I don’t normally open with such an extensive quote, but today’s reflection really rests on the words of Fr. Seraphim below. So bear with me, and if you read nothing that follows, read this entire quote:
The Holy Fathers teach us that the one who forgives always wins. Whatever the occasion may be, if you forgive, you immediately cleanse your soul and become fit for paradise. If you have forgiven those who plotted to murder you, you have become equal to the martyrs. If you have forgiven an insult, you have gained peace and won the Kingdom of Heaven. If you have generously overlooked the rumors and slanders against you, you have dulled the sting of your foe. If you have returned a good for evil, you have shamed your enemy. If you have swallowed a sarcastic insult to your honor, you have become worthy of heavenly honors. If, being of higher rank in life, you have asked the pardon of a lesser man, you have not only NOT disgraced yourself, but you have furthered your spiritual maturity. If you are not to blame but ask the offender to forgive you, you have thus helped his soul to be delivered from the hell of hatred and have covered many of your own sins, too. If you have abased your pride, you have exalted your humility. –Archimandrite Seraphim Aleksiev, The Meaning of Suffering and Strife and Reconciliation
What an impossible task! To forgive all our offenders for everything. To overlook wounds that cut us to the core. To ask for forgiveness when we have done no wrong.
Simply contemplating this sort of radical forgiveness is painful. Our inner pride resists with every fiber of its being. It rebels crying out with pain, “I don’t want to forgive. I have been wronged. I am justified. I can endure no more. It is impossible. Is there nothing to be done? Is there no recourse for those who seek to be righteous, to do what is good?” One’s heart breaks under the crucifying pain of being asked to forgive such wounds and insults.
And that is where the light enters.
It is precisely in a broken and contrite heart that Christ can dwell. It is only under the crushing pressure of our own resistance to goodness that we can be released from the bonds of our own sins. It is only when we realize that it is, in fact, impossible for us to forgive our enemies simply by the power of our own will that we can cry out earnestly, “Thy will be done.” It is only with a spirit of repentance and forgiveness that we are freed from the chains which bind us to our own ego and instead find ourselves clinging to the hem of Christ’s garment.
To forgive those who criticize and insult us is a form of crucifying our passions. It becomes very apparent how much we cling to our own reputation and our own power and not to God when we try to forgive and find such extreme resistance in our hearts, when we hear a voice that tries to convince us that we do not need to forgive because we are right, we deserve an apology, and if we yield, it will only make us look worse.
Of course, here we see the real problem. The real problem is not that we have been insulted but that we have become self-righteous, have succumbed to vanity, or have idolized ourselves and forgotten God altogether. Of these things, we must repent. We must lay down our resistance at the foot of the Cross, contemplating that our God willingly ascended the Cross though He did not deserve it. He was spat upon, mocked, stripped naked, and reviled, and yet not once did He retaliate, but instead forgave and prayed for those who scorned Him. It may feel like a crucifixion for us to turn towards radical forgiveness, but in doing so, we will join ourselves to the crucifixion–and ultimately resurrection–of our Lord.
For that, we can be thankful.
St. Nikolai Velimirovich realized that it was our enemies, our detractors and critics, whom we have to thank for revealing to us our ego and forcing us to flee to God. He has left us an incredible prayer of thanksgiving for our enemies (you can read the full text here) which reminds us that the ultimate goal of life is to rid ourselves of our own sins and cleave unto God.
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.
They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.
They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.
They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.
They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.
Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of Thy garment.
By God’s grace, may it be so for each of us.
For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. –Mark 8:35
What clearer call to martyrdom could there be than to hear Jesus say, “If you willingly give up your life for my sake, then you will be saved”? But it’s not only a commandment for the martyrs–you, too, are asked to lose your life for the sake of True Life by denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Christ.
There’s a bit of a paradox in the command, “Deny yourself,” because the self you are asked to deny isn’t really your true self. Who you really are rests in God. The divine spark of the Holy Spirit is already in each of us and has been fueled and fanned by our baptism and chrismation. And this is who you really are–your true self is Christ in you.
Christ asks, then, that we deny ourselves in the sense that we deny the false self–the selfish ego and the passionate desires that seem to be who we are but which are merely distortions that mask our deeper, truer being. Christ asks that we deny ourselves so that we can find ourselves. He tells us, “The ego must go, your passions and selfish desires cannot reign in you if I am to reign in your heart.”
Take Up Your Cross
The way of self-denial is the way of the Cross. To strip the passions of their power is neither easy nor painless. And it’s not a one-time deal, but a constant, life-long struggle. As our true self is being uncovered, the false, egotistical self constantly struggles to win out, and the heart is the battleground where we fight this war.
There are two kinds of crosses we will be asked to bear in this battle. The first are the crosses of circumstance. These are the difficulties, the temptations, and the situations which are out of our control. We do not ask for illness and death to enter our lives, we do not control the propensities towards certain sins that we have inherited or acquired through our upbringing, we do not plan to have a boss that’s unkind or a friend that betrays us. Nonetheless, these things all confront us and require our response.
The crosses of circumstance, though initially thrust upon us, can still be voluntarily taken up. It is an act of self-denial to bear illness with faith and hope. It is an act of self-denial to live a life of purity when faced with strong propensity toward sexual sin. It is an act of self-denial not to exact revenge on a person who has hurt you. These crosses will grieve us, yes, and they may even seem senseless and unfair when we try to fight them. But if we accept them, if we pray, “God, enter into this suffering, be with me, may this cross lead me to a resurrection,” then the suffering and sorrow of the crosses of circumstance will be transformed with hope and light and will allow us to thank God for all things as we begin to see Him act in our lives.
The second kind of crosses we will be asked to bear are the crosses of asceticism. These are the voluntary acts of self-denial we pursue to crucify our passions. This is our response to the usurping, selfish, ego that desires to reign on the throne of our hearts. The false self tells us, “Be angry, you are justified,” and we respond, “I shall not murder my brother, but will let peace reign among us.” The false self tells us, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die,” and we respond, “For my brother’s sake, for the sake of love, I shall take less than my share so that he might have more.” The false self tell us, “You are a good person, you are certainly better than the great sinners,” and we respond, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”
The Church gives us many small crosses of asceticism that we can voluntarily take up so that our will can be formed to the will of the Father. We don’t have to make up an ascetical practice ourselves but simply allow our lives to be shaped by the life of the Church. We fast when and how the Church tells us to fast. We pray with the words of the Church. We give alms though it deprives us of material wealth. We submit in obedience and love to our parents, our spiritual father, our spouse, our bishop. These small acts of self-denial help us face and battle the thoughts and promptings of our ego and of the Evil One.
Together, the crosses of circumstance and the crosses of asceticism slowly uncover Christ in us and strip away the false self. We should expect that crucifixion will be painful and difficult. As the character of C. S. Lewis says in The Shadowlands:
You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves forms of men. The blows of His chisel, which hurt so much, are what makes us perfect.
The last and perhaps most essential part of Christ’s command for us to live everyday as martyrs is this: Follow Me. We are asked not only to deny our selfish desires and bear the suffering that denial will bring, but to move towards Christ. It is the completion of the denial of the false self to allow Christ in us to shine through, for the Holy Spirit to guide our thoughts, words, and deeds.
Follow Me also means that the way of the Cross that we are to walk is the way that Christ has already walked. He does not ask us to bear anything that He Himself has not already borne. He assures us that any difficulty we face, He will face with us. He asks only that we unite ourselves to Him with faith and love.
Christ says to us, “Follow Me, do as I have done, love as I have loved, and most of all, trust that I will love you and walk with you on the path.”
It is striking that the Lord does not force us to follow this path, to bear the cross, to live a life of everyday martyrdom, but says, “If anyone is willing, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” May we have the strength and faith to become everyday martyrs, dying to sin so that we can be alive in Christ.