Beginning with forgiveness

I love to explore different cultures and traditions. Special foods, music, dances and customs powerfully communicate just how a community sees things. Even those who practice traditions they do not fully understand have almost inexplicably deep attachments to them. Italians eat fish on Christmas Eve. Slovaks mold butter into the shape of a lamb at Easter. Celtic nationalities have bagpipes at funerals. The French celebrate Mardi Gras with zeal.

In a pluralistic and multi-ethnic nation like ours, a certain amount of cultural crossover is inevitable. But it takes time. My great-grandparents had probably never heard of a taco. Only one of my grandparents has tried one, (and that’s because she lived with us!) My mother, however, has made tacos. My kids have tacos as a regular item on their school lunch menu.

The same kind of cultural exchange can also happen in the Church. Over time, we may be exposed to Christian observances that rise from faith communities with a somewhat different perspective than the one we may have been given. I have to admit that as the years pass, I find that I am more and more attracted to some of the practices Eastern Christians observe. And while I will most certainly remain a Catholic, there is a cultural richness in some of our lesser known churches that inspires me to go not only broader, but deeper.

Many Orthodox and Eastern Catholics begin Lent with what has come to be called “Forgiveness Sunday.” At vespers on that first Sunday of Lent, it is traditional for every parishioner to beg forgiveness from one another. The custom begins with the parish priest, who bows before each person and says, “Forgive me, a sinner.” They each respond, “God forgives.”

While we Latin Rite Catholics tend to emphasize what we are giving up for Lent, perhaps it would do us well to remember that forgiveness is not only a Christian obligation, but a Christian joy. The message of Jesus is unique. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate and persecute you, forgive, and you shall be forgiven.

And so, I’d like to practice a little bit of Eastern Christian spirituality here and now. To any I have wronged or hurt by anything I have written, I say: Forgive me, a sinner. To anyone I have ignored or neglected, written off or approached with suspicion, I say: Forgive me, a sinner. To anyone I have left unthanked, I say: Forgive me, as sinner. To those on whom I have made demands, while I failed to live up to my own obligations, I say: Forgive me, a sinner.

Reflecting on my need to both seek and grant forgiveness, I came across a powerful prayer for one’s enemies written by St. Nikolai of Ochrid, a Serbian saint, and missionary to America. Perhaps you will find it as inspiring as I did.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into Thy embrace more than friends have.

Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world.

Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Thy tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.

They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.

They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.

They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.

They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.

Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life,

they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of Thy garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me:

so that my fleeing to Thee may have no return;

so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;

so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;

so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins: arrogance and anger;

so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;

ah, so that I may for once be freed from self deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.

One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and my enemies.

A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand.

But a son blesses them, for he understands. For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life. Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Amen.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.

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