Cultivating the Spirit of Mercy and Forgiveness

How do we pray for the tragic situation in Ukraine? The world’s eyes are turned toward the heart-rending and catastrophic events occurring there and as Christians we are called to fervently pray for peace and healing. War entails such evil and atrocities. Yet, when Elder Zacharias of St. John’s Monastery in Essex, England was asked about the conflict, he responded with these words of profound wisdom:

“We do not know everything about the conflicts of this world, nor is it necessary to know. We just pray with a compassionate heart for the peace of the world and for all people. We do not take sides, because each side will be responsible for crimes, and we do not want to share in these crimes and be condemned. If we pray for those who are more wrong than right, well, we perform the commandment to love even enemies. And if we pray for those who are more right than wrong, we do well. Therefore, we cannot go wrong if we pray that God save all and grant peace to the world.

Especially for us, priests and monks, it is very important not to be political at all, because we offer our sacrifice to God, the Holy Liturgy, for the whole world; and if we are for some and against others, our sacrifice is annulled. I think that when there is a war, the best is not to be judgmental, but to have compassion and pray that the Lord may spare all from suffering. If my Liturgy is to have any value, no one should be missing from my heart when I stand before the altar of God and say to Him, ‘Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, in all and for all.”

“If we are for some and against others, our sacrifice is annulled.” These words are not only about the war with Ukraine and Russia, but they’re addressed to all of us in our lives whenever we arrogantly judge and proudly divide and place labels on others that demonize them. We act in such a simplistic manner when we want to see people as either good or bad, black or white, us or them.

The great Russian prophet, Alexander Solzenitzyn, discovered this truth when he suffered in the Soviet gulag prison system in Siberia – Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil does not pass through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”

We need to understand this spiritual wisdom to fully appreciate the purpose of Forgiveness Sunday as the day before we begin our Great Lenten journey tomorrow on Clean Monday. The day before the Great Lenten season begins, the Church reminds us of a few fundamental principles.

First, it reminds us of the casting out of Adam and Eve from paradise, which we remember today. Adam and Eve consciously chose to turn away from God, to forget God, to listen to the alluring yet deceptive voice of Satan by believing that they could become like God without Him, by eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Some Church Fathers believed that in God’s timing, when Adam and Eve had grown and matured in the likeness of God and fulfilled their divine potential, God would have allowed them to partake of this Tree. Yet, they chose a path separate from their Creator, forgetting His love and goodness, and instead listening to the deceptive, satanic voice of their egocentric desires.

Adam and Eve cast themselves out of paradise by separating themselves from God, yet God still would show them mercy and forgiveness through the salvific works of Jesus Christ. God never holds on to His anger but allows His mercy and love to prevail, that is unless people don’t accept that mercy and love.

This is the spirit of our Gracious God, our All-Merciful Creator, our Compassionate and Loving Father. Mercy and love, grace and forgiveness reflect His Spirit. Thus, today the Church reminds us of this essence of God’s Spirit.

Yet, the Church also reminds and challenges us to adopt this same spirit. If we are God’s children, created in His image and likeness, and if we strive to cultivate the “mind of Christ” in our lives, as Saint Paul teaches, then we must adopt and express a similar spirit of mercy and love, grace and forgiveness to all others, without exceptions. We must forgive one another!

Yes, it may seem difficult and for some maybe even impossible, but this is why the Church turns our attention to this central topic as we prepare to enter into the holiest season of the year. Forgiveness and mercy are at the focus of our Lenten journey. We must seek out the mercy of God as we forgive others, all others no matter what they have done to us, forgiving them with the same mercy that God forgives us. Of course, if we are having difficulty forgiving others, it’s simply a sign that we have not opened up our hearts enough to receive God’s divine own forgiveness and we have chosen to close our minds to understanding His gracious mercy.

These past three weeks, we’ve heard examples of God’s unlimited and boundless mercy. He forgives the evil tax-collector while the Pharisee’s pride keeps his heart closed to God’s mercy. We remember how the older son couldn’t comprehend his father’s show of compassion and mercy to his prodigal brother. As the younger son ran back to the mercy of God, the older son who had always remained with the father, chose not to adopt his father’s spirit, and stayed outside the feast of mercy. Then last week we remembered how God’s judgement is all based on the mercy and love we show toward the least of our brothers and sisters. Whenever we choose not to forgive the other, we are choosing to close our hearts to God’s forgiveness and mercy toward us!

We all need God’s mercy. Yet for us to receive God’s mercy, we must choose to open our hearts and minds so that His mercy can flow within us and through us. We open our hearts when we show mercy to others and willingly forgive them.

Elder Zacharias remind us, “If we are for some and against others, our sacrifice is annulled.” As we think and pray about Ukraine and Russia, as we think about our own enemies and anyone who may have hurt us, let us connect this to the beginning of our Lenten journey and Forgiveness Sunday which we commemorate today, and let us reflect deeply and soberly on the unfathomable mercy of God – accepting it unworthy as we are and offering it to all others as unworthy as they may be.

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