Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California
St. John informs us what Jesus told him about the acts of a group who had left the Church “ you hate the deeds which I also hate” (Rev. 2: 6). There is probably no one in San Diego, and few worldwide who do not know about, deplore and lament the horrific rape and murder of two young high school girls in our community, one just over a month ago and the other last year. Similar feelings abound about such opprobrious deeds against children in our community and elsewhere. These criminal actions demonstrate the sinful brokenness mankind is capable of.
Our Eastern Church Fathers teach us that in brokenness, love can emerge. The brokenness in the world, often a source of despair, can be transformed into an opportunity in imitation of Christ, to empty (kenosis) ourselves from our own self love, “put on Christ” — an emptying that reaches fulfillment in love towards God and neighbor. Indeed, thousands of loving San Diegans and countless others nation and world-wide, lovingly and fervently prayed for Chelsea, her family as well as the other victims of such evil and their families. Another family grieving over their missing daughter, Amber, two weeks later found the remains of her body, about a year later after her disappearance. Rightly, the throne of God was stormed by prayers for these innocents and their loving families and friends.
However, there are others who are in great need of prayer: the perpetrators of these horrific crimes. St. Luke tells us of Jesus command: “ bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Lk 6: 28). We are to do as Christ did while on His Cross. Christ prayed for those who crucified Him: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Lk 23: 34). As St. Isaac of Syria tells us: “God has a single caring concern for those who have fallen, as much as for those who have not fallen.” It just so happens that praying for someone who has offended us may be both the first act of forgiveness some may be capable of in the beginning of the forgiveness process, and at the same time lead to a deeper level of forgiveness and heal conflict.
However, prayer for one who has offended us or who has committed such hideous deeds has to conform to the love that God has for all of us. All prayer for forgiveness must be done with purity of heart and with the fullness of God’s love. This is to say, we must pray that they reach out to God, glorify His Holy Name and in turn God embrace them in His Bosom. It is so easy to pray with conditional or impure prayer. “I will only forgive if the other person fulfills some condition.” This may be that they ask or beg forgiveness. It may be to cry out for vengeance and not forgive at all. It may be to say or pray: “God send them to hell.” To do this would be to forget the spiritual insight of our Orthodox Christian Church Father, St. Silouan the Athonite. To someone who "declared with evident satisfaction that 'God will punish all [sinners]. They will burn in everlasting fire,'" St Silouan replied: "Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there you looked down and saw someone burning in hell-fire - would you feel happy?" "It can't be helped. It would be their own fault," [was the response].The Staretz answered him in a sorrowful countenance. "Love could not bear that," he said. "We must pray for all."
Interestingly, a recent psychological study found that prayer for one who has offended us would increase selfless concern for others and simultaneously enhance forgiveness. In part, the researchers explain the findings that forgiveness is healing is based on focusing on ‘shared common goals.’ For the Orthodox Christian these results should not be surprising, for as St. Paul tells us of our common goal: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ ” (1Th 5:9).