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Forgiveness, Ritual, and Sacrament


Extending mercy to someone who has hurt us is simultaneously a very basic and extremely difficult teaching of the Christian faith. Over the past 25 years, psychologists – both Christian and otherwise – in the West have written much about this process of forgiveness. Many Christians in the West are familiar with at least some of this work. What many believers fail to realize, however, is that both Eastern and Western apostolic traditions offer many liturgical and sacramental helps for this journey. In this paper the author offers an initial exploration of some of the ways the ritual and theology of these ancient traditions can contribute to one’s forgiveness journey. This material is based on a presentation given by the author at the March, 2013, conference of the Western Division of the Society of St. John Chrysostom.

Forgiveness, Ritual, and Sacrament

Studying the virtue of forgiveness is both part of ancient wisdom and modern scholarship. Most world religions address the idea of forgiveness in some form, and the saints of those traditions often mention it and other related concepts – such as love of enemies – in the thoughts they have left us. Of late, theologians, psychologists, and thinkers in other disciplines have spilled much ink on forgiving others. Despite this rich history, it can be a challenge to find ideas about how the practice of faith connects with interpersonal mercy (a synonym for forgiveness). In the current project, we will look at what liturgical/sacramental theology and practice in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions may have to teach us about forgiving those who have injured us.

Our emphasis here is theology, but we will occasionally incorporate psychological research that substantiates the claims that theology makes. After offering a brief definition of forgiveness, we will examine a subset of liturgical and sacramental practices that have implication for how we treat offenders. These practices include participating in Holy Communion, Holy Confession and Anointing, ritual practices unique to the West or East, and the veneration of saints. In a short paper we cannot hope to exhaust the implications of theology and praxis related to these rituals, but we hope t

o at least introduce some thoughts that will help the reader see more fully the connection between his religious life and his relationships.

The Concept of Forgiveness

Before addressing liturgical and sacramental contexts, let us define our main concept of interest: interpersonal forgiveness. According to Enright (2001), a pioneer of in the psychological study of our topic, interpersonal forgiveness becomes a possibility in situations where another person has hurt us unjustly. The process of extending this mercy involves rooting out negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors about the offender, and developing positive thoughts, feelings and behaviors directed at the same. Enright and his colleagues (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; Knutson, Enright, & Garbers, 2008) provide evidence that four stages (all with multiple “steps”) are usually involved in this process: acknowledging the hurt, considering forgiveness, working on forgiveness, and experiencing freedom. High quality research demonstrates that extending interpersonal mercy to an offender improves the physical and psychological health of the forgiver (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; Hansen, Enright, Baskin, & Klatt, 2009; Waltman, Russell, Coyle, Enright, Holter, & Swoboda, 2008; Witvliet et al., 2008). More information about the process can be found through the International Forgiveness Institute: http://www.internationalforgiveness.com/.

Many in the psychological community distinguish forgiveness from reconciliation, the latter viewed as the actual restoration of a relationship. From this perspective, forgiveness is a prerequisite for true reconciliation but is not the act of reuniting with the offender. From a Christian perspective, however, the distinction between our internal states (forgiveness) and our relationships (reconciliation) is not nearly as sharp as it might be in Western scholarly thought, which has a tradition of breaking the person into his constituent parts. (Matthew 5:21-28 gives example of this correspondence between internal state and relationship for the Christian.) Therefore, we will address themes of both forgiveness and reconciliation in this paper, understanding that while they may not be exactly same concept, they are intimately related.

Holy Communion

The apostolic traditions see the Mystery of Holy Communion as, first and foremost, our most intimate means of relating to God. Theology, however, teaches us that the Sacrament and its context (the Mass or Divine Liturgy) also have implications for our forgiveness of other persons. Here we explore those implications in both the Western and Eastern apostolic practices.

Liturgical Practices Shared by the Apostolic Traditions

In both Eastern and Western Christian traditions, the celebration of Holy Communion has a penitential beginning. The Penitential Act at the beginning of the Roman Catholic Mass can take several forms. The longest form includes the following prayer recited by the community:

I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God. (http://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/Mass-RM3.htm)

This is followed by the priest invoking God’s mercy on the community. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, prayers read by the celebrant before the beginning of Divine Liturgy include an explicit request for forgiveness from those present. In many parishes, this is conveyed by the priest prostrating before the congregation, the members of which then prostrate in return, creating an act of mutual asking and offering of forgiveness. (It is also worth noting that the celebrant will request forgiveness twice more during the service: at the Great Entrance, where the gifts are transferred to the altar, and right before he himself communes.) This emphasis on one’s own sinfulness sets the tone of humility for the celebration of Holy Communion, and as we will see below, even social science researchers are now demonstrating that a person’s humility can be a crucial ingredient of forgiving someone who has hurt him.

A second element of both traditions’ services that can be related to interpersonal mercy is the inclusion of the word love in liturgical texts. References to God’s love are found in various places, but in certain texts, the word is used to refer to Christian love between persons. In the Eastern tradition, the main example of this latter usage comes before the Nicene Creed at every liturgy, where the priest exclaims, “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One in essence and undivided.” In some parishes, the invitation to the chalice also refers to it: “In the fear of God, and with faith and love, draw near!” In the Roman tradition’s second set of Eucharistic Prayers for Reconciliation, in the Thanksgiving and Epiclesis, we hear something similar:

When we ourselves had turned away from you on account of our sins, you brought us back to be reconciled, O Lord, so that, converted at last to you, we might love one another through your Son, whom for our sake you handed over to death. (http://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/RM3-EPR1-2.htm)

From a Christian perspective, this love has little to do with transitory feelings but instead refers to self-sacrificial action undertaken on behalf of another. While Christians have a duty to express this love towards all, Holy Scripture emphasizes that we are responsible for demonstrating it especially towards certain groups of people. These groups include our families (Ephesians 5:22-6:4), our church community (1 Corinthians 13, a chapter situated in an epistle devoted to ecclesiological issues), those we find around us (our “neighbors”) (Luke 10:25-37), and our enemies (Matthew 5:44). It is the latter category that is of particular interest vis-à-vis forgiveness, given that one who hurt us unjustly can be considered – if only for a time – an enemy. About this love, Fr. Alexander Schmemann (1988) writes:

Love your enemies.” These words contain nothing less than an unheard-of demand for love towards someone whom we precisely do not love. That is why they do not cease to disturb us, to frighten us and, above all, to judge us, as long as we have not become thoroughly deaf to the gospel. (p. 135, emphasis in original)

In both Western and Eastern traditions, this love for others is mentioned at key times: as the community professes their shared faith at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Faithful (and sometimes right before Holy Communion) in the East, and sometimes as a part of the institution of the Holy Gifts in the West. This placement clearly links this self-sacrificial love even for those who hurt us with the experience of the Sacrament. This link makes sense, for Holy Communion is the broken Body and Blood of Christ, who demonstrated this type of love in its highest form. In addition, partaking of the Sacrament brings us into union with the Triune God, Who Himself is Three Persons eternally offering such love to One Another and the entire created order. Finally, we recall that Holy Communion is for the forgiveness of our own sins, a gift we dare not receive if we refuse to work to extend the same mercy to others. This point is emphasized in both Roman and Eastern traditions by the reading of the Lord’s Prayer right before Holy Communion. This prayer, and the Lord’s own commentary after it (Matthew 6:14-15), stresses that we will be forgiven only as we forgive others. Given that Holy Communion carries these meanings, the one who approaches the chalice while rejecting the opportunity to forgive an offender risks communing not unto salvation but unto judgment (1 Corinthians 11:29).

A final liturgical practice shared by both apostolic traditions is the passing of the peace. For the Orthodox, the kiss of peace is given – not coincidentally – at the time when all are called to love one another as a prerequisite for confessing their faith in the Nicene Creed. In the West, the sign of peace is given right before the faithful partake of the Sacrament. At least one theologian (Schmemann, 1988) has noted the importance of this sign vis-à-vis forgiveness:

…for the early Christians it [the kiss of peace] was….a sacred rite of love….we are talking not of our personal, natural, human love, through which we cannot in fact love someone who is a “stranger,”…but of the love of Christ, the eternal wonder of which consists precisely in the fact that it transforms the stranger (and each stranger, in his depths, is an enemy) into a brother, irrespective of whether he has or does not have relevance for me and for my life…. (pp. 138-139; emphasis in original)

Fr. Alexander goes on to comment about the importance of forgiving and reconciling with others in the church community before taking part in the liturgy. He also notes the placement of this kiss before the Eucharist, noting that it makes the service and the Sacrament possible, given that Holy Communion is the font of immortality, of the kingdom of God’s love. The rite of the passing of the peace is one way we actualize Christian love, which, as we have seen, is the foundation of a Christian’s struggle to forgive others.

Above, we mentioned the universality of reading of the Lord’s Prayer right before participation in the Sacrament. Given our emphasis on forgiving others and the beautiful interpretation of the prayer offered in the current Roman Catholic Catechism, it is worth returning to this topic. We cite at length sections of the Catechism that illuminate the forgiveness themes within the petitions:

We find the efficacious and undoubted sign of his forgiveness in the sacraments of his Church…. Now – and this is daunting – this outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Love, like the Body of Christ, is indivisible; we cannot love the God we cannot see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see. In refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters, our hearts are closed and their hardness makes them impervious to the Father's merciful love; but in confessing our sins, our hearts are opened to his grace….It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession. Christian prayer extends to the forgiveness of enemies, transfiguring the disciple by configuring him to his Master. Forgiveness is a high-point of Christian prayer; only hearts attuned to God's compassion can receive the gift of prayer. Forgiveness also bears witness that, in our world, love is stronger than sin. The martyrs of yesterday and today bear this witness to Jesus. Forgiveness is the fundamental condition of the reconciliation of the children of God with their Father and of men with one another. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1997, Part 4, Section 2, Article 3.V)

Liturgical Practices Particular to the Roman Tradition

In addition to the rites mentioned in the previous section, the West and East have their own unique liturgical traditions related to Holy Communion that teach us about interpersonal forgiveness. The Roman Catholic Church has a wide variety of Eucharistic prayers that may be included in the Mass. One set of these prayers are focused specifically on reconciliation. These prayers are used during Lent and at other services dedicated to themes relevant to reconciliation. While some of the texts focus on God’s forgiveness of us and our response to His mercy, others focus on reuniting persons. An example of this is found at the beginning of the second version of these prayers:

For though the human race is divided by dissension and discord, yet we know that by testing us you change our hearts to prepare them for reconciliation. Even more, by your Spirit you move human hearts that enemies may speak to each other again, adversaries may join hands, and peoples seek to meet together. By the working of your power it comes about, O Lord, that hatred is overcome by love, revenge gives way to forgiveness, and discord is changed to mutual respect. (http://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/RM3-EPR1-2.htm)

The fact that the Roman practice has developed Eucharistic prayers for reconciliation demonstrates the close link in ancient Christian tradition between interpersonal forgiveness and Holy Communion.

Another particularly Western tradition is using unleavened bread for Holy Communion. This practice is based on the possibility that Christ’s institution of the Sacrament occurred during a Passover meal, in which unleavened bread is used. There is at least one important forgiveness lesson in this historical context. We recall that Judas, the betrayer himself, participated in this ritual, although it is unclear if he partook of the Holy Gifts (Griffith, 1999; Tolmie, 2008). (While St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine write that he did, Tatian and St. Hilary of Poitiers argue that he did not.) Regardless of how Judas’ participation is interpreted, the scriptural record is clear that the institution of the Eucharist took place in the context of infidelity by one of the Lord’s closest associates, treachery that ultimately led the Betrayed One to allow His Body to be broken and Blood to be spilled as an act of self-sacrificial love for all, including betrayers. This raises the question, can those of us who partake of this Body and Blood then refuse to strive towards such love of those who have betrayed us?

Liturgical Practices Particular to the Eastern Tradition

Specific rituals related to the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox tradition also illuminate the importance and meaning of forgiveness relative to the Eucharist. Many Orthodox Christians complete some form of a pre-communion prayer rule at home before attending the communion service. In some versions of this rule, we find a series of 12 prayers prefaced by the directive to first be reconciled with all who have grieved us. This is a clear call to reconcile not just with those whom we have hurt, but also with those who have hurt us, before approaching the chalice. Granted, we cannot force a person to accept our forgiveness and/or overtures for reconciliation, but as St. Paul directs us, we must do whatever we can within certain parameters to live peaceably with others (Romans 12:18).

Two aspects of the Divine Liturgy itself develop further our understanding of interpersonal mercy. First, although there are no explicit forgiveness themes in the Great Entrance, during which the bread and wine are transferred to the altar, this part of the liturgy suggests something about striving towards loving our enemies. The bread and wine are destined to become the Body and Blood of Christ, and yet they also represent us. We have gleaned the elements of wheat and grapes from working the land, formed them into bread and wine, and now offer them as a sacrifice. Fr. Schmemann (1973) writes that the elements...

… are our offering to Him of ourselves, of our whole life and of the whole world….It is our Eucharist. It is the movement that Adam failed to perform, and that in Christ has become the very life of man: a movement of adoration and praise in which all joy and suffering, all beauty and all frustration, all hunger and all satisfaction are referred to their ultimate End and become finally meaningful. Yes, to be sure, it is a sacrifice: but sacrifice is the most natural act of man, the very essence of his life. Man is a sacrificial being, because he finds his life in love, and love is sacrificial: it puts the value, the very meaning of life in the other and gives life to the other, and in this giving, in this sacrifice, finds the meaning and joy of life. (p. 35)

We also note that during the epiclesis, the Holy Spirit is called down upon “us and upon these gifts here offered,” further emphasizing the link between the Eucharistic elements and ourselves. In that the bread and wine represent us, it is helpful to recall they have been made into such holy offerings through being crushed in the mill and winepress. This becomes an “icon” of our own lives, in that when dedicated to God, our own sufferings can help us become more Christ-like. Dedicating them to God means that we allow Him to infuse them with His presence – just as happens with the bread and wine during liturgy – and in that process are united with Him. This means, among other things, allowing Him to extend through us His self-sacrificial love to those who bruise us, just as He does by giving Himself to us through the elements that have been crushed in preparation for their sanctification.

In discussing the Great Entrance, a comment on the type of bread used in the East in warranted. Just as we noted forgiveness-related themes with the Western practice of communion with unleavened bread, we can also find such themes in the Eastern tradition of communing with leavened bread. Both Sts. Matthew (13:33) and Luke (13:20) cite parables in which the Lord compared the Kingdom of Heaven to leaven, which slowly seeps throughout dough so that it will rise. In the Orthodox tradition, using leavened bread represents the fullness of the Kingdom and the intimate union between Spirit and flesh, between Divine and human, that the Kingdom entails. Fr. Schmemann’s general words on Holy Communion are helpful in understanding what this fullness of the Kingdom means:

[In the liturgy, Christ] transforms our gathering into an entrance and ascent….he…makes his offering ours and ours his, he fulfills our unity as unity in his love, and, finally, through his thanksgiving, which has been granted to us, he leads us up to heaven, he opens to us access to his Father. (1988, pp. 199-200)

Heaven, the Lord’s Kingdom, is unity in love. The leaven that represents the fullness of this Kingdom should remind us that to participate fully in it, we are first and foremost called to be vessels and conduits of the self-sacrificial, forgiving love that is God Himself. As the leaven helps the crushed wheat to rise, so this infusion of God’s grace enables us to become such conduits, even in our brokenness.

A second aspect of the Divine Liturgy that speaks to forgiveness is found specifically in the Liturgy of St. Basil. Served mainly during Great Lent, this liturgy includes prayers during the Eucharistic Canon that are not found in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. In St. Basil’s texts, right after the institution of the gifts, the priest prays that we be united to one another in the Bread and Cup in the communion of the Holy Spirit. Most obviously, this points to a very real, spiritual union that believers will have with one another in Holy Communion, suggesting that reconciliation between Christians at odds with one another will happen in the Sacrament. If so, the question for us becomes, will we be reconciled at the chalice with a loving heart towards a community member who has offended us, or will we maintain hardness of heart and dare to partake of the Mysteries in such a state? Furthermore, given that the Sacrament also unites us with all of creation (Kurz, 2009; Maria, 2011), this line of reasoning can be extended to interpersonal conflict not only with fellow believers but with anyone. The Liturgy of St. Basil is also notable in that in the long prayer after the consecration, the priest prays for God’s remembrance of “those who love us and those who hate us,” further emphasizing the connection between the Sacrament and loving outreach to those who treat us poorly.

Sacraments of Healing

While all of the sacraments of the apostolic tradition have restorative potential for an individual, the Mysteries of Repentance and Anointing are often overtly labeled as sacraments of healing. Biblically, this connection between confession, unction, and healing is rooted in James 5:13-16. In this section we address the basic understanding and practice of these rites in both the West and East and argue that because they are also sacraments of humility, they can be an important part of a believer’s forgiveness journey.

Sacrament of Repentance

Commonly referred to as confession or penance, in the apostolic traditions this Mystery has evolved from a declaration of one’s sins to God before the entire community to confession before a priest, who affirms God’s forgiveness and in some cases assigns a penance to be completed in the wake of confession. Two “models” of this rite exist in Christendom: a therapeutic approach and a juridical approach. While both perspectives can be found in both Eastern and Western traditions, the East clearly emphasizes the former, while the West has tended towards the latter.

The therapeutic approach. The therapeutic model of confession emphasizes that the penitent has been wounded by (or is ill because of) his own sin; the life-long process of confessing one’s sins to “Christ the Physician” (Ware, 2012) and striving to overcome them constitutes a healing path that restores the likeness of God in the person. Penance, when given, is a part of this therapeutic process:

A penance is not a punishment, nor yet a form of expiation, but a means of healing. It is a medicine. If the actual confession is like an operation, the penance is the tonic that restores the patient to health during his convalescence. (Ware, 2012, p. 3)

From an Orthodox view this therapy involves recognizing and trying to transform the passions, or energies of the soul, that lead us into sin. Most fundamentally, this is an exercise in humility, each penitent seeing where he himself is blocking the likeness of God within his own soul. The forgiveness imparted in the Mystery is unto reconciliation with God and others:

The healing that we experience through the sacrament of confession takes the specific form of reconciliation. Sin, as we learn from the parable of the prodigal son, is exile, alienation, exclusion from the family. Repentance is to come back home…to share fully once more in the life of the community. (Ware, 2012, p. 3)

From this therapeutic perspective, what does participation in the Sacrament of Repentance have to do with a penitent’s struggle to forgive an offender? This can be answered on several levels. First, the fact that confession leads to an infusion of God’s grace can make the forgiveness process less difficult for a person. Second, the process of transforming the passions within oneself – the goal of the Mystery – involves addressing passions that constitute unforgiveness: pride, envy, fear, and perhaps most obviously, anger. Anger’s transfiguration, in particular, has relevance for forgiving an offender. St. Maximus the Confessor (Thunberg, 1985), one of the most subtle patristic thinkers about the human soul, writes that in its unpurified state, the passion of temper (thumos) manifests as hatred of others and selfishness in our relationships with them. When purified, however, the passion drives us to constructively love others. And for St. Maximus, that perfect spiritual love means loving our enemies:

To harbor no envy, no anger, no resentment against an offender is still not to have charity for him. It is possible, without any charity, to avoid rendering evil for evil. But to render, spontaneously, good for evil - such belongs to a perfect spiritual love.

(This quote is widely attributed to St. Maximus, but we are unable to find the actual reference for it.) Finally, the emphasis on humility can also aid one’s struggle to forgive another. Below, we will explore the psychological research supporting this claim.

The juridical approach. A juridical or forensic model of confession views sin as a breaking of the law, confession as a first step towards taking responsibility for the act, and penance as a penalty, expiation, or “satisfaction” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1997, Part 2, Section 2, Article 4.VI) for the act. Through this process, some form of justice is restored and the penitent receives pardon for his crime and is reconciled with God and community.

This understanding of the Sacrament of Confession also implicitly addresses the process of forgiving an offender. With its emphasis on justice, an implication of this forensic approach is that because we have received God’s forgiveness, we are in turn beholden to offer the same to others. Christ’s parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35) demonstrates this clearly. This parable is a warning to the believer to recognize the great mercy he has been shown by God and not dare to then refuse to extend it to others, lest he be “delivered to torturers until he should pay all that was due to him [the king]” (v. 34). Christ’s own interpretation of the parable emphasizes that such a fate awaits those who refuse to forgive others (v. 35).

Because the forensic model also requires an assessment and confession of one’s own sin, it is also quite capable of producing humility in the penitent. Social science research suggests that the development of humility can be an important contributor to forgiving an offender. We now turn to that research.

Humility and Forgiveness

Several studies conducted by psychologists support the idea that humility can be an important precursor of forgiving another person. Initial work by Sandage (1999; Sandage & Wiens, 2001; Sandage & Worthington, 2010) was instrumental in suggesting a possible connection between modesty and ease in forgiving another. More recently, direct assessment of both humility and interpersonal mercy demonstrates the two are indeed connected (Exline et al., 2008; Powers et al., 2012; Rowatt et al., 2006; Shepherd & Belicki, 2008). Of these studies, it is perhaps the Exline et al. work that is most powerful, because it was done in a way that can demonstrate cause and effect. In other words, Exline et al.’s research methods allow us to test whether or not focusing on one’s own transgressions (as is required by the Sacrament of Confession) can actually cause a more forgiving attitude towards others. In short, their work demonstrated that thinking about one’s own misdeeds was effective in helping men in particular increase forgivingness. And while women did not show the same effect, data gathered through other methods in both Exline’s studies and the others cited above suggest some kind of relationship (but not necessarily causal) between humility and forgiveness does exist for both men and women. This line of social science research suggests that attention to one’s own sin, inherent in the Mystery of Reconciliation, may help a person forgive an offender. Because this process is also part of the Sacrament of Anointing, these findings may also help explain that rite’s role in forgiveness as well. We now turn to this Mystery.

Sacrament of Anointing

Probably due to the content of James 5:13-16, confessing one’s sins has long been a part of the sacrament of anointing with holy oil. This rite is designed to bring spiritual healing and – if God wills – physical healing to the believer who is ill. In that it usually involves confession and also occurs in the context of physical weakness, we may consider it not only a sacrament of healing, but a sacrament of humility as well. Therefore, everything already covered above regarding the Mystery of Repentance and humility applies to this sacrament as well.

In addition, there are unique aspects of Holy Anointing that are related to forgiveness. First, in both the Western and Eastern traditions, aspects of the rite are connected with those days in Holy Week that represent Judas’ betrayal. In many Orthodox traditions, an anointing service is held on Holy Wednesday during Passion Week. While most obviously this honors the woman anointing Christ before His death (Matthew 26:6-13), it is also the day on which the Eastern tradition marks Judas’ betrayal of the Lord (Matthew 26:14-16). In the Roman Catholic Church, the oil used in Holy Unction is consecrated on Maundy Thursday, the day traditionally devoted to the institution of Holy Communion (which, as discussed above, occurs in the context of unfaithfulness). Historically, then, anointing is linked with the occurrence of interpersonal betrayal. Therefore, it offers both a lesson about and real help for those who have been injured by another. The lesson is that even in the midst of relational offense, God can bring further healing of and restoration to His likeness in us. This, in turn, challenges and enables us to be a conduit of self-sacrificial love precisely for those who betray us.

Another aspect of this sacrament that is relevant to forgiveness themes concerns the actual element through which the mystery is conveyed: oil. Traditionally, olive oil is used. In Greek, this word is elaion, which is lexically connected to the Greek word for mercy, eleos. This correspondence between the physical and spiritual properties of this medium serves to highlight the healing power of God’s undeserved loving-kindness towards us, which in turn empowers and inspires us to offer unearned mercy towards others.

Special Services and Movements

Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions have developed unique liturgical celebrations and spiritual movements that, in some cases, have implications for a believer’s forgiveness process. The discussion in this section represents but a few of those distinctive traditions, and readers are encouraged to look for forgiveness themes in other special traditions their church may have.

Eastern Orthodoxy

Perhaps the most obvious Orthodox ritual connected to interpersonal mercy is the annual rite of forgiveness at the Vespers service that begins Great Lent. While the actual practice of this rite can vary from parish to parish, almost always it involves all in attendance asking forgiveness of one another. This service follows the Divine Liturgy in which the gospel reading and hymnography call our attention to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise. In addition, at this Vespers service, before the rite of forgiveness, we first pray the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, which we continue to pray throughout Lent:

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust for power and idle talk. But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brother. For blessed art Thou unto the ages. Amen.

Entering this holy season, the attentive believer becomes aware of his own sinfulness and the importance of repentance, forgiveness, and abstaining from judging others as the route through which we yet again obtain paradise.

We (Gassin, 2012; Gassin& Sawchak, 2008) recently conducted research on Forgiveness Vespers to assess whether the ritual has its hoped-for effects on parishioners, at least at a level of which they are conscious. The 2008 study was an internet survey of persons belonging to a listserv related to the Orthodox Church, and the 2012 study involved more in-depth interviews of 6 persons who have attended Forgiveness Vespers multiple times. We asked about the person impact of the ritual and classified their responses according to categories reported in anthropological literature on religious ritual. Among the top 3 responses in both samples were altering experiences beyond the ritual and helping to coordinate inner and outer reality. Many of the responses placed in the first category addressed the positive impact of the rite on how one moved through Great Lent with its twin goals of repentance and union with God. The latter category included responses that reflected a perceived increase in likelihood that one’s behavior matched one’s ideals, such as reconciling with someone that one has felt “convicted” of reconnecting to. A third category that was emphasized in the internet study was that of identity development. Answers subsumed under this category mentioned a re-ordering of priorities, personal reflection on one’s attitude towards others, and attaining a sense of being purified from distorted passions (such as anger, envy, etc.). A third category that was strongly emphasized in the interviews was strengthening the community, which included specific responses about overcoming squabbles and becoming more vulnerable with one another. These studies demonstrate that at least among some parishioners, the forgiveness ritual practiced at the beginning of Great Lent holds potential for helping a person along the path towards forgiveness. It does this not only by encouraging overt requests for and offers of forgiveness but also by providing an opportunity to reflect on one’s own sins, the quality of one’s relationships, and how one will battle for spiritual growth during Lent.

Another unique aspect of Eastern Christianity that speaks to interpersonal forgiveness is the text of the Paschal service. Obviously, all Christian traditions celebrate Pascha (Easter), but the Orthodox Church is known for celebrating this Feast of Feasts in a special and particularly intense and beautiful way. Near the end of the Paschal Matins service, a series of verses are sung that includes the first lines of the Psalm 68: “Let God arise/ Let His enemies be scattered/ As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish.” Interspersed between these lines are verses related to the theology and history of the Resurrection. As this section of the Matins service comes to a close, we sing:

This is the day of Resurrection. Let us be illumined by the feast. Let us embrace each other. Let us call brothers even those that hate us and forgive all by the resurrection, and so let us cry: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

While a full analysis of the connection between Christ’s Resurrection and forgiveness of enemies is beyond the scope of this paper (and – in all honesty – may not yet exist), this series of verses make clear that there is a link. Quite possibly it is because Christ’s Resurrection is the triumph of God’s self-sacrificial love over injustice, abuse, and even the simple foibles and shortcomings of humanity. It is the promise that Divinity, which is Love, will hallow, raise, and forever infuse that which is prone to distortion, death, and decay. This includes not only our individual bodies, but our relationships as well. When faced with such Love, the entire concept of “enemy” – like smoke – dissipates into thin air. Through the lenses of the Resurrection, there is only forgiveness and reconciliation.

Roman Catholicism

Two unique traditions of the Roman church that may enlighten and assist believers on their forgiveness journeys are Eucharistic adoration and devotion to the Sacred Heart. Eucharistic adoration is the practice of reserving some of the host for extended worship by the faithful. The duration of this ritual can vary from moments spent praying before the host, to a special 40 hour period devoted to the practice, to perpetual adoration allowing for prayer at any point of the day or night. While the focus of prayers recommended for this practice seems to be on confession of faith, praise to God, and making reparation for the sins of the world, some aspects of the practice may be tied to a person’s struggle to forgive a concrete offender. Perhaps this is most clearly seen in the practice known as the Holy Hour, where a person devotes an hour to Eucharistic adoration. One recommendation is to divide the hour into 15-minute segments (http://www.therealpresence.org/eucharst/pea/holyhour.html). The individual practicing adoration in this manner could devote one segment to praying for deliverance from anger at, an increase in love for, and imploring God’s mercy on an offender. Given the theme of making reparation for the sins of the world in many of the recommended prayers, the believer can be conscious of the fact that this includes his offender in particular. Considering the theme of reparation, and considering the focus of meditation in this tradition is Christ’s Body, which He offered to be broken for those in sin, it is not surprising that saints have reported gaining strength through this ritual to minister to those who abused them (St. Margaret Mary) and that some sources cite an increase in love as a main outcome of the practice (e.g., Norris, 2005).

Another movement within the Western apostolic tradition that may offer encouragement to the forgiver is the devotion to the Sacred Heart. Those following this tradition have a special devotion to Christ’s wounded heart, which they consider to be a symbol of His love wounded by the betrayal of the world. The movement has affected Catholicism worldwide via a special feast devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as well as other liturgical celebrations. As noted, this tradition emphasizes that Christ demonstrates self-sacrificial love to all, even to those who literally and/or spiritual wound Him: …The heart is, above all, the emblem of love, and by this characteristic, the devotion to the Sacred Heart is naturally defined. However, being directed to the loving Heart of Jesus, it naturally encounters whatever in Jesus is connected with this love. Now, was not this love the motive of all that Christ did and suffered? Was not all His inner, even more than His outward, life dominated by this love? ... In thus devoting oneself to Jesus all loving and lovable, one cannot fail to observe that His love is rejected. God is constantly lamenting that in Holy Writ, and the saints have always heard within their hearts the plaint of unrequited love. Indeed one of the essential phases of the devotion is that it considers the love of Jesus for us as a despised, ignored love. (Bainvel, 1910)

As the emphasis of the devotion to the Sacred Heart is clearly on loving through one’s wounds, it may provide encouragement to the person striving to offer love to a wrongdoer.

The Help of the Saints

Both the Eastern and Western apostolic traditions venerate holy men and women, as well as the angelic host, who intercede for us in heaven. Many of these saints have biographies replete with forgiveness themes, making them natural intercessors for us as we struggle to forgive an offender. The faithful individual can incorporate the lives of these holy ones into their own spiritual journey by reading their biographies, attending services dedicated to them, reading or singing hymnography from those services at home, and praying special prayers to them. These special prayers in the Western tradition often take the form of a novena, whereas in the Eastern tradition, many saints have canons and/or akathists written for them. (Orthodox of some traditions may only be familiar with the Akathist to the Most Holy Theotokos, but other Orthodox traditions have akathists written for a variety of saints.) An exhaustive list of such saints is beyond the purpose of this project, so here we look briefly at four holy persons each from West and East. We focus on saints of the modern era, although it is important to note that many of the ancient saints that both traditions share also have inspirational stories of forgiveness in the face of persecution. We will not address the intercessions of the angelic intercessors in any detail, but it is worth noting that beseeching their help can also be an aid on one’s forgiveness journey, as they can help fight temptations to wallow in anger and other negative passions.

Roman Catholic Saints

Western saints that are closely linked to interpersonal mercy include St. Jane Frances de Chantal, St. Germain Cousin, St. Maria Goretti, and St. Maximillian Kolbe. St. Jane Frances de Chantal lived from 1572-1641 in France. As a young mother of four children, she was widowed when her husband was killed in a hunting accident. This sad event placed her on a forgiveness journey that did not come easily:

Before he died, her husband forgave the man who shot him, saying to the man, "Don't commit the sin of hating yourself when you have done nothing wrong." The heartbroken Jane, however, had to struggle with forgiveness for a long time. At first she tried just greeting him on the street. When she was able to do that, she invited him to her house. Finally she was able to forgive the man so completely that she even became godmother to his child. (St. Jane Frances de Chantal at www.catholic.org)

Her story also points to how a person can transform emotional pain to serve others, as after her husband’s death, she founded a charitable religious order and helped many. Various sources cite St. Jane Frances de Chantal’s feast as August and/or December 12.

St. Germaine Cousin is also a French saint. She lived from 1579-1601. St. Germaine was born with various physical problems and lost her mother at a very young age. Her stepmother despised and abused her. One story from St. Germaine’s life demonstrates her tender heart towards her abuser. Her stepmother, noticing something bundled in the saint’s apron, assumed she had stolen something. As the stepmother began to beat the child, flowers fell from the apron:

[St. Germaine] handed a flower to her mother [Hortense] and said, "Please accept this flower, Mother. God sends it to you in sign of his forgiveness." As the whole village began to talk about this holy child, even Hortense began to soften her feelings toward her. She even invited Germaine back to the house but Germaine had become used to her straw bed and continued to sleep in it. (St. Germaine Cousin, www.catholic.org)

St. Germaine’s story is a superb example of how offering love self-sacrificially to an offender sometimes can actually lead to that person’s repentance. Her feast is June 15.

St. Maria Goretti, an Italian saint, was born in 1890 and died from knife wounds sustained in an attempted rape in 1902. She expressed forgiveness towards her attacker on her deathbed, stating that she wished to have him in heaven with her. Her attacker reported having a vision of St. Maria in which she gave him lilies. This was part of a process of repentance for him, which culminated in becoming a monk. Again, we see that receiving mercy from others can play a role in the offender’s own spiritual growth. The text of the novena to St. Maria includes explicit prayers for help in the forgiveness process:

Grant me the grace, O Heroic Saint, to be charitable to others! Much of my time is spent on vengeful thoughts, seeking how I may pay back to others the harm they have done to me. Teach me to forgive, so that I may not only gain Heaven, but also lead others there who might otherwise be doomed to Hell. If I am to follow Christ, help me to imitate His Charity, even as you have done. Amen. (Novena to St. Maria Goretti, www.prayerbook.com)

St. Maria is honored on July 6.

A contemporary saint of forgiveness in the Western tradition is St. Maximillian Kolbe. St. Maximillian, a Polish friar who lived from 1894-1944, is known for his ministry while a prisoner at Auschwitz during World War II. He encouraged fellow prisoners to pray for and forgive their captors. Although not specifically an example of forgiveness, St. Maximillian gave up his life by asking the Nazis to kill him in place of a prisoner who was a husband and father, demonstrating another form of self-sacrificial love. His feast is celebrated on August 14.

Eastern Orthodox Saints

Four saints from the Orthodox tradition whose lives are closely intertwined with forgiveness themes are St. Dionysios of Zakthynos, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, and St. Silouan of Mt. Athos. The oldest of these, St. Dionysios, is a Greek saint who lived from 1547-1622. While living the monastic life, he once hid a refugee from the law in his cell. In conversation with the man, it became clear to St. Dionysios (although he did not share this with the refugee) that the man had murdered the saint’s brother. At that point, the holy monk did not say anything to anyone about the situation but kept the man in his care and helped bring him to repentance. Not surprisingly, St. Dionysios is known as the “saint of forgiveness,” and his feasts are celebrated on December 17 and August 24.

St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (1724-1783) is a well-known hierarchical saint in the Russian Orthodox Church. His life story is full of sad events experienced at the hands of others, such as harassment in childhood by peers and persecution by detractors during his service to the Church. Forgiveness themes adorn his biography, writings, and services written in his honor (Lardas, 1991). In addition, because it seems he endured what today we would term depression, St. Tikhon is considered an intercessor for those who struggle against distorted emotional experience, something that psychological research suggests contributes to difficulties in forgiving others (Tse & Cheng, 2006). St. Tikhon’s feast days are May 14 and August 13.

St. Elizabeth the New Martyr (1864-1918) represents a group of saints whose lives often boast deep forgiveness themes: those persecuted and martyred at the hands of the Soviets. St. Elizabeth was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England. As a German princess, she married into the Russian royal family. Eventually, she converted from Lutheranism to Eastern Orthodoxy. She lost her husband to a terrorist relatively early in her married life. On the heels of this tragedy, she visited the murderer, forgave him, and interceded unsuccessfully for his life before the Tsar (her brother-in-law). An akathist dedicated to her recounts this part of her life:

…when thou didst witness the cruel and pitiless slaughter of thy husband, thy heart was pierced with grief and sorrow, as with a two-edged sword; yet thou didst take courage, and uttered the Savior’s own words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And seeking to turn this vile deed to goodness, thou didst beseech him who committed the murder to repent. (Akathist to New Martyr Elizabeth, http://www.serfes.org)

As the Russian Revolution gathered steam, she was arrested, taken to Siberia, and executed by being thrown into a mineshaft and bombed. Some versions of her biography note she, like Christ, prayed for her executioners’ forgiveness. St. Elizabeth’s memory is celebrated on July 5 and with the other New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia on their conciliar feast, the Sunday closest to February 7 (the Gregorian Calendar date of the martyrdom of the first bishop to die under the Soviets, New Martyr Vladimir).

Finally, we also mention St. Silouan of Mount Athos. A saint from Russia who lived from 1866-1938, St. Silouan left us many sayings about the life of love lived in the Holy Spirit. Much of his spiritual inheritance addresses love for enemies in particular. In reflecting on St. Silouan’s teachings, one writer notes:

…the Elder…sees only one thing: humility and love of one’s enemies — this is all there is. As wise and learned and fine-looking as a person may be, if he does not love his enemies, i.e. any other person, he cannot reach God. And the opposite is also true, however simple a person may be, and poor and ignorant, but if he carries within himself that love, then "he is with God and God is with him." The Elder maintained that it was impossible to love one’s enemies outside of the One True God. The carrier of such love is a participant in eternal life, and he carries within himself an undeniable witness of this. He is the abode of the Holy Spirit, and knows the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit, knows them with a true and life-giving knowledge, and in the Holy Spirit he is a brother and friend of Jesus Christ, he is the son of God, and close to God in grace. (Mileant & Bufius, 2001, no page; emphasis in original)

The interested reader can find compilations of his sayings online and in books about him published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press (www.svspress.com). Saint Silouan’s feast is September 24.


Our life’s journey in this fallen world provides many opportunities to exercise forgiveness of others. Fortunately, our faith offers direction in coping with this: themes of self-sacrificial love in the context of betrayal form the core of the Christian story and pervade many of the practices in which believers engage. Both Eastern and Western apostolic traditions offer many points of reflection, edification, and help as the Christian seeks to fulfill the scriptural command to forgive offenders and love one’s enemies. To the extent that we embody these teachings and practices in our own lives, we fulfill our calling as Christians: to incarnate God’s sacrificial love for all creation.


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Elizabeth A. Gassin, Department of Behavioral Sciences, Olivet Nazarene University. With thanks for their input to Father Jason Nesbit of Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, Bourbonnais, Illinois, and to participants at the conference of the Society of St. John Chrysostom, Western Division, March 1-2, 2013, Irvine, California. Any remaining errors are mine alone.

Published: October 6, 2013

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