Great Lent begins with a service known as Forgiveness Vespers. At the end of the service, the faithful present in church ask forgiveness of each other - in person, individually. It is an exercise of love and humility and it speaks to the essence of Lent itself. The foundation for the seven-week journey to Pascha is set at this service and this foundation is forgiveness.
Forgiveness can be difficult. Sometimes, the specifics of an injury - either the type of pain experienced or its quantity - are very hard to overcome. And, although these situations are not the focus of this article, it is good to know that, by God’s grace, forgiveness can be found even here. So St. Dionysios of Zakynthos shows us:
A certain stranger murdered the saint’s brother Constantine, an illustrious nobleman. Fearing his victim’s relatives, the stranger, by chance or by God’s will, sought refuge in the monastery where Saint Dionysius was the abbot. When the saint asked the fugitive why he was so frightened, he confessed his sin and revealed the name of the man he had murdered, asking to be protected from the family’s vengeance. Saint Dionysius wept for his only brother, as was natural. Then he comforted the murderer and hid him, showing him great compassion and love.
Soon the saint’s relatives came to the monastery with a group of armed men and told him what had happened. He pretended to know nothing about it. After weeping with them and trying to console them, he sent them off in the wrong direction. Then he told the murderer that he was the brother of the man he had killed. He admonished him as a father, and brought him to repentance. After forgiving him, Saint Dionysius brought him down to the shore and helped him to escape to another place in order to save his life.
Often, forgiveness is difficult because we get in our own way. Sometimes, holding on to a grievance is just following the crowd. Every political campaign and a large amount of media content make it seem like we live in a constant Festivus. The airing of grievances seems to be some sort of national pastime. If everyone else has a grievance and everyone else seems to be determined to hold on to their grievances at whatever cost, why should we not do the same? Because, while someone else may be responsible for a wrong, that someone else is not responsible for our salvation. It is almost always easier to look for something or someone to blame outside of ourselves. But, the battle between good and evil takes place in all of our hearts and it is there that our spiritual energy needs to be focused. God calls us to first take the log out of our own eyes (Matt. 7:5) - take up grievances against our own hearts and take up the struggle to purify them.
Sometimes holding on to wrongs can be like an addiction. Emotions get stirred as we remember the wrong done to us; we interact with the memories, imagining how we should have reacted, figuring out what we can do to repay in kind… we are caught in a vicious circle of resentment. As Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green noted in one of her books, in the moment, anger feels good. Having the certainty that we are right and the other person is wrong can seem very appealing... If only this kind of right-ness led to salvation, we’d have it made. But the only rights that matter here are orthodoxia and orthopraxia: the right belief and the right practice of that belief. There is nothing more to the point here than the Lord’s prayer: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. We may get caught up in a torrent of anger, we may enjoy the high that brings to us. But we are (hopefully) not in a constant state of anger. And it is in those times when we are not angry that we can take up the fight to learn to forgive: we can pray for those who wrong us; we can make a plan for not simply going along with the anger when it comes; we can struggle to not let our anger show in our actions; we can bring our struggles to the sacrament of confession; if needed, we can seek professional help. The right practice of our faith, the picking up of our cross, requires us to live as forgiving people.
It may seem like the above is a lot to ask. Christ said: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more” (Lk. 12:48). To us, everything has been given. We have been given Life in Christ: we have been baptized and illumined, we have received the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have been given the Body and Blood of Christ, we have been given the promise that Christ will be with us to the end of the age. And so, of us who follow Him, much is, indeed, required.
May we be given grace to forgive. And I will ask yet one more thing: if you are able, join us for Forgiveness Vespers on Sunday, March 1st. I’d like to look into your eyes as I ask your forgiveness. If you cannot be there, forgive me, Peter, the unworthy priest.
With love in Christ,