Forgiveness is Healing
Fr. George Morelli
And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
In almost every spiritual text anger is listed as one of several deadly sins. In his classic work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John of the Ladder, (1982) discusses anger in the eighth step of the ladder; and anger's dependent vice malice in the ninth step of the ladder. St. John tells us: "Anger is an indication of concealed hatred, of grievance nursed. Anger is the wish to harm someone who has provoked you. Irascibility is an untimely flaring up of the heart. Bitterness is a stirring of the soul's capacity for displeasure. Anger is ... a disfigurement of the soul."
Cognitive Clinical Psychology and Anger
Current research psychology has helped us understand dysfunctional emotions such as anger have a cognitive theme and distorted irrational cognitive structures initiating them (Beck, Shaw & Emery, 1979; Burns, 1980; Ellis, 1962). Beck, for example found the theme of anger is significant intrusion. The angry individual perceives some one has intruded on them or on someone or something they love and possess that he considers to be an extension of himself. The value of what they consider significant is such, that they feel they have a "right" to be angry. This is an exalted state of self-importance by which people define themselves which gives them this "right." It reveals an underlying postulate of self-definition that allows all anger to be justified.
Added to the interpretive perception are evocative cognitive distortions such as selective focusing: disregarding some nice things someone has done while centering on an error they made; mind-reading: concluding, without proof, the reason for someone's improper action was to "get at" the angry person and/or was directed to the person; fortune telling: predicting only unseemly things will happen to you and this will continue in the future; and catastrophizing: evaluating the errors, improper actions and unseemly behaviors of others as more that 100% bad. These distortions enable the individual to create ongoing irrational mental scenarios that fuel the anger emotion. (For further explanation of how these distortions trigger and interact with anger see Morelli, 2005 and 2006b.)
Spiritual Understanding of Significant Intrusion - 'Anger'
The root cause cannot be made more clear than what St. John of the Ladder (1982) has told us: "Pride is a denial of God, an invention of the devil, contempt for men. ... the source of anger, the gateway of hypocrisy." (italics mine). St John Cassian calls the demon of pride " ... most sinister, fiercest of all ... " (Philokalia I).
Spiritual Cure of Anger: Humility
The ultimate model of humility is Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. This was told to the Philippians by St. Paul who said:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians: 5-8).
St Silouan the Athonite (Sophrony,1999) tells us:
The reasoning mind, for example, will reject the commandment "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Matthew 7:1) as nonsensical, urging that the faculty of being able to judge is a distinctive quality in man, making him superior to the whole world and affords him the power to dominate.
St. John of the Ladder (1982) points out:
Pride makes us forget our sins ... the remembrance of them leads to humility." Thus we must heed the further words of St. John: "He must not allow the memory of things that afflict him to be stamped on his intellect lest he inwardly sunders human nature by separating himself from other man although he is a man himself. When a man's will in union with the principle of nature in this way, God and nature are naturally reconciled.
St. Isaac the Syrian has said, the person who has attained to knowledge of his own weakness has reached the summit of humility. (Brock, 1997)
Fruit of Humility: Forgiveness
What is forgiveness? Forgiveness cannot be understood without understanding the nature of sin and it's effects. St. Matthew (22: 37-40) records the words of Jesus: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." Sin is a breaking of God's Laws to love Him and to love our neighbor, despite and in the face of His infinite Love for us.
Sin is Disunion
Sin makes us to be out of communion or what might be called disunion with God and neighbor. St. John Chrysostom states: "Did you commit sin? Enter the Church and repent for your sin; for here is the physician, not the judge; here one is not investigated, one receives remission of sins" (St. John Chrysostom http://www.goarch.org/en/ourfaith/articles/article7106.asp). If the church is a "physician", then this break with God and neighbor needs healing. Sin is considered, therefore to be an illness or infirmity. With healing we are restored to a former condition.
We know this healing takes place in Holy Baptism, the Holy Mystery of Penance, Holy Unction and by worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist: The Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. St. John Chrysostom, in his Divine Liturgy reminds us, of all that God did for us: take on our flesh, the cross, the grave and the Resurrection. The end of which is to reconcile us to Him: "when we had fallen away didst not cease to do all things until thou hast brought us back to heaven." Need we be reminded that when Christ gave us the Eucharist he said; "Take eat: this is my Body which is broken for you for the remission of sins," and "Drink ye all of this: this is my Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins" (emphasis added).
Forgiveness is to be reconciled with Christ and all mankind. St. Matthew tells us:
But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny" (emphasis added) (Matthew 5: 22-26).
This involves an active behavioral effort toward reconciliation.
Repentance: The Condition for Forgiveness
When someone who offends God or us they must repent. God, and we in imitation of Him, should embrace the repentant sinner with God's own love, in order to forgive him. We have to pray that we or anyone who has offended us or God, be reconciled to God and to us through His Church. The foundation of this repentance is a sense of his unfaithfulness to God and offense to us, contrition of heart, and determination to amend and have a metanoia, a fundamental change of mind and heart so as not to offend again.
The Grave Danger of Setting Conditions for Repentance
Because of the brokenness of mankind, the individual who has been slighted is angry and frequently wants "blood" retribution. God's conditions for repentance, on the other hand, are so merciful, as to almost go unnoticed. Consider St. Luke's report of the two thieves, on their crosses next to the crucified Jesus:
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise (emphasis added) (Luke 23: 39-49).
In a previous article I pointed out the difficulty for individuals to "ask for repentance" and initial asking is often indirect or a mere gesture (Morelli, 2007). It often takes the form of restarting friendly communication; doing something nice that unexpected by the other; offering to help on a problem; telling a humorous story; or suggesting resuming a previously halted activity.
The words of Our Lord are even stronger than setting conditions for repentance. All know His humanly hard injunction:
You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5: 38-45).
His call is for no conditions at all. It appears Jesus is telling us it is just these enemies we are to love more than all the rest.
One of the most powerful understanding of this difficult teaching comes from the spiritual insight of St. Silouan the Athonite. St. Silouan (Sophrony 1999), tells us: "God is love, absolute love embracing every living thing in abundance. God is present in hell, too, as love. By allowing man to know this love, in so far as he is able, the Holy Spirit reveals to him the path to the fullness of being." A short account, related by the saints biographer and cell attendant, Archimandrite Sophrony, of an exchange between the St. Silouan and a visiting hermit monk I wrote about in a previous article (Morelli, 2006b) is worth repeating. It shows the unfathomable depth of love God has and we should have toward all who have offended us: The hermit "declared with evident satisfaction that 'God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.'"
Obviously upset, the Staretz said, "Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there you looked down and saw someone burning in hell-fire - would you feel happy?" "It can't be helped. It would be their own fault," said the hermit.
The Staretz answered him in a sorrowful countenance. "Love could not bear that," he said. "We must pray for all."
St. Isaac the Syrian (1989) tells us:
But I say, if the merciful one is not also beyond justice, he is not merciful. That is, not only from his own part will he be merciful to others, but also he will endure injustice gladly and voluntarily. He will not establish and seek full justice in his dealing with his companion but will be merciful to him; because when he overcomes justice with mercy he will weave for himself a crown, not of those who are just according to the Law, but of the perfect according to the New Covenant.
A Note on Society-Sanctioned Vengeance
In the Sixth Amendment making up the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution, justice is supposed to be blind. In part the amendment states trials are to occur: "by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed." Most Court Houses prominently display the figure of justice blindfolded and while holding the scale of justice. From the official web-site of the United States Supreme Court is this description:
One of the most recognized legal symbols visible in the architecture of the Supreme Court Building is the female figure representing Justice, who is depicted in three sculptural groups. Portraying Justice as a female figure dates back to depictions of Themis and Justicia in ancient mythology. Themis, known for her clear-sightedness, was the Greek Goddess of Justice and Law. In Roman mythology, Justicia (Justice) was one of the four Virtues along with Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance. Over time, Justice became associated with scales to represent impartiality and a sword to symbolize power. During the 16th century, Justice was often portrayed with a blindfold. The origin of the blindfold is unclear, but it seems to have been added to indicate the tolerance of, or ignorance to, abuse of the law by the judicial system. Today, the blindfold is generally accepted as a symbol of impartiality ... " (http://www.supremecourtus...).
What a mockery to the very constitution to allow those related in some way to the victim of some wrong, to go on an emotional diatribe outright calling for "vengeance" "retribution" on the juridical determined guilty person. Basic behavioral research (Beck, 1979, Beck, et. al. 1995; Burns, 1980; Morelli, 2006a) has uncovered distorted cognitions which educe dysfunctional emotion. In this situation the distorted cognition is emotional reasoning. Emotional reasoning can be defined as: Events are perceived to be what they feel like. An individual sobbing, crying, name calling the guilty person with vitriolic voice shouting for death or some other horrific penalty, is often the result. How is this blind? Did not St. Peter tell us of Christ in his beautiful epistle: "When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly" (1Peter 2:23). Where is Christ in this horrific judicial system that has evolved in the United States?
I remember years ago seeing an interview with a father of a murdered college student in New York City who said, we have to pray for his killers, yes they should be incarcerated to protect others, but only God can judge them and I forgive them. This is incomprehensible to pagan Western society, but a requirement of all who call themselves Christian. What a witness to Christ!
What Forgiveness Does Not Mean
Forgiveness does not mean we forget, excuse, condone or demand some payback. Forgiveness does not mean we have 'warm fuzzy' feelings toward someone who may have offended us. It also does not mean we automatically 'trust' anyone to act appropriately. Trust is a process and has to be earned in time by experience. It also does not mean that the perpetrator of for offenses shown by scientific research that may to have no cure or have a high recidivism rate should be 're-established' in the community in the same status, (occupation, style of life, etc.) the offender had before the offense. We have heard the expression 'hate the sin but love the sinner'. St. Dorotheos of Gaza (Wheeler, 1977) is able to describe this beautifully: "Condemning a man is saying: 'he is a wicked liar, or he is an angry man, or he is a fornicator. For in this way he judges the condition of his soul and draws a conclusion about his whole life, saying it is of such a kind and condemns him as such. This is a very serious thing.. For it is one thing to say, 'He got mad', and another thing to say 'He is bad tempered ... .." [emphasis mine]. He 'got' mad, is a problem to be and issue to be addressed. He 'is' bad tempered is a label of and condemnation of his being.
Aids to Forgiveness
The words of Christ on the cross are very telling in this matter. Our Lord said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Jesus was able to put himself in the mind of those calling for His death and actually crucifying Him. Each had their own reasons for participating in His death. Our Lord was able to take the perspective of his killers: they knew "not what they do." Enright (2001) reports on research indicating taking the perspective of the persons who have offended has been shown to be a significant aid in leading to forgiveness. He recommends his patients to reflect on such questions as: "what life was like for him or her when growing up; what life was like for him or her at the time of the offense; what he or she is like when you ... (see) him or her in a spiritual, religious sense." This process which Enright calls taking perspective is similar to the psychological process of empathy, which may be defined as "thinking and feeling what the other is thinking and feeling."
Research by Hoffman, 1988; Eisenberg & Mussen 1989; and Greenberg, Kusche, Cook, & Quamma 1995; has linked increase in empathy to attenuated aggression. Cunningham (1985) has reported on successful application of empathy to 'forgiveness' in a pastoral setting.
Reconciliation Leads to Love
Love of God, means to love Him with all our heart, mind and soul. Love of neighbor plain and simple means to use all our heart mind and soul to desire and work for the good and welfare of our neighbor. We are reminded of the wisdom of St. Isaac the Syrian (Brock, 1997): "Just because the terms 'wrath', 'anger', 'hatred' and the rest are used of the Creator in the Bible, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger, hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are used of God in the Scriptures, terms which are far removed from His true nature. Among all God's actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and end of His dealing with us." May I add this should be the beginning and end of our relationships with all mankind in which we are all made in God's image. Those who have offended most egregiously and performed the most horrific of offenses are to be loved the most. In this same spirit we have to be reconciled in love to those whom we have offended.
What Love is Not
Love is not a feeling. Love does not mean we condone or excuse or minimize evil acts. Love does not mean we have to be blind to the brokenness and sinful predilections of mankind. Did not Our Lord Himself tell his disciples: "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10: 16). We have to use our intelligence and be wise.
As indicated above in discussing what forgiveness does not mean, applying even the simple wisdom of our God given intelligence and experience, love (and forgiveness-reconciliation) does not mean for example, allowing an alcoholic to go back to his former occupation as a bartender, or a pedophile to be a child caretaker. This can be applied to many examples of inclinations that humans have that through modern scientific research have been found can be of potential harm to self and others: abuse, use of drugs, sexual problems, etc.
What Does it Mean for Us to Forgive?
Forgiveness does mean we make sure the offending individual, who has repented and shown sorrow for their sin or offense towards us is given physical, mental, and spiritual care. Even if some offender has not shown repentance and sorrow we are required to give them basic physical, spiritual and an even greater abundance of spiritual care. All are to be looked on as sons and daughters of God. All are given respect and courtesy. They are to be prayed for and approached by us in an attempt to reconcile. Repentant offenders, are given the Holy Mysteries of the Church so they can grow in grace and be in union with all the blessed in paradise. All at the very least are to be prayed for with all our heart, mind and soul that all who offended us can reach paradise.
Harvest of Forgiveness: Theosis
St. Silouan has pointed out that, "those who dislike and reject their fellow-man are impoverished in their being. They do not know the true God, who is all-embracing love." St. Peter in his second epistle tells us what God has given us: "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness ... and become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:3-4). We know this is not participation or becoming God in His Being or Essence but sharing in the warmth and light of His "Divine Energy" (Staniloae, 2003).
Healing Passions Leads to Theosis
This can only happen, indicates Bishop Hierotheos Vlachos (1994),if we heal the passions of our soul. For the offender this means healing the passion that led to the offense. For the one who to forgive this means healing the passion of anger and increase in the virtues of humility and meekness. Forgiveness and repentance are a two sided coin. One cannot exist without the other.
St. Maximus the Confessor tells us the path this takes: "The first type of dispassion is abstention from the body's impulsion towards the actual committing of sin. The second ... rejection of the impassioned thoughts ..the thirds is quiescence of passionate desire. ..the fourth type of dispassion is the compete exclusion from the mind of sensible images" (Philokalia II). Psycho-spiritually this means the decision and will to stop sin, act in accordance with Our Lord's counsels, and do all we can to remove ourselves from events and images that arouse sin. This means substituting and have available the works of God, exercise and practice Godly virtuous thoughts and acts, and base all on the foundation of prayer and the Holy Mysteries.
Let Us Commend Ourselves and Each Other ... Unto Christ our God
Theosis not only means being enlivined with the fire of God's warmth and light but being in communion with one another. St. Dorotheos of Gaza (Wheeler, 1977) likens our growth in union with God, to a compass. God is the center point. Each person is like the radials going out from the center to all the 360 degrees encircling it. As each person moves toward God, the center, they also move closer to one another, as each person moves away from God, the center, they also are more distant from one another.
Let us end reflecting on the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian (1997): "If your brother is angry with you, then the Lord is also angry with you. And if you have made peace with your brother below, then you have made peace also with the Lord on high. If you receive your brother, then you also receive your Lord."
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