Orthodox Thought for the Day


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Empathy, ruminations & the way of the fathers

Fr. Alexis’ recent posting on this topic is clearly instructive.  Below is an excerpt: 

If a Christian exchanges compassion and pity, for judgment and condemnation, the path to forgiveness is opened. And one spiritual way to do that is through the empathy-promoting saying of Abba Dorotheos: “him today, surely me tomorrow” (Discourse 6). This brings humility and an awareness of our own frailty. It makes it easier not to judge, not to blame, not to condemn, but instead to be compassionate, loving, and forgiving. It is also significant that our focus is on the person who is in many ways like us, not on what the person has done that offends us.

The reason for this focus will become clear if we turn to the issue of ruminating over offenses. Riek and Mania write, “Another major influence on forgiveness is rumination. Increases in rumination are associated with decreases in forgiveness (Berry et.al, 2001; Kachadorurian, Fincham, & Davila, 2005; McCullough et al., 1998). It appears that the more one focuses on past transgressions, the harder it is for him or her to forgive.”

Harmful rumination coincides with the patristic teaching on the remembrance of wrongs (μνησικακία) that Ammonios Grammaticus defined as long-standing anger in contrast to a short outburst (On the Difference of Synonymous Expressions). For the fathers, the remembrance of wrongs is a passion of self-defense, related to anger and pride, that increases these passions to such an extent that they can lead a person to murder and bloodshed (Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Canonical Letter to Letoium, PG 45.225). According to Saint Syncletica, “Anger is like smoke that briefly obstructs the soul’s vision and then disappears, but the remembrance of wrongs makes that soul into a wild beast” (Life of Syncletica, PG 28.1524). This is why the fathers counsel us to cut off thoughts about others especially as they relate to their slights and offenses. Thus, Saint Maximus the Confessor would counsel: “Do not recall in times of peace what was said by a brother in times when there were bad feelings between you, even if offensive things were said to your face, or to another person about you, and you subsequently heard of them. Otherwise you will harbor thoughts of the remembrance of wrongs and revert to your destructive hatred of your brother” (Fourth Century on Love, 34). Perhaps, the best treatment for rumination or the remembrance of wrongs is prayer that unites us with our longsuffering, compassionate, forgiving Heavenly Father and that can make us a bit more like Him (Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On the Lord’s Prayer).


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