Shall We Forgive? The Fathers on Forgiveness as the Gateway to Salvation
Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) · March 9, 2013
This week, in anticipation of Forgiveness Sunday, Archimandrite Irenei explores a series of patristic texts that deal with the imperative of forgiveness, and the need to forgive as the gateway into the life offered by Christ in the Church.
He who would be reconciled to God and have peace with God must first be reconciled with his neighbor.
That short passage from St. Tikhon of Zadonsk is a fitting way to begin our reflections here in the week that will culminate in a Sunday committed to forgiveness and our entry into the Great Fast. Forgiveness, according to the Fathers, is the gateway into the life of repentance, and therefore to the kingdom of God. Forgiveness is the beginning and the necessary beginning for all true spiritual endeavors which will bring us closer to a loving God who himself is marked out by his forgiveness of our many transgressions. Without forgiveness, without true, encompassing forgiveness, our approach into the kingdom of the forgiving God will always be hindered, may even be prevented.
We are coming to the Fast, to the Great Fast of the Church’s year, that which prepares the heart for the Holy Resurrection, and we enter this Fast, this preparation, through forgiveness. It is a necessary starting point to this task, to this project, as it is to the whole of Christian life. There is a saying from the desert about Abba Isidore, drawn from the Apophthegmata Patrum.
Abba Poimen said this about Abba Isidore: “Whenever he addressed the brethren in church, he said only one thing: ‘Forgive your brother, so that you, too, may be forgiven.’ ”
That from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
We speak of forgiveness so much in the Church, so much in the Christian life, that, too often, we simply forget to listen. We forget the meaning of this term, of this idea, and this action, and we forget, too, the real centrality that it is to have in our life in Christ. It is a centrality that is nonetheless brought home time and time again, not only in the writings of the Fathers, but in the liturgical services of the Church, in the prayers, in the hymns, and in every corner and aspect of Orthodox life.
Without forgiveness, nothing. And yet, we lose track of forgiveness perhaps because we hear about it so often. Yet it remains key and central to all that we are and all that we do, and when we pay attention to what the Church says in her prayers and her hymns about the need to forgive, about the act of forgiving, tied in to the reality of receiving in our heart God’s forgiveness, when we truly listen, we realize just how critical, just how central true forgiveness actually is.
This centrality is brought to mind by another saying of the Egyptian desert. Drawn from the Sayings of Abba Sisoes from the Apophthegmata, we have this.
A brother who was insulted by another brother came to the abba and said to him, “I was hurt, Abba, by my brother, and I wish to avenge myself.”
The abba tried to console him, and he said, “Do not do this, my child. Rather, leave vengeance to God.”
But he said, “I will not quit until I avenge myself.”
Then the abba said, “Let us pray, brother.” And, standing up, he proclaimed aloud, “Our Father, forgive us our trespasses just as we do not forgive those who trespass against us.”
And hearing these words, the brother fell at the feet of the teacher and said, “I am not going to fight with my brother any more. Forgive me, my dear father!”
When we pray the Our Father, the prayer of the Lord, we do something mysterious and frightful. We call God to respond to our heart as we offer our heart to him through our brothers and sisters. “Come, O Lord, and forgive me my sins even as I forgive those who sin against me.” We call ourselves into a relationship of mutual forgiveness in this prayer which forms an integral part of every service of the Orthodox Church, every act of prayer.
This is the prayer that the Lord himself taught his disciples, and it is one that shows us, that reminds us again and again not simply that we ought to forgive, but that the forgiveness we show our brethren is tied in to our ability to receive forgiveness from God. Conversely, inasmuch as we do not forgive, as we refuse—because we desire vengeance or revenge, because we harbor anger or even animosity or even discomfort that makes it frightening, intimidating, to seek forgiveness, and to offer it—for any of these causes, whenever we do not forgive, we break the relationship of forgiveness that God establishes with us.
It is not an easy thing, to forgive. It is a challenge. It is a real act of ascesis. There are times when it is a simple, straightforward act. To those with whom we have a close relationship, it is at times easy to forgive small things, perhaps large things. But forgiveness is an act of obedience and love and genuine self-denial, and the test of real love comes in the challenge of real forgiveness when it is not an easy thing. When it is challenging, there is a kind of fear that comes from a belief that we might suffer through the act of offering forgiveness.
Someone might respond poorly, but there is a more insidious fear that comes from our own heart, within our own troubled souls: a fear of embarrassment, a fear of our state of well-being. Am I ready to forgive? Have I come to a place where I feel I can forgive? These are deadly, dangerous questions for the Christian life. Christ calls us always to forgive: not tomorrow, not in the future, not when we feel ready or so inclined, but now, at this moment. Father, forgive me as I forgive.
There is a saying from St. Philotheos of Mount Sinai.
Do we forgive (he writes) our brothers their trespasses? God also forgives us in his mercy. Do we refuse to forgive? God, too, will refuse to forgive us. As we treat our neighbors, so will God treat us. Forgiveness, then, of your sins, or their unforgiveness, and hence also your salvation or your destruction, depends on you yourself, man. For without forgiveness of sins, there can be no real salvation. You can see for yourself just how terrible this is.
This comes again from St. Philotheos of Mt. Sinai. We hold in our hands an aspect of our salvation. Salvation is always the act of God’s grace, and yet it is an act in a freely willing creature. Do I respond? Do I reject? At every moment, the challenge of Eden is renewed in my heart. God calls me to love and to forgive. Will I do it, or will I, through whatever temptation, turn away as Adam and Eve turned from the one, true command?
The fear of reprisal or that more insidious, deeper interior delusion of feeling that “I simply am not ready to forgive,” that forgiveness must somehow depend on an emotional state of comfort, these are poisons planted in the heart by the serpent. We have irrational fears of what another can do to us or of what our own spiritual state might prevent us from accomplishing. There is a witty, almost funny saying of Blessed Augustine of Hippo, which nonetheless is deeply revealing to the true nature of things.
Imagine (he says) the vanity of thinking that your enemy can do you more damage than your enmity.
Imagine the oddity, the foolishness, of our belief—and we all harbor this from time to time in our lives—that someone else can harm us more than the damage caused to the soul, to the whole heart and mind of a person, when we harbor hatred in a body fit and created for love.
Forgiveness stands as the doorway to salvation. It stands here as our gateway into the Great Fast. We will work together towards the Great Feast, the Paschal joy of the Resurrected Christ, and we must do so through loving obedience to that command of a forgiving heart. This is what softens the soul for real life. This is what prepares the heart to receive the message and the reality of the empty tomb. And if it is a struggle truly to forgive—and it is a struggle, a real ascesis—we must take comfort in the words of St. John Chrysostom:
Thou dost not so much desire thy sins to be forgiven as God desires to forgive thee thy sins. In proof that thou dost not so desire it, consider that thou hast no mind either to practice vigils or to give money freely, but he, that might forgive our sins, spared not his only-begotten Son, the partner of his throne.
God so loves the world, so loves each of us, that his forgiveness reaches even to the Cross.
As we attempt through the Great Fast to be conformed to his life, to join him at the Cross and be received by him in the Resurrection, let us, too, show a little reflection of the love he has given, forgiving our brethren, allowing ourselves to be forgiven by them, providing the opportunity for my heart to forgive and for my brother’s heart also to forgive, to offer as well as to receive, and, in mutual forgiveness, may we enter with joy and a real repentance into the Fast that stands before us.
My brothers and my sisters, I ask your forgiveness as we enter into this period of the Fast together. May we support one another through our prayers and through our repentance, and come together into the light of Pascha.