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So, it begins — at least for us Orthodoxes; our Western Christian brothers and sisters will join us on Wednesday. I felt far away from our church home in Dallas today; the Forgiveness Vespers service is always so very moving, but this year, living in Philadelphia, we didn’t attend. We haven’t yet settled on a parish home, and even if we had, we would have stayed away, simply because it’s an emotionally powerful service, and it didn’t feel right being so intimate with folks we don’t know. But it doesn’t feel right either starting Lent without having gone through the ritual. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote about my first Forgiveness Vespers service:
I’d heard that this ceremony is quite moving, but nothing quite prepared me for what happened at the end of the formal prayer. Archbishop Dmitri stood before the gathered congregation and told us that he had failed us in this past year, and listed the things he had done and the things he had left undone. And bowing down as much as he was able (he’s 84), he asked our forgiveness. The entire congregation fell to its knees, prostrated its collective head to the floor, and forgave him.
Thus began one of the most remarkable rituals I’ve ever seen, much less been a part of. We all went around the church, in circular receiving lines, asking forgiveness of each other. The way it worked was like this: two congregants stand facing each other. Then both make the sign of the cross, fall to their knees, bow humbly to each other, touching their heads to the floor, then stand. Each one says, “Forgive me, brother (or sister).” Then they embrace, kiss each other three times on the cheek, and say to each other, “God forgives you, I forgive you,” or some slight variation on that.
Imagine doing that over 100 times. With every single person in church. The ones you love. The ones you know you should love. The ones who have hurt or offended you. The ones you’ve not befriended. The ones you’ve done wrong in some way. Every single man, woman and child. It’s astonishing to watch a priest fall to the ground and ask a little girl to forgive him. To see mothers and fathers fall down in front of their children and ask for (and offer) forgiveness.
But it happened tonight.
You can’t really have Forgiveness Vespers online, but let me do what I can by asking all of you your forgiveness for the times I’ve spoken cruelly and hurt you in the past year. There’s a different spirit at this non-political blog (one I am glad for, quite honestly), but many of you who now read this blog were with me at the old Crunchy Con blog. I thank you for your loyalty, and I say to you now what I said last year at this time:
It is important for me to proclaim and defend what I believe to be the truth, but it’s also important for me to do so in love, not anger or vindictiveness. I know my temper and pride are big problems for me, and I ask you to forgive me and to pray that I will conquer them.
I say it again, sincerely. And I wish all of you a blessed Lent. Here is a Good Friday meditation by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, this passage of which on forgiveness is a good way to start this season of repentance and self-examination:
We confess to hurting someone we love and she says, “Forget it. It’s nothing. It doesn’t matter.” But she knows and we know that it is not nothing and it does matter and we will not forget it. Forgive and forget, they say, but that is surely wrong. What is forgotten need not, indeed cannot, be forgiven. Love does not say to the beloved that it does not matter, for the beloved matters. Spare me the sentimental love that tells me what I do and what I am does not matter.Forgiveness costs. Forgiveness costs dearly. There are theories of atonement saying that Christ paid the price. His death appeased God’s wrath and satisfied God’s justice. That way of putting it appeals to biblical witness and venerable tradition, and no doubt contains great truth. Yet for many in the past and at present that way of speaking poses great problems. The subtlety of the theory is overwhelmed by the cartoon picture of an angry Father who demands the death of His Son, maybe even kills His Son, in order to appease His own wrath. In its vulgar form–which means the form most common–it is a matter of settling scores, a drama vengeful and vindictive, more worthy of The Godfather than of the Father of whom it is said, “God is love.”
And yet forgiveness costs. Forgiveness is not forgetfulness; not counting their trespasses is not a kindly accountant winking at what is wrong; it is not a benign cooking of the books. In the world, in our own lives, something has gone dreadfully wrong, and it must be set right. Recall when you were a little child and somebody–maybe you–did something very bad. Maybe a lie was told, or some money was stolen, or the cookie jar lies shattered on the kitchen floor. The bad thing has been found out, and now something must happen, something must be done about it. The fear of punishment is terrible, but not as terrible as the thought that nothing will happen, that bad things don’t matter. If bad things don’t matter, then good things don’t matter, and then nothing matters, and the meaning of everything lies shattered like the cookie jar on the kitchen floor.Trust that child’s intuition. “Unless you become as little children,” Jesus said, “you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Unless we are stripped of our habits of forgetting, of our skillful making of excuses, of our jaded acceptance of a world in which bad things happen and it doesn’t matter.
This, then, is our circumstance. Something has gone dreadfully wrong with the world, and with us in the world. Things are out of whack. It is not all our fault, but it is our fault too. We cannot blame our distant parents for that fateful afternoon in the garden, for we were there. We, too, reached for the forbidden fruit–the forbidden fruit by which we know good and evil but, much more fatefully, by which we presume to name good and evil. For most of us, our rebellion did not have about it the gargantuan defiance depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Most of us did not, as some do, stand on a mountain peak and shake a clenched fist against the storming skies, cursing God.
But then, neither were Adam or Eve so melodramatic. On a perfectly pleasant afternoon in paradise, they did no more than listen to an ever so reasonable voice. “Did God really mean that? Surely He wants you to be yourself, to decide for yourself. Would He have made something so very attractive only to forbid it? The truth is He wants you to be like Him, to be like gods.” The fatal step was not in knowing the difference between good and evil. Before what we call “the fall” they knew the good in the fullest way of knowing, which is to say that they did the good, they lived the good. They knew the good honestly, straightforwardly, simply, uncomplicatedly, without shame.