The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. — Henry David Thoreau
I went to Confession to a priest, and he told me a story that touched me deeply. I will not share the details of his story, but the insights I received, along with his subsequent advice, made me realize how deep and difficult forgiving others can be. And it made me fall in love yet again with the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
He said, “I am 85 years old, and every day, after more than 65 years, I have to forgive again my [relative]. I used to think when Jesus said we have to forgive 70 times 7 times that he was talking about a limitless supply of pardons for new offenses. That’s often true. But I have come to see myself that some sins committed against us are so grave that the limitless forgiveness Jesus asks of us must be applied every day, again and again, bit by bit to the same person for the same offense. I’ve found myself over the years moving from despair to hope. But it ain’t easy. Forgiveness can be hell, as Our Lord showed us on the Cross. I only pray that before I die, I will have the grace and love to speak my final pardon to [this relative].” He went on to say, “We all carry memories of harms committed against us and harms committed by us. So much of the spiritual life is about humbly begging God’s mercy on both. We can become great saints only by inviting divine mercy into our memories, and mercy can only work if we join in by forgiving as much as we’re forgiven. It’s very hard work; remember, grace is freely offered, but it ain’t cheap to receive it. It seems that’s why ‘Lord have mercy’ is a litany in the Liturgy, because it must become a litany in our life.”
After receiving that torrent of wisdom, he absolved me of my sins. I was speechless and shaken to the core.
That reminded me, of course, of Fr. Tom Hopko’s fantastic words on dealing with our painful memories that I’ve shared before. Never too much of Fr. Tom. I’ll spread it between today and tomorrow.
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What’s the teaching? The teaching is: you’re going to have these thoughts, feelings, and memories. You are going to be tempted as St. Anthony says, “to your very last breath.” You’re going to be tried. There’s going to be tribulation. There’s going to be affliction. There’s going to be all kinds of troubles of mind, soul, spirit, and body. That’s part of being in this fallen world, and the claim is that God Almighty has sent his only-begotten Son to die on the Cross, to be raised and glorified, and to give us the Holy Spirit so that we can fight against them, by God’s grace and by faith and be victorious together with Christ and die with him and be raised with him and have everlasting life with him. This is not magic. It’s not automatic. It’s not mechanical. We’re not machines. We’re not robots. We’re not puppets. We’re free human beings. We’ve got to deal with these things freely. We’ve got to co-operate with God. We have to believe in God, trust God, and realize that the power of God is greater than these powers.
But then the question comes: Well, how do you do it? Practically, how do you do it? And here, I think, in a very superficial, simplistic way, there’s certain things that could be said right away without any doubt. Number one, it can be said very clearly: you can’t do it by willpower. You can’t do it by yourselves. You can’t do it by figuring things out. You don’t have the means to figure anything out, and you don’t have the power to overcome this stuff. In your fallen, corrupted condition, this is stronger than you are. Don’t dialogue with it. Don’t think you can control it. Don’t think you can find some human method by which you’re going to make yourselves intelligent, strong, holy, pure, and beautiful. It ain’t going to happen.
However, the next point would be, but by faith in God and by the grace of God, it’s possible. With God, all things are possible. Even not to engage the thoughts and the feelings and the memories that assail us, that fight against us. St. Theophan said, “Like swarms of flies around our head. They keep buzzing all the time.” Well, they’re going to buzz and buzz and buzz forever. Till our very last breath, they’re going to buzz. There’s a saying that when Macarius of Egypt was dying, he was stepping into Paradise and he heard a voice saying, “Macarius, you have conquered.” And he turned and saw it was Satan, the devil. And he says to the devil, “Not yet,” because he hasn’t completely died yet. He hasn’t entered into the kingdom yet. Until both feet are in the kingdom, it’s not yet. As Climacus’ famous fresco shows about the ladder, you can fall off the top rung. You’re never safe until it’s over. As Yogi Berra says, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
There is this battle, but we can’t win it. Only Christ can conquer and win it. All we can do is believe in him, become his servant, pray for grace, and then what becomes impossible for men becomes possible together with God. So it’s by grace and by faith that we’re saved, not by works, lest any man should boast. That’s pretty basic. That’s pretty Christianly basic. St. Paul said it. St. Paul said in Romans, also; he said, “What I don’t want to do, I do; what I do, I don’t want to do.” Who’s going to save me from all of this? I have these other laws working in my members that drive me. And what I don’t want to do with my mind, my body is doing anyway.” He says, “With my mind I serve the law of God and the law of the Holy Spirit and life, and with my flesh I am serving the law of sin and death. Who will deliver me from this body of death?” It’s Romans 7-8. And his answer is Christ. The Holy Spirit. Grace. That we can only receive and believe and live by and die to ourselves in order to live to God.
As Gregory the Theologian would say, “More often than we breathe.” Not only with every breath do we take every thought captive for the sake of Christ. As St. Paul said, “Take every thought, every logismos, every thought captive for the sake of Christ.” But more often than we breathe. We’ve got to positively keep our mind on God and not engage these horrible, destructive thoughts that are within us and are going to bug us and tempt us and afflict us until we die. The more we try to do good, the more that’s going to happen.
So the peace and the joy and the stability and the dispassion that we’re searching for is not when all this stuff goes away. It’s when, in the midst of it, it doesn’t touch us. It cannot harm us. Now here all the holy Fathers’ teaching can be synthesized in a very, pretty simple way. They will say the following. I believe this is totally accurate. They will say, “We have these thoughts, feelings, memories. They’re within us. We don’t know what to do about them. We can’t even assess where they come from.” And the holy Fathers would say only when you’re really advanced can you really see what comes from nature, what comes from fallenness, what comes from the senses, what comes from the demons. That’s a discernment that not any Joe Blow like you or me can have.
But we even would be advised, I think, not even to get into too much “where they’re coming from” and “how they work.” We’ve just got toname them for when they’re evil, and claim them and dump them, as they say in the 12-step program. You’ve got to acknowledge that they’re there. You can’t repress them. You can’t suppress them. You can’t try to flee away from them. You can’t pretend that they’re not with you. Wherever you go, they’re going to be in you and with you. There’s no geographical cure.
What we must do, according to the holy Fathers, because it is something that we can do, by God’s grace: we do not engage them. So as the holy Fathers would say, this is the dynamic, this is how it works. First of all, you have the pyrasmos, the temptation, the trial, the test. You have the logismos; you have the thought, the logismoi. So we have the temptations and the memories and the thoughts, the imaginations. We pray every night at vespers in the Orthodox Church: “to deliver us from the evil imaginations,” the evil memories, all that is in us. But they’re in us. They’re in us.
And then there’s even in us predispositions, these prolipseis, those former sins and the memory and what we’ve received. They’re already working in our carnal members. St. Paul says that they’re already working in this body of death that we live in, this mortal flesh. So we have to put to death what is evil in our flesh: not our flesh, not our body, but the evil passions.
So then there’s passions. When prepossessions really totally control us, then that’s enslavement. Those are evil passions. That could be “addiction” in modern terminology, when we’re really caught by it. But once we realize those things, and realize that there is a way out by the grace of God, there is a new reality that, with our mind we can believe and give ourselves over to, then how does the dynamic work?
Here, the holy Fathers would say—I think they would say, pretty much, the following. They would say: strive to be awake and to be vigilant. Strive to be aware of what’s going on. Don’t try to repress and suppress these feelings by will-power or exertion of your own human effort. You will fail. You will be crushed. But the minute those thoughts and the memories and the feelings hit you, flee to the Lord! Call upon the name of the Lord. Say the prayer of Jesus. Elder Porphyrios, one modern Greek elder, he even went so far as to say, “When they strike you, don’t even pray against them. Don’t pray against them. That gives them too much power. When you think about the temptations and the sins and the memories, you foment them.” That’s the English translation of his writings that I read. “You foment.” I guess that means you give them power. You give them a certain control over you. So Porphyrios would say, “Don’t give in at all. Flee to the light. Flee to the good.” And that’s a classical teaching.