On repentance, forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation

You have already asked what love is. Forgiveness is just as difficult. Learn to pity, and find, if not justification, then an explanation for the actions of those who have hurt you, and always put yourself in the place of these people. Hatred only burns you. Do not seek justice from God, but seek mercy. If we are to be judged, we are all condemned. But through mercy and grace we are forgiven and loved.
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (1914-2003)

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.

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, in an interview with the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America on “Forgiveness and Reconciliation”.

As my spiritual mother and father have both said to mewhat is the Gospel without forgiveness? The very incarnation of the Lord Himself stems from it — it’s right there in John 3:16. Christ forgives all-comers again and again and again in all the Scripture accounts we have of His life — and married, inextricably, to that forgiveness, that absolution, is redemption and healing of soul, mind, spiritual core or consciousness (nous), and body. The entirety of the Church’s message — which always has been, and remains, Christ’s message — is of forgiveness for sins. But what is needed before forgiveness to occur is repentance — the Greek word is “metanoia” (μετάνοια), literally “to change one’s mind” or “to turn around”. So, true forgiveness is completely married to and inseparable from true repentance. For the wronged person to be able to forgive the offense(s) against him or her, the person who wronged them must sincerely regret what they have done, turn from such behaviour, and, literally, turn away from the sinful deed or thought or mentality, and to God. The wrongdoer must appeal to God for mercy and absolution, but also to the person he or she has wronged.

Only in a mutual, self-sacrificing love for God can true forgiveness occur between two people. When one party refuses to repent, no real forgiveness can occur, and without repentance and forgiveness, no real reconciliation can take place — and thus, no true healing. The entirety of Christ’s ministry was a mercy to the world — not just His voluntary death and harrowing of Hell, so that we might live eternally, but, indeed, His entire earthly effort was to preach repentance and forgiveness so that the whole world might know healing reconciliation, the overcoming of sinful passions, and true redemption and liberation from being in bondage to these passions to freedom in, through, and by Christ.

Think of one of Christ’s most well-known examples of forgiveness — He saved the life of the guilty woman about to be stoned to death for adultery, but after He saves her, He doesn’t just tell her “what you did is fine, keep on sinning”! No, instead, He says “Go and sin no more”. This is the kernel of this particular Gospel story. Christ gives her life, he allows her to physically live and carry on, so that she, in gaining earthly freedom, might undergo real repentance and transformation and flee from her sins. Thus, dying to our sins, so to speak, we have, in Christ, especially through His sacraments/Mysteries in the Church, the freedom and grace to rise anew and repent, and cleave instead to Him and all that is holy and saving.

Think of confession and the abundant, palpable grace we receive in our souls. Then the grace we receive in all the other sacraments — Baptism, Chrismation, and especially the Lord’s own Body and Blood. So, if we hope for the Lord to forgive us, how can we hold anger and hatred in our heart? We must forgive out of genuine Christlike love if we ourselves hope to be forgiven.

That being said, abuse of any kind is never justified or justifiable. Certain cases of abuse — physical, emotional, etc — are cases where we can choose to forgive and not allow ourselves to become consumed with hate for the person who has abused and hurt us, but that does not mean we can or should accept abusive treatment. Trust in any human relationship must be earned, and once lost, the person who was in the wrong needs to earn it back gradually if she or he wishes for any kind of reconciliation. Ultimately, the decision to forgive is not a right the abuser has, but a gift, an honor, and a grace only the wronged person can ever possibly bestow with their own healing and God’s grace and mercy. An abuser has no right for automatic forgiveness, especially when they repeatedly hurt the person.

An abuser must ask for forgiveness, and only with genuine repentance can they ever hope to earn it — above all by stopping any abuse, and letting the victim leave if she or he wishes. Any abusive treatment blasphemes God Himself, since He made every man and woman in His ineffable image. So, if a man hits his wife, for instance, he has committed a kind of blasphemy against God by spitting in the face of his marriage — he attacks the woman he has sworn to love, honor, and protect, and therefore attacks himself, since he and she have become one flesh. There are so many reasons the Church in her mercy sanctions and blesses divorce as a sad but sometimes necessary thing — she is not so barbarous as to try to preserve as a fiction what no longer exists. But likewise, she urges the abuser to repent and change, and prays that the wronged person will not hate, and will be able to ultimately forgive. She urges reconciliation where possible, and, where this is impossible, she blesses separation for the preservation of the dignity, spiritual life, and often the physical safety of the abused person in the marriage. This is the definition and very embodiment of therapeutic, salvific, and healing — of true and careful stewardship of human souls and bodies.

Forgiveness

Whether you, reader, are married and suffering in an abusive marriage, or, God forbid, you are reading this and realize you yourself are the abuser, run to the Church and in her mercy she can and will help you, above all else in the sacramental life. Whether you are an abusive parent, a wayward child, or a dishonest boyfriend or girlfriend, you are not beyond redemption. We all need the same redemption through Christ. Seek the Church’s timeless wisdom in the counsel of her priests in confession. Do violence to no one, and if you have done violence, repent of it with all your heart and soul. Value the other — whether the ‘other’ is your husband or wife, your child, your co-worker, your mother or father — and see above all else in them the ineffable image of the God who made us all. Learn to practice and live out, as far as you are able, Christ’s all-merciful co-suffering love. Tremble to inflict even the most minor of suffering on your fellow icon of God. Strive in all your relationships to follow in the footsteps of that “great cloud of witnesses”, the triumphant saints of the Church, in practicing the highest, ancient Christian virtues, whose purpose is to bring us to God in noetic ascent, to manifest His love for all people and all the world, and to heal all our relationships by our active cooperation with His saving grace. As one of the greatest modern Serbian saints and elders wrote on how to bring “divine love” — the love which radiates as the energy of the Holy Trinity — into all human relationships:

Patience, forgiveness and joy are the three greatest characteristics of divine love. They are characteristics of all real love – if there is such a thing as real love outside divine love. Without these three characteristics, love is not love. If you give the name ‘love’ to anything else, it is as though you were giving the name ‘sheep’ to a goat or a pig.

St. Nikolai Velimirovic (1881-1956)

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Metropolitan Jonah’s sermon on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son

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His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah (Paffhausen) delivered this sermon on March 3, 2013, the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Washington, D.C.

Since Metropolitan Jonah spoke at the end of the Slavonic Liturgy, Cathedral rector Fr. Victor Potapov translated his words into Russian.

Incredible words of wisdom from St John of Kronstadt

Fear evil like fire. Don’t let it touch your heart even if it seems just or righteous. No matter what the circumstances, don’t let it come into you. Evil is always evil. Sometimes evil presents itself as an endeavor to God’s glory, or as something with good intentions towards your neighbor. Even in these cases, don’t trust this feeling. It’s a wrong labor and is not filled with wisdom. Instead, work on chasing evil from yourself.

Evil, however innocent it looks, offends God’s long-suffering love, which is His foremost glory. Judas betrayed his Lord for 30 silver pieces under the guise of helping the poor. Keep in mind that the enemy continuously seeks your death and attacks more fiercely when you’re not alert. His evil is endless. Don’t let self-esteem and the love of material goods win you over. When you feel anger against someone, believe with your whole heart that it’s a result of the devil’s work in your heart. Try to hate the devil and his deeds and it will leave you. Don’t admit it as a part of yourself and don’t justify it. I know this from experience. The devil hides himself behind our souls and we blindly think we’re acting by ourselves. Then we defend the devil’s work as something that is a part of us.Sometimes we think that anger is a fair reaction to something bad. But the idea that a passion could ever be fair is a total and deadly lie. When someone is angry at you, remember that this evil feeling is him. He’s just fooled by the devil and is a suffering instrument in his hand. Pray that the enemy leaves him and that God opens his spiritual eyes, which have been darkened by the evil spirit. Pray to God for all people enslaved by passions because the enemy is acting in their hearts.
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Saint John of Kronstadt (1829-1908) is one of the most beloved Russian saints to whom thousands would come seeking his ascetic and pastoral advice. He served most of his life at St Alexander Nevsky’s Cathedral in Kronstadt outside St Petersburg. He wrote widely on many topics, especially on the profound existential need to cultivate transcendent Christian love and forgiveness.

Perhaps you hate your neighbor, despise him, don’t want to talk to him peacefully and lovingly because he has been rude, arrogant, or disgusting in his speech or manners. You may despise him for being full of himself or proud or disrespectful. But you are to blame more than he is. “Physician, heal yourself!” (Luke 4:23). So, teacher, teach yourself. This kind of anger is worse than any other evil.How could evil be chased out by another evil? How can you take a needle from the eye of another person while having a log in your own? Evil defects must be fixed with love, kindness, resignation, and patience. Admit yourself as the worst of all sinners, and believe it. Consider yourself the worst one, chase away any boldness, anger, impatience and fury;you may start helping others. Be indulgent about the defects of others, because if you see their faults all the time, there will be continuous enmity. “The plowers plowed upon my back: they made long their furrows.”(Psalm 129:3). “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”(Matthew 6:14).

We can feel from time to time the most perfect love for God without loving each other. This is a strange thing, and only few care about it. But love for our neighbor will never come without our own effort.A real Christian doesn’t have any reason to be angry about anybody. Anger is the devil’s deed. A Christian should have only love inside and since love doesn’t boast, he shouldn’t boast or have any bad thoughts towards others. For example, I must not think about another person that he is evil, proud etc; and I must not think that if I forgive his offense he would laugh at me or upset me again. We must not let evil hide in us under any pretense. Evil and anger usually have many different veils.Don’t yield to gloomy feelings in your heart but control and eradicate them with the power of faith and the light of the sane mind. These strengths will make you feel secure. ‘Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you’. (Psalm 25:20).

Gloomy feelings usually develop deep in the heart. Someone who didn’t learn how to control them will be gloomy, pensive most of the time and it will be hard for him to deal with himself and other people. When he comes close to you, sustain yourself with inner strength, happiness and innocent jokes: and they will leave you soon. This is from experience.

Lord, give me strength to love everyone like myself and never to get angry or work the for devil. Give me strength to crucify my self-esteem, my pride, my greed, my skepticism and other passions. Let us have a name: a mutual love. Let us not worry about anything. Be the only God of our hearts, and let us desire nothing except You. Let us live always in unifying love and let us hate anything that separates us from each other and from love. So be it! So be it! If God showed Himself to us and lives inside us as we in Him (according to His eternal Word), wouldn’t He give us everything? Would He ever trick us or leave us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32). Now be comforted, my dear, and know nothing but love. This is my command: Love each other (John 15:17).

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Beginning on Sunday, August 12, 2012 and lasting through to the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, many special holy icons and relics were present at St Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, D.C. This myrrh-streaming double icon depicts two pillars of the Orthodox faith in Russia. Saint John of Kronstadt (1829-1908), offering the Communion chalice and a benediction, is shown with Saint Matrona of Moscow (1885-1952) because when he saw her as a young, blind girl in a crowd, he predicted that she would be his spiritual successor. Blessed Matrona healed many people of their spiritual diseases and predicted numerous marriages, events and deaths- including her own.

The ocean of God’s mercy

“We should often, if not daily, examine our souls, and repent of the sins that we find there.” – St Mark the Ascetic

“Let none fear death, for the death of the Saviour has set us free!” – St John Chrysostom

When compared to God’s love for us, our many sins are but rain drops disappearing into the infinite ocean of His mercy.

In baptism, we enter the Christian life through water, as the waves of faith and God’s grace wash over us, embracing us in the sea of His eternal love, pulling us on the tide of our mortal life toward the promise of eternal life with Him.

When we repent, our turning away from sinful paths often manifests physically in the shedding of heartfelt tears as the soul is pierced by the love of her Creator. Just as the ocean of God’s mercy envelops and blots out all our sins, so too are our tear drops of repentance washed away through the cleansing pool of His grace in genuine confession, by which, in obedience to the grace and direction of the Holy Spirit, we may continually be renewed, strengthened, transformed and made righteous anew.

In Christ, the sunrise is a metaphor for both birth, one’s physical entry into this world to begin this transitory life, and for the crowning sun of entry into eternal life through the body’s physical death. Likewise, the sunset heralds both the declining years of one’s human life, and the hopeful approach of life eternal beyond the ‘night’ of the grave.

When, at the end of this transitory life, we have shed countless tears, some of bitterness or despair, many more of repentance, humility and joy, we will then more fully discern the depth of God’s infinite grace and mercy for us. When we have been transformed through God’s grace and our ever-deepening faith, when we have poured out oceans of love for our Creator and all His creation, we feel called to return to His infinite, loving embrace. With radiant faces, joyous hearts, and illumined souls, those made righteous by grace, in faith, fall once more into this infinite ocean, entering unto eternal life as peacefully as gentle raindrops falling into the sea.

“As a handful of sand is thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God. Just as a strongly flowing fountain is not blocked up by a handful of earth, so the compassion of the Creator is not overcome by the sins of His creatures. Someone who bears a grudge while he prays is like a person who sows in the sea and expects to reap a harvest.”
St. Isaac the Syrian (d. c. 700)

In Christ is our hope, our joy, our life- in this world and the next- and our very salvation- mystical and personal union with Him by the grace and power of His Holy Spirit!

Words of wisdom from Bishop Basil (Rodzianko) on the thirteenth anniversary of his repose

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“When Christ promised his disciples that the Spirit of God, His Holy Spirit, would descend upon them, He called Him the Comforter. To be in the Spirit promised by Christ is to be comforted, consoled. One need not fear any kind of sorrow or surrounding evil or inner affliction when there is such consolation. But in order to come to this consolation, it is necessary to understand in the depth of one’s soul that any sorrow, any suffering, any affliction is a consequence of sin – either one’s own or another’s. And if you accept everything as your own sin, if you identify yourself with the whole of sinful humanity and understand the fall and that you deprived yourself of Paradise, the Kingdom of Heaven – first of all, you yourself – then tears of repentance will flow at once and with them, all encompassing consolation. Such a person (who has come to such repentance) becomes meek, filled with an inner calm, silence and peace. Only in such a condition is it possible to subdue surrounding evil, win people over and win over the world. ‘Acquire the spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved’ said St. Seraphim of Sarov.”
–His Grace Bishop Basil of San Francisco (May 22, 1915- September 17, 1999).

Guard your heart from sin and despair

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“Be attentive to yourself, so that nothing destructive can separate you from the love of God. Guard your heart, and do not grow listless and say: ‘How shall I guard it, since I am a sinner?’

For when a man abandons his sins and returns to God, his repentance regenerates him and renews him entirely.”
-St Isaiah the Solitary

“Cry out to Christ your God, Searcher of hearts. . .”

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“Woe is me, a sinner. What has happened to me? Why should I destroy myself so wrongly? I still have time for repentance.

The Lord calls me: Shall I procrastinate? How long, my soul, will you remain in your sins?  How long will you put off repentance?

Think of the judgment to come, cry out to Christ your God: Searcher of hearts, I have sinned; before Thou condemnest me, have mercy upon me!

At Thy awesome return, O Christ, may I not hear ‘I know you not’ (Matthew 25:12)! For we have placed our hope in Thee, our Savior, even though in our negligence we fail to keep Thy commandments.

But, we pray Thee, spare our souls. Alas, Lord, for I have grieved Thee and did not perceive it; yet behold, through Thy grace I have begun to perceive!”
-St Peter of Damascus

“The King who came to dwell amongst us. . .”

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“What, then, is the divine commandment now laid upon us? It is repentance, the essence of which is never again to touch forbidden things.

We were expelled from the land of divine delight, we were justly shut out from God’s paradise, and we have fallen into the pit where we are condemned to dwell together with ignorant creatures without hope of returning – insofar as it depends on us – to the paradise we have lost.

But He who initially passed a just sentence of punishment, or, rather, justly permitted punishment to come upon us, has now in His great goodness, compassion and mercy descended for our sake to us. And He became a human being like us in all things except sin so that by His likeness to us He might teach us anew and rescue us, and He gave us the saving counsel and commandment of repentance, saying: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has drawn near.’ (Matt. 3:2).

Prior to the Incarnation of the Logos of God the Kingdom of heaven was as far from us as the sky is from the earth; but when the King of heaven came to dwell amongst us and chose to unite Himself with us, the Kingdom of heaven drew near to us all.” – St Gregory Palamas

Christianity in the world today: the most radical ideology of them all

The Church calls us to live up to the name of our Savior, to be literal Christians – little Christs by adoption, by faith—to each other in all ways. Until our Lord’s promised Second Coming occurs, we the faithful, in, through and by the grace of the Holy Spirit, are to represent Him to one another and to all the world. How we treat our fellow man – whether or not we act lovingly toward them as befits those made like we are in the image of God— determines not only our salvation, but whether or not non-Christians see the light of Christ in us.

In how we live our lives, we can either be instruments of the Gospel, bringing the light of our our Savior to all around us, or, in our coldness or unfeeling withdrawal, we can be responsible for the situation of those people who never encounter a true Christian, and thus, never encounter the light of the Gospel. This is our agency- we can choose to be lights to the world, or keep the light of the Gospel all to ourselves, which renders it all but meaningless. Unus christianus, nullus christianus: “One Christian, no Christian”- there can be no Christians living alone, as islands unto themselves.

So many secular ideologies today, in an effort to appeal to young souls dissatisfied or disillusioned with the status quo, whether in politics or broader society, appeal superficially to the natural youthful sense of adventure, declaring themselves “counter-cultural”, “cutting edge”, “revolutionary”, even “radical”. If only these people would realize that, if they profess the Christian faith, they already have access to the most “radical” message or “lifestyle” of them all!

Think of all the social networks, political clubs, societies and think tanks in which classical liberals, social conservatives, progressive liberals, or even anarchists, communists or proto-fascists can find common ground, acceptance, and approbation for their views! This natural and organic development of spontaneous civil society and political-cultural socialization is not at all necessarily a bad thing, and indeed, the freer the society, the easier it is for a Christian to live and practice his or her faith in that societal context. Many individual members of different political or cultural organizations and initiatives strive deeply to live the Gospel day-to-day or endeavor to encourage the free pursuit of Christian virtues in their company or cause.

This is wonderful, but think for a moment on the sheer number of organizations and individuals dedicating their time and resources to furthering specific political or secular economic ideologies. Think of the danger which any one of these ideologies or belief systems potentially poses to a Christian in terms of idolatry, the danger of loyalty to the movement or cause gradually or suddenly taking primacy in their life over living the Gospel and adoring their Creator in mind, soul and body. Then, in comparison, think of how many movements or clubs or societies exist which, above all, promote and glorify the Gospel as revealed and taught by the Church. How few think tanks promote Christian living independent of or autonomous from a set political or economic agenda connected to various secular interest groups? In today’s world, to be a Christian and actually endeavor to conform one’s life to the Gospel and the wisdom of the Church is the most counter-cultural or revolutionary thing one can do!

The Gospel of Jesus Christ transcends all petty worldly politics or “culture wars”, and certainly does not fall neatly into any one secular ideology rooted in the ideas and concepts of men, whether “liberal” or “conservative”, left-leaning or right-leaning, authoritarian or libertarian. Even the very meaning of these words – take the words ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ as just two examples – have changed so many times throughout history, are evolving now, and will surely continue to transition in the future as they are subject to the shifting whims of time, fashion, and circumstance. The Gospel as delivered to and maintained by the Church has never changed, nor does it now, nor will it ever. The peoples who are charged with living it and witnessing to it in every generation change, in that every generation faces different historical, political, social and economic circumstances, but the underlying truth of human nature and the constant Truth found in the Gospels remains unchanged.

How will this voting map appear in three months? Three years? Thirty? We can never be sure. . . .

What then is true radicalism today? Following Christ’s commandments with humility, living in the dynamic yet steady light of the Gospel, acting selflessly with love toward those who mock or hurt us, and summoning forth compassion and forgiveness in all situations, not just because we are told “it is right”, or it is commanded by God, but because our Lord shows us that it is for our own benefit, and we trust in His goodness and His providence for us. This path is very hard for me sometimes, as it is for most of us to achieve real humility in a world which extols self-gratification and pride, but it becomes easier when you allow yourself to internalize the simplest of prayers: “Let thy will be done for my life, O Lord”, and another simple prayer, one line of Psalm 50, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

Whenever you are faced with real temptations or real adversity, by loving your tempters or foes in spite of their deceit or cruelty, you take away their power to destroy or truly harm you. That said, such love does not mean literally making yourself into a powerless, complacent victim. Do not accept abuse from anyone, whether by neglect or attack. If someone is simply unkind to you without cause, they are struggling through their own spiritual problems. If someone is repeatedly unkind to you, or cruel, there is a darkness in them, and in that time they are unworthy of the pleasure of your friendship or companionship.

If someone hurts you and does not repent, it is you alone who can forgive them, through God’s grace, but in your own time. Then, any forgiveness which comes into your heart will not only be natural and unfeigned, but long-lasting and healing in its very nature. But for true forgiveness to take effect, the person who wronged the other must sense that they must repent and ask forgiveness. Until then little healing can enter their soul, for it is still in disorder. Such a person is in great need of your prayers, and above all, the healing peace, wisdom and grace found through the Church’s teachings, her preaching and her mysteries.