Posts Tagged ‘Prayer for Enemies’

Face to Face

November 4, 2011

There are few joys of a blogosphere writer greater than to meet face-to-face with his readers. Such has been my experience at my time at the 16th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America. To embrace someone who can say that my articles on the death of my parents helped them to endure the death of their own parents is beyond anything I can express in words – for the love of the brethren which makes it possible to write is far extended by the tears and comfort of those who read. Glory to God for all things!

Such is also the case for all things that pertain to Christ’s holy Church. For the joy of the Church cannot be measured in words, nor can words give it true expression. My life as an Orthodox Christian has been an unending experience of the joy and strength of the brethren. Many times my heart has been broken in prayer and offered in tears and sorrow – but it has always been met in humility of love and the joyful candor of love and meekness. My sorrow has always been overcome in the love of the brethren.

The life of the Church always transcends the paucity of our own experience. The simple question, “How are you doing?” has been met by my inability to give expression to my heart.

I cannot express in words the fullness of my heart that is found in the sight and presence of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah. Any weakness which may find criticism in anothers’ words is overcome in his very sight and uncompromising love which are the fullness of my experience of his friendship. I am a weak and foolish man who easily welcomes the kindness and friendship of those whose love I do not deserve.

I have met again the many priests and laymen who, like me, are the spiritual children of Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas. I realize how unworthily his kindness and unrelenting generosity have been met by the smallness of my own Orthodox life. But my life has again been stretched. May all be saved!

An assembly of Orthodox Christians is both joy and sorrow. It is joy because the brethren constantly remind of the possibility and presence of paradise. It is sorrow because my own sin separates me from the fullness of such joy. I pray the forgiveness of my sorrowful sins and the taste of Christ’s promise. I pray also for those whose experience of the assembly of saints is itself a sorrow – God alone knows. May no one be deprived of paradise on my account.

I cannot begin to say how my heart longs for paradise and the presence of all who are readers of my own unworthy writings. Through the mercies of God, may we know each other in that place where there is no sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting! Glory to God for all things! May all who read be forgiven their sins! And may all pray for my soul – unworthy and empty of repentance!

Why Would Anyone Want to Forgive an Enemy?

October 8, 2010

That Christians are commanded by Christ to forgive their enemies is common knowledge. We often take this at face value – discover immediately that it is very hard (often impossible) and conclude that the commandment is an unachievable ideal. For non-Christians, forgiveness of enemies may, in some cases, be a shared ideal (most people believe in “peace”), but many if not most non-Christians would recognize immediately the dangers involved in forgiving an enemy – after all they are enemies. Why does Christ give us such a commandment?

There are several things that can be stated up front as not being reasons for this commandment.

1. Christ’s commandment to forgive enemies is not part of a global strategy to bring peace to the world. Christ nowhere suggests that obeying His commandments will make the world a better place – indeed He warns his followers that taking the path He has taken will quite possibly mean their death.

2. Christ’s commandment to forgive enemies is not given as an ideal for our moral improvement. The impossibility we encounter within this commandment is itself and indication that such behavior is a gift from God. With men, such things are impossible.

3. Christ’s commandment to forgive enemies is not given in order to “help us all get along together.” Indeed, He also says that His coming will also bring division, even within families. The forgiveness of enemies is, in practice, far less popular than we might think.

So why the commandment?

The answer to the question is given several places within the gospels – most notably in Matthew 5:43-45 and Luke 6:35-36.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew)

But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. (Luke)

The passages are certainly parallel and occur in a similar context. In both cases a similar reason is given for the commandment: we are to forgive our enemies “that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” and “to be sons of the Most High.” The forgiveness of enemies and the actions associated with it are specifically given that we may be conformed to the image of God. Indeed such forgiveness is a manifestation of that conformity.

St. Silouan of Mt. Athos once said: “You only know God to the extent that you love your enemies.”

This conformity is not a moral conformity – we are not struggling to be like sons of the Most High – we are not struggling to be like sons of our Father in heaven. Within the commandment – Christ is also offering true union with God – a share in His life. He is also offering a clear sign of such a union, as noted in the saying of St. Silouan. There are many who may point to experiences they have had, and religious choices they have made, etc. But if they do not love their enemies there is still much further to go on the road of salvation.

There are also some who seek to draw a distinction between forgiving our enemies and actually loving them. This is something of a legal distinction in which people imagine themselves to be keeping the commandment while, in fact, not keeping it. This is a spiritual delusion. The commandment not only asks us to forgive our enemies but to love them and to do good things for them. That this is hard (often impossible) simply points to the fact that we are saved by grace – and this, too, is not a legal notion. God does not pretend that we love our enemies and call it “grace.”

In the understanding of the Orthodox faith, grace is not God’s good attitude towards us, but is the life of God, His “Divine Energies” in the language of the Fathers. It is God Himself, working within us that is our salvation: “For it is God who works within you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

Thus He who commands is also He who gives us the grace that makes the keeping of the commandment possible. But it is we ourselves who refuse to allow such grace to work within us. We resist God. We resist His good impulse to love and forgive. Of course, this is simply a description of sin at work within us.

In the face of sin, we repent (seek to yield ourselves to God’s grace), confess our sins, make communion, give alms, and make efforts to do good to our enemies. The work of grace sometimes seems glacial in its speed. A glacier moves but a few feet a year, but it changes the face of the earth. And so the Apostle tells us, “Let patience do its complete work” (James 1:4).

I treasure a story told by Fr. Thomas Hopko (and ask forgiveness for any inaccuracies that may have damaged the tale) in which he described someone who did not want to forgive (or repent – my memory grows fuzzy). He asked, “Well then, do you want to want to forgive?” The person thought and said, “I don’t think so.” So Fr. Tom said, “Then do you want to want to want to?” To which the person said, “I can do that.”

It’s a place to start.

The Mystery of Love

May 10, 2010

It is common to both the writings of Dostoevsky [particularly in the Brothers Karamazov] and in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony and St. Silouan, that each man must see and understand himself to be responsible for the sins of all. This can be a statement that troubles some – as if doing this were a mere spiritual game – or a violation of others’ responsibility. It is, in fact, a profound understanding of what it means to be a human, created in God’s image. The following short passage from the Elder Sophrony’s St. Silouan the Athonite provides some excellent commentary on the subject:

On the Difference between Christian Love and the Justice of Man

People usually interpret justice in the juridical sense. We reject the idea of laying one man’s guilt on another – it is ‘not fair’. It does not accord with our idea about equity. But the spirit of Christian love speaks otherwise, seeing nothing strange but rather something natural in sharing the guilt of those we love – even in assuming full responsibility for their wrong-doing. Indeed, it is only in this bearing of another’s guilt that the authenticity of love is made manifest and develops into full awareness of self. What sense is there in enjoying only the pleasurable side of love? Indeed, it is only in willingly taking upon oneself the loved one’s guilt and burdens that love attains its multifold perfection.

Many of us cannot, or do not want to, accept and suffer of our own free will the consequences of Adam’s original sin. ‘Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit but what has that to do with me?’ we protest. ‘I am ready to answer for my own sins but certainly not for the sins of others.’ And we do not realize that in reacting thus we are repeating in ourselves the sin of our forefather Adam, making it our own personal sin, leading to our own personal fall. Adam denied responsibility, laying all the blame on Eve and on God who had given him this wife; and by so doing he destroyed the unity of Man and his communion with God. So, each time we refuse to take on ourselves the blame for our common evil, for the actions of our neighbor, we are repeating the same sin and likewise shattering the unity of Man. The Lord questioned Adam before Eve, and we must suppose that if Adam, instead of justifying himself, had taken upon his shoulders the responsibility for their joint sin, the destinies of the world might have been different, just as they will alter now if we in our day assume the burden of the transgressions of our fellow man.

We can all find ways of vindicating ourselves on all occasions but if we really examine our hearts we shall see that in justifying ourselves we are not guileless. Man justifies himself, firstly, because he does not want to acknowledge that he is even partially to blame for the evil in the world, and secondly, because he does not realize that he is endowed with godlike freedom. He sees himself as merely part of the world’s phenomena, a thing of this world, and, as such, dependent on the world. There is a considerable element of bondage in this, and self-justification, therefore, is a slavish business unworthy of a son of God. I saw no tendency towards self-justification in the Staretz. But it is strange how to many people this taking the blame for the wrong-doing of others, and asking for forgiveness, savors of subjection – so vast the distinction in outlook between the sons of the Spirit of Christ and non-spiritual people. The latter cannot believe it possible to feel all humanity as a single whole to be incorporated in the personal existence of every man, without exception. According to the second commandment, Love thy neighbor as thyself, each of us must, and can, comprise all mankind in our own personal being. Then all the evil that occurs in the world will be seen, not as something extraneous but as our own.

If each human person-hypostasis, created in the image of the absolute Divine Hypostases, is capable of containing in himself the fulness of all human being, in the same way as each of the Three Persons of the Godhead is the bearer of all the fullness of Divine being (the profound purport of the second commandment) then shall we all contend against evil, cosmic evil, each beginning with himself.

I cannot help but quote again, with emphasis,  the Elder Sophrony’s statement: the destinies of the world might have been different, just as they will alter now if we in our day assume the burden of the transgressions of our fellow man.

Praying for the World

April 29, 2010

We must pray for other people with contrition and pain in our soul. We can only achieve this, if, due to our humbleness, we consider ourselves the cause of all the problems in the world.

The Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain


This insightful but “hard” saying of the Elder Paisios is very similar to a statement made by the literary character, the Elder Zossima, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, who taught that “each man is responsible for the sins of all.” In our individualized culture, particularly as it is marked by a strongly legal world-view, such statements sound like madness or an invitation to an extreme form of neurosis. And yet these things are taught by some of the most sane among us.

An insanity of our world is to refuse to acknowledge that we share a common life. None of us is saved alone, the fathers teach. If we do not share a common life, then the life of Christ cannot become the life of all. There would be no possibility of union with God nor would love mean anything deeper than the feelings and attitudes we have for one another.

Instead, the opposite is true. Our lives are a common life. Whether I want it to be so or not – my life is intimately connected with the life of every human being – both those now living as well has those who have gone before and those who are yet to come. This is an inherent part of the fullness of the Christian faith.

Refusals of this teaching mark the earliest sins of mankind. Adam refuses to accept union with his wife when he seeks to pass blame on her (and through her to God): “The woman You gave me – she gave me and I did eat…” In a similar fashion Cain, when confronted by God about the murder of his brother, defends himself by saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

There are many things in life that sustain the delusion of radical individuality. Wealth can insulate a person from the true sense of their interdependence on others. Many seek wealth in order to avoid necessities of dependence. We admire the strong and despise the weak. But all of us are weak. We enter the world in a state of complete dependence and often leave in the same manner.

Our fear of a common life is not unreasonable. Dependence, in our fallen world, often means that we are subject to the abuse of power by those around us. Of course only someone living in a fortress can resist much of the abuse of power that infects our world. But we are not told to overcome evil by running away. We are told to “overcome evil by doing good” (Romans 12:21).

It is this “good” which the elders of the Church enjoin. Recognizing and embracing our common humanity – our common life – is an act of love and an offering of the self. The act of prayer for another, when rightly prayed, always means taking upon ourselves the life of the other. This is the great mystery of life as communion. It is the very heart of love.

For those who have a strong psychological take on human relationships – I would quickly want to say that I am not arguing for the destruction of proper “boundaries.” To have a common life with others does not mean to destroy the uniqueness of our own personhood, nor to confuse my life with the life of another.

It is to step into one of the deeper mysteries of our existence. In my own life, perhaps because of my weaknesses, I have frequently been aware that I could not live except for the mercy and prayers of others. I have suffered only small things and been spared many greater sufferings through the kindness and prayer of others. Ultimately, we all live through the life of God who sustains us in our very existence.

I venture to pray for the world from time to time – but I know that my prayers in this regard are quite weak – for my love of the world and my willingness of be the “cause of all the problems in the world” is virtually nil. On most days it is enough of a struggle to take on prayer for those whom I know, particularly those with whom relationships are damaged. But such prayer is the path of the Cross. It leads us to a place where Christ is, taking on the sins of the world – for the life of the world and its salvation.

The Heart of Forgiveness

December 10, 2009

Nothing is more difficult to our heart than forgiveness of our enemies. I cannot complete this small series on the heart without a few words on this topic. This post was written last March.

I cannot think that any of my readers is a stranger to forgiveness, either the need to be forgiven or the need to forgive. The need to forgive, according to the commandment of Christ, extends well beyond those who ask for our forgiveness: we are commanded to forgive our enemies – whom I presume would rarely want to ask for our forgiveness.

Of course, our experience of those who are truly enemies is that we do not want to forgive them. We do not trust them; the wound has been too deep; their offense is not against us but against someone we love who is particularly vulnerable. I could enlarge the list but we are all too familiar with it. The reasons we find it hard to forgive our enemies are endless.

But the commandment remains – not as a counsel of how to live a healthier, happier life – but with the added reminder that we will only find forgiveness as we forgive. Forgiveness is not optional: it is a fundamental spiritual action which we must learn to use as though our salvation depended upon it – for it does.

Several times in Scripture forgiveness of others (including enemies) is linked with our becoming like God, being conformed to His image. Thus when I think of forgiveness I think as well of the whole life of salvation – for the path to being restored to the fullness of the image of Christ runs directly through the forgiveness of our enemies. It may indeed be the very key to our salvation (as it is worked out in us) and its most accurate measure.

Having said that, however, is also to say that this commandment to forgive is not of man – we do not have it in us to fullfill this commandment in and of ourselves. St. Gregory of Nyssa once said that “man is mud whom God has commanded to become God.” Of course it is utterly and completely impossible for mud to do such a thing (unless God make it so).

All that being said, grace is the foundation of forgiveness. We pray for forgiveness to enter our heart. We beg for forgiveness to enter our heart. We importune God for forgiveness to enter our heart.

Even as a product of grace – we do not begin with the hardest things but with the easiest. We do not begin fasting by tackling the most strict regimen. We do not begin prayer with an effort to pray continually for forty days (or some other great feat). Such efforts would either crush us with their difficulty or crush us with our success.

These are a few thoughts on beginning the life of forgiveness:

1. Begin by struggling to form the habit of forgiveness in the smallest things. With a child, with traffic, with little irritations. Do not struggle in a small way but throw yourself into forgiveness. It should become a habit, but a habit of grace, a large action.

2. Use this prayer for the enemies who seem to be beyond your ability to pray: “O God, at the dread judgment, do not condemn them for my sake.” This places forgiveness at a distance and even a hard heart can often manage the small prayer of forgiveness at such a distance.

3. Be always aware of your own failings and constantly ask for God’s forgiveness. “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

4. As much as possible cultivate in your heart the understanding that all human beings are broken and victims of the fall. None of us enters a world of purity, nor do we enter the world fully fuctional as a human being. Life offers us the possibility of the gradual cultivation of mercy in our heart. Many will complain that our culture already has a “cult of victimization” in which no one takes responsibility for their actions. The same people may well imagine that the world would be better if only everyone took more responsibility. But they themselves will not take on the responsibility that belong to us all. As Dostoevsky says, “Each man is responsible for everything before everyone.” Thus the complaint comes out of our pride. We think we ourselves are not responsible for the state of the world as it is and that if only others were as good as we, the world would be better. This is a lie.

5. The proper response to taking such responsibility is to pray and ask forgiveness. Feeling guilty is generally another self-centered action and is not the same thing as asking forgiveness.

6. Make a life confession at least once a year – being careful to name as many resentments as you can remember (this last advice comes from Met. Jonah Paffhausen).

But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back (Luke 6:27-38).

Winners and Losers

September 4, 2009

Winners and Losers in Medicare Drug BenefitWe are a great society for competition – and America is not unique in this. What America thinks is competitive in her “Super Bowl,” pales in comparison to the frenzy engendered elsewhere by the “World Cup.” Several years ago I was in London when England was playing Ecuador in the World Cup. It was a Sunday afternoon. With my companions we walked across London heading to the museums, assuming that the afternoon of a World Cup match would be a quiet time elsewhere. We were correct. On foreigners (like us) were collecting at the British Museum. But we had an experience as we walked across town that taught me a lesson in world competition. A pleasant Sunday afternoon – it seemed every window in London was open. At one point as we walked along, we heard a cheer go up that had to be the collective voice of all London. “England scored,” one of our group remarked. Indeed it was the case. No touchdown in a Superbowl was ever greeted by such a roar.

Our competitive nature (and this is nothing new or modern) inevitably prepares us for a scenario of “winners and losers.” “To the victor goes the spoils,” the old proverb says. It is as if Darwin himself had hard-wired our brains. We understand the nature of competition – and since the winners write most books and almost all of history – little is made of this aspect of our lives.

The great contradiction comes in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. God has no categories of winners and losers. God has no competition and does not set His creatures in a competition. St. Paul uses the image of competition (“the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”), but he competes only with himself. Should he win – no one else loses. As the Scriptures tell us, “For all the promises of God are ‘Yes’ and in Him ‘Amen’, to the glory of God through us” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

A spirit of competition can easily enter into our activities as a Christian. Church growth can feel like a competition (“my church is the fastest growing…”). The same spirit of competition can erupt between Christians in the midst of serious discussion of doctrinal or other concerns. The result in this latter case can simply be the desire to win and not to serve the gospel. Who wins an argument is not the determination of the truth. It may say nothing more than that one person is more facile in argumentation. There are no prizes in heaven for argumentation.

There is a more important and more fundamental reason why “winners and losers” is not a category within the Kingdom of God. Properly speaking, our lives are united one to another. Christian with Christian, and Christian with all. Each of us is united to all of us. Your loss is my loss and my gain is your gain. This is part of the mystery of our existence as creatures who were made in the image of God.

St. Paul takes this understanding to its most extreme point during a reflection about the salvation of his kindred Jews:

I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen (Romans 9:1-4).

Such is his understanding of union with his people. He does not say that his condemnation would mean their salvation, but he nowhere sees himself as the “winner” and his kindred as “losers”. Such a spirit is not within him.

By the same token, such a spirit should not find a place in any of us. Salvation is never merely individualistic. I have not come to know Christ except through the mediation and kindness of others. Their lives and prayers are mystically united to my own life and prayers (or lack thereof) and I find myself saved only in the context of the Church. As I have stated elsewhere, “The Church is what salvation looks like” (as disturbing as such a statement may be to some).

But the heart that has placed the spirit of competition away from its spiritual concerns is the heart that understands that if one loses, we all lose. If one wins, we all win. Such a heart will pray with compassion for even the greatest of sinners. We should not gladly see the condemnation of anyone.

Such an understanding undergirds our prayer for enemies. I should not wish my enemies to lose – only to lose their sin and to gain Christ. Such a prayer within me is itself to gain Christ – who for the sake of losers such as myself, became man and suffered the loss of all – the He might gain all. To Him be glory.

My Sins Pour Out Behind Me

September 4, 2009

MonkAbba Moses [one of the desert fathers] hesitated to accept a summons to be part of a council that would pass judgment on a brother who had committed a sin. A delegation approached him insisting that all the others were waiting for him. Reluctantly, he got up and went with them. He took a jug of water that leaked all along the path.

The council came outside to greet him. Puzzled by the water jug, they asked for an explanation. Moses said, “My sins pour out behind me, and I have the audacity to come here today to judge someone else’s errors.”

Hearing this, they forgave the sinful brother and sent him on his way.

Short Prayer for Enemies

September 2, 2009

050220-candlesThese two petitions are found in Orthodox Daily Prayers. Both give a model for our prayers on these topics:

Save, Lord, and have mercy on those whom I have caused to stumble, turning them away from the path of salvation and leading them to evil and unseemly deeds. Return them to the path of salvation by thy Divine Providence.

(a prostration is made)

Save, Lord, and have mercy on those who hate me and offend me, and do me harm. Do not let them perish because of me, a sinner.

(a prostration is made)

I often think the prostration is worth at least as much as the words. It is an action in which we can allow the words to sink into our hearts – and by God’s grace – melt them to some degree.

The Fascination of Wickedness

July 27, 2009

180px-PorphyriosFor the fascination of wickedness obscures what is good (Wisdom 4:12)

Man has such powers that he can transmit good or evil to his environment. These matters are very delicate. Great care is needed. We need to see everything in a positive frame of mind. We mustn’t think anything evil about others. Even a simple glance or a sigh influences those around us. And even the slightest anger or indignation does harm. We need to have goodness and love in our soul and to transmit these things.

We need to be careful not to harbor any resentment against those who harm us, but rather to pray for them with love. Whatever any of our fellow men does, we should never think evil of him. We need always to have thoughts of love and always to think good of others. Look at St. Stephen the first martyr. He prayed, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ (Acts 7:60). We need to do the same.

The Elder Porphyrios

During the feast of St. Anne this past weekend,  the Scriptural passage from Wisdom was among the readings. It became something of a meditation for me throughout the services (and the subject of two sermons). Its implicit admonition is echoed in the small passage from the Elder Porphyrios (Wounded by Love). There is a great deal of power in our thoughts, prayers and actions. We live in a culture that has an inheritance of critical thought. It is a great boon when applied in certain areas (science and the like), but it can also become a habit of the heart. It has become a commonplace for people to lament the disappearance of civil discourse.

The spiritual difficulty comes, I would suggest, in “speaking the truth in love.” The analysis of evil or even mere incompetence is almost a parlor game – everyone is invited to play. However, to speak the truth about wickedness while at the same time harboring no resentment or willing no retribution or evil in return is the mark of a truly mature spiritual life (and exceedingly rare). I often suspect that this is one of the things behind the Scriptural admonition, “let not many of you become teachers, since we will bear the greater condemnation” (James 3:1). It is difficult to instruct and not to condemn.

It occurs to me that in the course of our daily lives we often concentrate on judging ourselves. We struggle not to sin (and with little success) with far greater energy than we struggle to do good (which we would find easier). Simple acts of kindness, generosity, forgiveness, patience, mercy and the like have a transforming power for both those who do such things and for those who receive such acts. In my own life, two of the kindest acts I have ever received were from Christians whom I considered to be “adversaries” (the attitude of my heart brought ‘coals of fire’ on my head). We cannot know whom God may appoint to show us mercy – but we should be ever at the ready to be used in such a way.

The state of our heart before God is perhaps the most important element in our spiritual life. For ‘God resists the proud,’ but ‘gives more grace to the humble.’ We cannot live well in this world without speaking the truth. Neither can we live except in love. I think the best path to take towards this maturity is to direct our efforts ever more towards the simple acts of mercy which God has prepared for us.

The Jewish philosopher, Philo, offered this admonition: Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

“And For Thy Whole World”

July 10, 2008

Anyone familiar with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazovshould remember the teaching in that novel of the Elder Zossima. He states that “each man is responsible for the sins of every man,” and holds this realization as the key to the life of paradise. The great novelist is not inventing a new idea, but simply allowing one of his characters to give voice to a teaching that is essential to the Orthodox life.

We are told in a variety ways that we should pray for all, including our enemies – though the Scriptures do not always say much about how that is to be done. Many people find it hard to pray for enemies, much less forgive them.

The Tradition of the Church, particularly surrounding the life of prayer, has much to say about such prayer. The Elder Sophrony, following the Tradition of the Fathers and most specifically his spiritual father, St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, offers perhaps the most complete teaching on prayer to be found in modern writings.

His teaching is very much related to the understanding of prayer as communion (koinonia) with God (which I mentioned in yesterday’s post). But his teaching expands that communion to include communion with others and finally with the whole world. Thus, when we are praying for another, when we pray our best, it is not as one autonomous individual talking to God about another autonomous individual, but instead we speak as a Person who is in communion with the one for whom we pray, and thus their sins become our sins and we pray for them as Christ prayed for us.

The Elder Sophrony referred to this kind of prayer as hypostatic prayer  (hypostasis being Greek for Person). To exist truly as a person is indeed to exist in a state of communion with other persons (including the Tri-personal God). It is this communion that is the ground of our true being in Christ.

Elder Sophrony used the image of an “inverted pyramid” to describe the way of the Cross. Christ descended to the depths of Hades (downwards towards the point of the pyramid) and there He bore the weight and burden of the sins of all. It is this downward movement of humility that Christ invites of us when He says that “whosoever would be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” We are invited into the downward movement in which we share in the “fellowship (koinonia) of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). It is in this manner and from this position that we can pray for the world. From such a position we truly have made ourselves responsible for the sins of all, just as Christ Himself “became sin that we might become the righteousness of God.”

When I visited the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England, two summers ago, I found a community of monks and nuns who had been nurtured deeply in the teachings and living Tradition of Elder Sophrony and St. Silouan, and through them the Living Tradition of the Church (for they are the same). Most of the services in that monastery follow the “cell rule” of Mount Athos and consist of about two and a half hours of the Jesus Prayer, recited by different leaders, in a variety of languages.

One of the common variations I heard there was: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us and on Thy whole world.” This is prayer that unites itself with the very heart of God who wills only salvation for the world, regardless of what the world wills for itself. It is prayer as communion – both with the Good God Who Loves Mankind, and with all mankind, saint and sinner alike.

Thus when we confess before communion, “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ,  the Son of the Living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first…” it is not an exaggeration begotten of piety, but a true communion with the worst of all sinners, because we stand before Christ as Adam and all of his progeny. I am responsible for the sins of all and am thus worthy to be called, “the worst of all sinners.”

And it is in this state alone that we find the fullness of communion with God, for Christ did not come to save the righteous but sinners.