Saturday, February 26, 2011

"Repay no one evil for evil"

Having posted last night about Cardinal George's desire to make hearing confessions an important part of his ministry after his retirement from being the archbishop of Chicago, this morning I encountered something via Quaerere Deum on the absolute necessity to forgive. The brief piece, which originated on Desert Wisdom, is about a Russian monk, Elder Sampson Sievers, who passed back in 1979. Like Dostoevsky's remarkable Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, Elder Sampson was a spiritual father to many. I guess the best equivalent in the West would be a spiritual director, often conceived of, from the Celtic tradition, as a soul-friend. However, the relationship between a person and her/his spiritual father is a different, deeper kind of relationship. It doesn't take on the kind of pragmatic "let's get down to business" character that seems to comprise a lot of what passes for spiritual direction in the efficient West.

The post on Desert Wisdom says that Elder Sampson "was a man well-equipped to speak on the subject of forgiveness. As a young novice monk, he was arrested by the Communist authorities, shot in a mass execution, and thrown into a common grave. By Divine Providence he survived the shooting, and was pulled out of the grave still breathing by his brother monks and nursed back to health. Later he was arrested again and spent nearly twenty years in Communist concentration camps. But he never held onto bitterness and resentment: He completely forgave both his executioners and his torturers. In his later years, when he was serving as a spiritual father to many people, he was especially tough when his spiritual children refused to forgive someone, even for some petty annoyance. He said: 'I’ve always concluded: this means that they still have not gotten the point, that the whole secret, that all the salt of Christianity lies in this: to forgive, to excuse, to justify, not to know, not to remember.'"

I find this both beautiful and troubling. The reason I find it troubling is the exhortation not to remember evil and even to justify evil. I see why I should not dwell on on evil. I even see that to forgive means, to some extent, to excuse evil, but do I really have to both forget and justify evil? Given his experience, Elder Sampson's teaching cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand. There was a conversation I participated in last week about the absolute need for one who follows Christ to forgive as Jesus taught us in last Sunday's Gospel, and He demonstrated by praying for those who killed Him even as the were nailing Him to the Cross: "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father" in the recognition that God "makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust" (Matt.5:43-56).

It is undeniable that we are to pray for our enemies and love those who persecute us. This falls into the category of easy to say, difficult to live. However, what about really egregious things? In no way do we realize that, unlike our blessed the Lord, we are not yet perfect as our Father heaven is perfect than when it comes to the need to forgive. As Elder Sampson directed, forgiving requires at least excusing evil, if not justifying it or forgetting it. Forgiveness, certainly for truly evil acts deliberately committed, as well as very often for trifling things, must be a choice, but it requires grace, too. I believe that this grace takes the form of remembering how much we need God's mercy, Jesus Christ (i.e., "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"). Nonetheless, we sometimes first have to pray for the grace to pray for another, to truly desire the best for him/her. For many who have been gravely harmed by another this is a process, a two steps forward and one step back proposition (or even one step forward and two steps back, depending on the day). The need to forgive, to be merciful because God has given us mercy, always, inevitably, and necessarily brings up the issue of justice.

I his encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict reflects deeply on justice and mercy. I think he lays things out more clearly than does Elder Sampson: mercy cannot cancel out the demands of justice:


"To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope. Is it not also a frightening image? I would say: it is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear of which Saint Hilary spoke when he said that all our fear has its place in love. God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened" (par. 44).

We cannot neglect weighty matters, that is, our stance towards thos who deliberately commit truly evil acts. Take as an example our opposition as Catholics to the death penalty: I can’t fail to recognize the point-of-view of someone who has had a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child, a near and dear friend who was brutally murdered and accept their very human response to such an occurrence, which often, at least initially, sees justice as an eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth. We must help them see that result of such a stance, particularly in the face of evil, only has the effect, as Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof, sagely observed, of leaving everyone blind and toothless.

In recently counseling someone who is dealing with the rape and murder of someone close to him, he told me about how a close friend had mocked his opposition to the death penalty and his faith by saying to him about the murderer: "I guess you can look forward to shaking hands with that bastard in heaven." The scandal of Christianity is that, while this is not a certainty, it is a possibility. Further, it is a possibility we are called to help bring about. This is how we help accomplish God's purpose, assisting in the divine work of bringing life from death. It is hard work, indeed!

In light of these provocations, as a Christians, let us recognize how far our hearts from are from where they need to be, from where we want them to be (if we are serious about being Jesus' disciples). In order to do so, we have to be reassured of what the Holy Father teaches us; with God there is justice, even for those who ultimately recognize their need for divine mercy. This is no different from what St. Paul wrote a long time ago:

"Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' To the contrary, 'if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:17-19- ESV).

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