The meditation below came from the “deep recesses” of some old files—dated back to 2004. We’ll all find some beneficial advice in it. I regret that I cannot note the source for certain, although the latter part of the message probably came from Mother Alexandra’s writings in the early ‘60s.
With the Sunday of Forgiveness nearly upon us, I ask your forgiveness for any stumbling blocks or sins that I may have inadvertently caused through the preparation of these messages or otherwise in our relationship.
Dealing With Hurts
For many of us, barely a day goes by during which we are not hurt by another person. These offenses can come in the form of a careless remark, an unkind glance, unfounded criticism or gossip. They often come from family and friends, from people nearest to us. How should we respond to these hurts? By examining the responses of Christ Himself and the writings of saints and elders of the Church, we can glean for ourselves helpful advice and worthy models.
In the eighth chapter of the Gospel of St. John, the Jews accused Jesus of being a Samaritan and having a demon. St. Gregory the Great comments that Jesus "was silent about what He knew was true and He patiently rejected what He heard falsely said. See how when the Lord is insulted He is not angry, and does not respond with offensive words," (The Orthodox New Testament, Vol. 1, Holy Apostles Convent, p.514). After verbally insulting Jesus, the Jews took up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and left the temple. By this behavior, St. Gregory says that Jesus teaches us, "Even when it is possible for us to resist we should humbly avoid the anger of the proud...Let no one raise up against the offenses he has received. Let no one return injury for injury. It is indeed more honorable to imitate God by fleeing silently in the face of insult than to prevail by answering back" (ibid., p.515). In our daily lives, we may never find ourselves in a position of being stoned, nevertheless insults and accusations from other people can feel as if rocks are being hurled at us. Sometimes being silent and leaving the room can be the most meek and appropriate response for a Christian.
In a similar vein St. Paul wrote to the Romans, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rm. 12:21). St. John of Kronstadt, a parish priest who labored in Russia in the nineteenth century, tells us, "People offend you, irritate you, breathe contempt and malice against you; do not repay them in the same way, but be gentle, meek, and kind, respectful and loving towards those very persons who behave unworthily to you. If you are agitated yourself, and speak excitedly, rudely, contemptuously - that is unlovingly - then you will be vanquished yourself" (My Life in Christ, pt.1, Holy Trinity Monastery, 1971, p.123).
He goes on to explain that if we respond to offenses in a sinful, disturbed manner, the person might notice our weakness and offend us further. Rather we must pity our neighbor. St. John says, the more rude and irritated he is, the more hatred he nourishes towards you, the more meekness and love you must show him. Then you will surely conquer him. God is always stronger than evil, and therefore always conquers. Remember also that we are all weak, and are very easily overcome by passions, and therefore be meek and indulgent to those who sin against you, knowing that you yourself often suffer from the same infirmity as your brother. Forgive those who trespass against you, so that God may forgive your trespasses, incomparably greater than the trespasses of others against you. Be always calm, lofty in spirit, unsuspicious, firm, simple, and kind-hearted, and you will always triumph over your enemies (ibid. p.124). The devil, seeing our irritation with our neighbor, will build on our weakness for his advantage. In other words, we should remember that the devil is working to emphasize our neighbor's sins in our eyes so that we will have enmity, rather than love, in our hearts towards our neighbor.
St. John of Kronstadt comments, "How many trifling and incessant pretexts the hater of mankind offers us for hating our neighbor, so that we are almost constantly angry with others, almost constantly bearing malice against others, and living in accordance with his infernal all-destructive will" (ibid., pt. 2, p.27). St. John goes on to explain that the devil cunningly induces us to notice the sins of others and react angrily. By this method, the devil keeps us distracted from the anger which rightfully should be directed against him, the deviser of evil and division. If indeed our brother is guilty in some way, "we must despise the sins, the faults themselves, and not our brother who commits them at the devil's instigation, through infirmity and habit." St. John continues: we must pity him, and gently and lovingly instruct him, as one who forgets himself, or who is sick, as a prisoner and slave of his sin. But our animosity, our anger towards the sinner only increases his sickness, oblivion, and spiritual bondage, instead of lessening them; besides this, it makes us ourselves like madmen, or sick men, the prisoners of our own passions, and of the devil, who is the author of them (ibid., pt. 1, p.183).
A twentieth century saint, Staretz Silouan of Mount Athos, also linked the difficulty of loving our neighbor with the presence of the devil: if you think evil of people, it means you have an evil spirit in you whispering evil thoughts about others...I beseech you, put this to the test. When a man affronts you or brings dishonour on your head, or takes what is yours, or persecutes the Church, pray to the Lord, and say, "O Lord, we are all Thy creatures. Have pity on Thy servants, and turn their hearts to repentance," and you will be aware of grace in your soul. To begin with, constrain your heart to love her enemies, and experience itself will show you the way. But the man who thinks with malice of his enemies has not God's love within him and does not know God (The Undistorted Image, Faith Press, 1958, p.125-6).
Yes, in our daily lives, hurts and offenses will come. Personalities will clash. As St. Ambrose, an elder of Optina Monastery in Russia, wrote in simple, graphic terms to his spiritual children, "If a pot clashes with a pot, how much more impossible is it for people to live together without clashing" (Elder Ambrose of Optina, St. Herman of Alaska Press, 1997, p.157). Yet as we have seen from the above examples we must deal with these hurts through silence, meekness, prayer, pity and kindness. We need to remember that the devil stirs us to feel hatred towards others for the hurts they inflict on us, but we must react with love for neighbor, directing hatred only towards the sin. In this way we will bear the name of Christ as worthy Christians.
In the Lord's Prayer we ask of God to forgive us, even as we forgive others. To forgive, how hard this often is! It means a good deal more than not repaying evil by evil, it means repaying evil by good. Actually, it demands that we wipe from our memory the resentment, the hurt and indignation aroused by a wrong done us; and this is still much more difficult than repaying evil with good.
Strangely enough we can be as hurt by unintentional slights as we are by intentional ones. We may be faced by a hurtful action that cuts to the quick, which seems and probably is unbearable. At such moments, besides a prayer for fortitude remembering the Lord Christ's words as He hung on the Cross, a positive act of will can free us. It is almost like a physical reaction, a positive gesture like the throwing off of a heavy coat and casting it aside.
Every resentment we carry on with us, every scar upon our wounded pride becomes like a chain about our ankles impeding our progress. We are in fact slaves bound by invisible but powerful ties to those who have harmed us. We cannot be freed of them unless we forgive, utterly and completely; then and then only are we free to approach our Heavenly Father, praying Him to forgive us our many faults knowingly or unknowingly committed.
We pray to be forgiven our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. How much have we forgiven and therefore how much forgiveness can we ourselves expect?
--by Ileana, Princess of Romania (Mother Alexandra) approximate date 1961
PS: Links to Ortho Thought blog entries from 2012 by +Metropolitan Anthony Bloom with reflections on preparing for the start of Great Lent: