aspects of the spiritual life, such as prayer and worship, and makes us vulnerable to temptations. Unaware of our immediate context and its challenges, we don’t even see the new threat until it is all but too late to actively resist. St. John puts it this way. “Whenever we become obsessed by some past event in which we perceive that we have been wronged, we give the devil ample opportunity to lead us toward greater temptation.” (Ladder Step 9)
Moreover, this obsession shifts our focus away from sin itself to those who have committed it and “we forget that our warfare is not with each other.” (xx) In this way, “the Devil cunningly induces us – instead of irritating us against himself – to notice our neighbors’ sins, to make us spiteful and angry with others, and to awaken our contempt towards them, thus keeping us in enmity with our neighbors, and with the Lord God Himself.” (Ladder Step 9)
Clearly, this fixation on evils done to us in the past acts as a spiritual poison ”.…of the soul, worm of the mind, shame of prayer, stopping of supplication, estrangement of love, a nail stuck in the soul, pleasureless feeling beloved in the sweetness of bitterness, continuous sin, unsleeping transgression, hourly malice.”
Given the grave consequences of constantly remembering past wrongs, St. John proposes that we shift our focus and “despise the sins, the faults themselves, and not our brother who commits them at the Devil’s instigation, through infirmity and habit.” (Ladder Step 9) Instead, we are to “pity him, and gently and lovingly instruct him, as one who forgets himself, or who is sick, as a prisoner and the slave of his sin.” (Ladder Step 9) Forgetting the wrongs in this way is a true indicator of our own willingness to repent. But, according to Climacus, if we think we are repenting even as we continue to dwells on those offenses we are like the person “who thinks he is running while he is really sleeping.” (Ladder Step 9)
In the end it all comes down to love. “True love willingly bears privations, troubles, and labors; endures offenses, humiliations, defeats, sins, and injustices, if they do not harm others; bear patiently and meekly the baseness and malice of others, leaving judgment to the all-seeing God, the righteous Judge, and praying that He may teach those who are darkened by senseless passions.” (John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ) Not doing this simply increases our own sickness, oblivion, and spiritual bondage. So, forgetting ourselves and pitying those who have harmed us is the most effective way to overcome this obstacle to spiritual growth.