On the need for profound Christian forgiveness in the life of the Church

“If we love not our brother we cannot have peace. Let every man think on this.” – St. Silouan the Athonite

“To forgive means to restore a bond of love and communion when there has been a rupture. Sin ruptures our relationship with God and others, as also do offenses taken and given among people. When the bond is broken with other people, we tend to objectify them and judge them, not seeing them as persons, but only as objects of our anger and hurt. This is our sinful reaction. We categorize people in terms of their transgression against us. The longer we nurture the anger and alienation, the more deeply the resentment takes hold in our heart, and the more it feeds on our soul.” – Then-Hieromonk Jonah in an interview with the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America on “Forgiveness and Reconciliation”.

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Metropolitan Jonah, my spiritual father and the former primate of the Orthodox Church in America (2008-2012)

Metropolitan Jonah shared the above insights with his interviewers before he was called to the episcopate, before his elevation and consecration to the primacy as the Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America. He shared them at a time when he was beset by many frustrations and difficulties, struggling to sustain the men’s monastery he founded which was dedicated to St John Maximovitch, archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco in the wilderness of north central California.

These words reveal not only startling insight into his pastoral approach and the spiritual wisdom he acquired from his time living for over a year as a monk at the Russian island monastic community of Valaam, but they are a testament to his entire spiritual worldview. Irrespective of what future position Metropolitan Jonah may or may not hold in the Orthodox Church in America or in another jurisdiction, it is this spiritual worldview which Orthodoxy in America, indeed, the faithful everywhere, so desperately needs today.

With regard to the Metropolitan’s recent resignation, I cannot and do not claim to be without any sort of bias, except that I am in no ways a ‘partisan’ of any side. Metropolitan Jonah is my spiritual father. He received me into the Church by chrismation last December. I have known him to be a person whose loving and pastoral kindness, spiritual wisdom, and theological insights have inspired and challenged me and many faithful parishioners at St Nicholas Cathedral in DC and across the continent.

In this time of great pain and confusion, what we need more than anything else is to pray for a spirit of Christian forgiveness to return to our hearts. As difficult as it is, we must somehow transcend our anger and hurt and look to our bishops and all leaders in the OCA and see them for what they are, however broken or flawed: living icons of Christ, just as we ourselves are. Let us try to recall Metropolitan Jonah’s words from his interview with the Antiochian Archdiocese, words which take on an especially poignant significance in times such as these: “Resentment is a cancer that will destroy us if we don’t forgive! It also leaks out and damages our relations with others when we slander and gossip about those who have offended us and try to draw others to our own side.”

Applying such words in times such as these can be very difficult whenever we are feeling hurt or confused or betrayed. In the spirit of Christian loving-kindness, we must endeavor not to give voice to our anger, which, once uttered in public or on some Internet forum, can never be undone, but in our love for the Church, in our love for Metropolitan Jonah, for all that he was and is for us, we must turn to Almighty God with our prayers. Let us ask for the mercy of God and peace for our souls from the Holy Spirit in humble, simple prayer to our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. Let us try to find that space within ourselves where we can attune our nous, our spiritual consciousness, to that prayer of the heart which springs forth from the very depths of our being. We must also turn to our Blessed Mother and champion Lady, the Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, and to our many beloved saints, that they might intercede with God for us and bring peace anew to the suffering Church on earth.

As someone who was blessed to meet and talk with His Beatitude many times, who witnessed firsthand his loving pastoral spirit, his incredible kindness, his acetic discipline, and deep spiritual wisdom, I mourn his resignation as Primate. Selfishly, I fear that I will not be able to see him in the future as often as I would like. This is difficult for me because he is my spiritual father and he has been a steady source of great wisdom and guidance. Yet for me it is much more difficult to hold onto anger or feelings of shock or hopelessness, then to let them naturally give way to love, hope, and a spirit of forgiveness.

As Metropolitan Jonah observed in the above-mentioned interview, to have an attitude of forgiveness does not mean ‘enabling’ or accepting wrongs as somehow justified or ‘right’, but it means letting go of anger or resentment and endeavoring to see Christ present in the person or persons who have hurt us: “Forgiveness means overlooking the sin or transgression, and restoring a bond of love. . . Forgiveness means laying aside our judgments of the other person and our own sinful reactions, and accepting others for who they are.” It is this truly radical spirit of forgiveness to which we are called today in the life of the Church.

A great temptation exists right now to rave about conspiracies and factions and, as some Internet writers have put it, about ‘wolves’ moving in darkness. I look at these writings and I see something of myself in them, in that many of these writers are hurting deeply right now because of their love for the Metropolitan and their feeling that his resignation was pursued in a way contrary to an expected spirit of Christian love. Yet in these writings and blogs, the rumors and speculation about the motives of the Holy Synod, etc, I see the potential for great spiritual harm and danger to all present.

Like most of you, I too have a strong desire to see a full and open, third party investigation into the Synod’s claims against the Metropolitan. I expect that this investigation will reveal the Metropolitan to be innocent of the grave charges leveled against him by the Synod in their recent July 16 public statement, and that, in his vindication, the Metropolitan would be magnanimous and forgiving in a true Christian spirit. We must assume the best about the Holy Synod’s intentions until we have any proof otherwise, and likewise, the Metropolitan’s critics must also assume the best about him.

All the while, as members of the same Church, united in all matters of faith, belief and doctrine, we must be very cautious not to use words or enter into an attitude which can be considered one of ‘attacking’ the Holy Synod, not for fear of being silenced, but because if we allow any anger or hatred into our hearts, we risk destroying any possible future unity in the Church. We risk destroying the most basic bonds of Christian love, however strained they might already be, and we cannot do this. However difficult, we must remember Christ’s great commandment that we need to love one another even as He loves us, in spite of our flaws.

This temptation to give into suspicion and anger is surely sowing further discord in the life of the Church. Think of how broken and fragmented she is now! Do any of us want to add to that by numbering our voices among the hateful, the angry, or the bitter? We must remember the words of the Metropolitan’s official resignation letter, regardless of whether or not they were his own words or if someone else wrote them for him to sign, as seems likely. Metropolitan Jonah still signed his name to them, acknowledging that he did not think he had the personality or temperament to continue as primate of the Church.

I have my own thoughts on whether or not he signed his name to this letter under great emotional strain and duress, but the Metropolitan has often spoken of how he felt inadequate as the untested new hierarch taking on complex administrative responsibilities which made him effectively the ‘chief administrator’ of such a geographically vast Church. Metropolitan Jonah’s resignation does not mean that we as a Church are losing his guiding voice or the deep spiritual insights he will continue to offer the faithful. He is simply taking off an immensely heavy role which, by his own admission, he believed he was not the correct person to bear at this time.

Another temptation in this uncertain period is for those of us who feel a close connection to Metropolitan Jonah to give in to hyperbolic and exaggerated notions of despair. The idea that the OCA is coming apart internally primarily due to the ‘culture war’ disputes is absurd, given that the other bishops of the Holy Synod joined the Metropolitan in compassionately but firmly defending the Church’s ancient views on the sanctity of human life and on human sexuality. I read Bp. Michael and Bp. Matthias’ letters to their respective dioceses in defense of traditional Christian marriage and expressions of human sexuality and shared these documents with Latter-day Saint (Mormon) friends who expressed a strong interest in our Church’s commitment to these fundamental principles. This unfortunate happening is not a death knoll for Orthodoxy in America. Outside of the OCA, life for other of our Orthodox brothers and sisters continues on, though many of my friends in other jurisdictions have expressed their shock and sadness at hearing of the Metropolitan’s resignation.

Given that the OCA survived past scandals of far greater scale, scandals involving criminal and ethical wrongdoing on the part of her senior hierarchs, I do not believe this tumult signifies the absolute death knoll of the OCA. I am not naively optimistic, and I expect a period of decline brought on by many faithful Orthodox Christians’ sense of sadness at the Metropolitan’s abrupt resignation and disillusionment with the lack of transparency and other aspects of the ways senior Church leaders handled this matter, especially in the wake of their letter of July 16 which is already being closely scrutinized.

Metropolitan Jonah will not be silenced or shut away. He was and remains a source of great spiritual wisdom and pastoral light and guidance to so many of the faithful. We have no reason to think that his departure from the primacy will change that! Whatever path he discerns, whether he will eventually serve the OCA as a bishop in a new capacity, or enter another jurisdiction as seems likely, I have no doubt that his words of wisdom will continue to inspire many Orthodox faithful for years to come, especially young adults like myself and so many of my friends across jurisdictions. Above all, I hope and pray that he continues to write on current cultural issues, Church theology and spiritual practices, areas in which he as inspired tens of thousands of people, especially young Orthodox Christians.

We must remember that Christ remains the head of this Church, guiding and strengthening all Orthodox Christians around the country and across the world. When I was received into the Church, I took on the mantle of the Orthodox faith. The question of which jurisdiction I “belong to” is ultimately irrelevant, so I see myself as belonging only to God, insofar as I struggle to live His commandments and love Him and His creation in all that I do. But in my spiritual sonship to the Triune God, I recognize that I am, by extension, a brother to all my fellow Christians. A crucial part of this life in Christ is for me to love others, even when I do not understand them or approve of their actions or approach.

As difficult as it is in these times, we must somehow all summon forth Christian love and a spirit of forgiveness from the depths of our souls. To continue on in a spirit of resentment, anger or possibly even hatred poses not only immense harm to the inner life of the Church, but to the spiritual state of every person who entertains such temptations in their hearts. My patron saint, Elder Silouan the Athonite, cautions that “If you think evil of people, it means you have an evil spirit in you whispering evil thoughts about others. . . This is the rule we have: if you forgive others, it is a sign that the Lord has forgiven you. But if you refuse to forgive, then your own sins remain with you.” Only a radical spirit of forgiveness, strengthened by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, can bring about the healing which the Orthodox Church in America so desperately needs.

“Reconciliation presupposes forgiveness. If we forgive someone, we need to be open to reconciliation, if possible. Reconciliation is forgiveness in action—the actual restoration of the interpersonal bond between two people, in mutual acceptance of each other for who each one is. Forgiveness and reconciliation can lead to a stronger bond than previously existed. Each time an offense occurs, we can learn more about both the other and ourselves. This can lead to a deeper knowledge and understanding of each by the other, and thus can also lead to a more authentic bond of intimacy. Reconciliation should always be the goal.” – Metropolitan Jonah, then a hieromonk and Abbot of the monastery of St John near Manton, California

“Grace proceeds from brotherly love, and by brotherly love is grace preserved; but if we do not love our brother the grace of God will not come into our souls.” – St Silouan the Athonite

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One thought on “On the need for profound Christian forgiveness in the life of the Church

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