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)

Thoughts on the grace of God in our lives and the transforming power of His love

How this suffering world would be transformed if we could more freely acknowledge to each other the real presence of God in our lives! Think of how society would be transformed if more of us could understand and connect with each other on this deep spiritual level! These moments, which so deeply transform and illumine us, are little theophanies, moments of revelation of divine love and whisperings of God’s grace by the Holy Spirit.

These manifestations of our Savior’s love for us touch the very soul and warm the heart of the man or woman open to receiving them. It is these moments which serve to convert and orient one’s soul towards her Creator, which can and should inspire us to seek after God with all our being.

How transformational and glorious these manifestations of divine love and grace are in the lives of those who discern them! If men and women felt free to acknowledge to their fellows this abundant grace of God and manifestations of His love in their lives, the whole world would realize how much more united in His love it actually is. They would see how, in the words of St. John of Damascus (675-749), “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God”. The Lord who has created all existence, who has painted this icon of His children whom He has fashioned in His image, works with human soul in tapestries of grace and love, His Spirit like a fire warming the noetic hearts of the faithful.

If only more people in the Church felt that they could share their experiences of divine grace, which can come upon any person at any time when they have opened themselves to receiving it! This grace, always a miracle when it visits a person by the power of the Holy Spirit, is bestowed on the heart and soul of someone who seeks after God daily and at all times, who discerns Him as that which is “everywhere present and fillest all things”. Those who have discerned this grace know what it is to live and believe the words of Blessed Augustine (354-430) even if he or she has never heard them: “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance.”

Such a person who truly loves Him and discerns His presence in their life constantly remembers the Lord’s chief command, both to those of the Old and New Covenant, to the blood of the House of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:5) and to the new Israel of the New Dispensation, that we must love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and all our might (Matthew 22:37-40). The person who remembers the Lord’s commandments, truly endeavoring to love God with all their being, is on the path to that mystical union with His divine energies and love which shines in the faces of the saints. Such a person is immersed in the lifelong process of theosis: the miraculous and mysterious awakening and transformation of the noetic inner heart and soul of man in union with God’s loving grace through which he or she is divinized.

“God became man so that man might become God”, wrote St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria (296-373) in his treatise On the Incarnation. St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (130-202), who died almost a century before St. Athanasius’ birth, wrote similarly, “In His unbounded love, God became what we are that He might make us what He is.” This teaching is a universal witness of the early Church, present in all the writings of the earliest Fathers who knew the apostles of Christ or who were trained by their disciples and their disciples’ disciples, and so on.

How can man become God when he is so clearly imperfect? St John Climacus (“John of the Ladder”), St Isaac the Syrian, St Silouan the Athonite, Elder Cleopa (Illie) and so many other holy men and women write of the process of salvation and divinization- for man can only be divinized to the degree that he allows himself to be completely opened to the saving and transformative loving grace of God- as a ladder of gradual, lifelong spiritual ascent. Elder Cleopa (+1998) offers beautifully clear instruction on the ladder of ascent in prayer and spiritual introspection and communion with God here.

The ladders of spiritual growth and increasing discernment through prayer, fasting, repentance and love for God are mutually interconnected to the point of pursuing the same end, reaching for the same transformation in and through and by Christ. First comes the recognition and aversion to sin as anything which separates us from God’s grace and love of the other. Then comes the ceasing of sin and the promptings of repentance, turning away from sinful mindsets and actions, and turning anew to the love of God, With this increasing discernment comes the ability to pray with the lips and the mouth and gradually, the mind; that is, to remember how to pray and what one wants to pray, and to increasingly understand the significance and meaning of what one prayers. Still, this is not the highest level of prayer, which the saints call “prayer of the heart”, the deepest level of communion with God when one’s mental comprehension of what one prays, one’s psyche, descends into the nous, the spiritual eye or the inner heart of one’s soul. Without a lifelong cultivation of ceaseless prayer (1 Thess. 5:17) and repentance, we may mount the ladder rungs again and again, but never truly begin to ascend in prayer.

We cannot become God by our very essence, which is created, no more than a child can ever become identical in essence to its parent, but we are gradually transformed as our noetic heart and soul open more to the energy and promptings of the Holy Spirit. Man can thus mysteriously and miraculously  become united to His Creator by the most intimate adoption of sonship. Insofar as man, a created being endowed by God with an immortal spirit, can be united to Him through immersion and participation in His illuminative grace and love, he can be transformed and made divine.

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