CHRISTIAN WISDOM: Dealing With Others—The Larger Circle by Frederica Mathewes-Green

The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation

Dealing With Others—The Larger Circle by Frederica Mathewes-Green

From: The Illuminated Heart

Illumine our hearts, O Master who lovest mankind
with the pure light of thy divine knowledge,
and open the eyes of our minds to the understanding
of thy Gospel teachings, for thou art
the illumination of our souls and bodies,
O Christ our God.
(Prayer before the reading of the Gospel
Liturgy of St. James, Fourth Century)

In the smaller circle, that collection of people we encounter in our daily lives, the primary task is to grow in humility.  In the larger community there are opportunities to gain other virtues, for example compassion and generosity.  For early Christians, prayer and fasting were joined by a third spiritual discipline, that of almsgiving.

“Our prayers and fastings are of less avail unless they are aided by almsgiving,” said Saint Cyprian in the third century.  The gathering of an offering was an intrinsic part of each Sunday liturgy; it was, in fact, an act of worship, representing the surrender of self to God and love towards others.  Saint Paul advised, in 1 Corinthians, that each week everyone should bring a donation “as he may prosper” – that is, not a set entry fee as required by some religions, but a voluntary gift proportionate to the believer’s resources.  The common standard carried over from Jewish practice, was that the gift be ten percent of income, the “tithe” or “first fruits.”

“Every first fruit of the winepress and the threshing-floor, of oxen and of sheep, you will take and give to the prophets [clergy],” said the Didache.  “If you make a batch of dough, take the first fruit and give according to the commandment.  So also when you open a jar of wine or of oil.”  Some of the bread and wine would be used immediately in the Eucharist; other gifts would go to the support of the needy of the faith community.  During the early centuries the offerings handed to the priest could include fish, live chickens, and small animals, which must have enlivened worship.  For a time, the liturgy included an opportunity for the priest to wash his hands before continuing with the service.

Almsgiving had both a practical and a spiritual purpose.  The immediate goal was to help those in need, and the leaders of the early church did not hesitate to use strong exhortation: “The bread you do not use is the bread of the hungry.  The garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of the person who is naked.  The shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot.  The money you keep locked away is the money of the poor,” said Saint Basil the Great.  Saint Ambrose agreed: “There is your brother, naked and crying!  And you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering.”

But the spiritual goal of almsgiving was not merely the redistribution of material goods.  Materialism is no better for the poor than for the rich; not money, but the love of money, is the root of evil.  A wealthy person hoarding his gold, and a poor person enviously craving gold, run the same spiritual danger.  Instead, the persistent theme in early Christian writings is that money should be handled with detachment.  The wealthy should give unstintingly, as if their belongings were not their own, but the Lord’s.  The poor should receive without greed or envy, accepting their condition in patience and peace.

Saint Hermas speaks of the rich as being given wealth by the Lord, and the poor as being given the gift of intercession.  When they confer those gifts on each other, they are like an elm tree twined about by a fruit-bearing vine.  The rich appear to bear no fruit, because the cares of their possessions hinder their ability to pray fully.  Yet they can support the poor, whose prayers adorn the strength of the wealthy with fruit.

Though the rich were exhorted to give freely, it became apparent that some people would take crafty advantage of this generosity.  Such actions poisoned all participants, prompting resentment among the poor and suspicion among the wealthy.  “He that receives in hypocrisy or through idleness – instead of working and assisting others – shall be deserving of punishment before God.  For he has snatched away the morsel of the needy,” said the Apostolic Canons in the fourth century.  It would be tragic for a work of mercy to be instead a cause of sin.  As Deacon Theodore makes his rounds each week, distributing offerings to the poor of the congregation, he prays for wisdom.  He keeps in mind the Didache’s advice: “Let your alms sweat in your hands until you know to whom to give it.”

In the last chapter we talked about the modern tendency to see the world as populated by bad buys and good guys, and the temptation to cast ourselves in the good-guy role.  This confusion is even harder to sort out when we think of the injustice in the world.  Clearly, there are some issues that we cannot ignore, that must be addressed.  But what about Jesus’s command not to judge?  We know we can’t judge another person’s fasting, but can we judge someone who doesn’t give to the poor?  What about someone living in adultery?  Someone who buys and sells slaves?  What of someone who commits violence?

The Desert Fathers and Mothers present a pattern that differs from our expected categories.  They had no confusion about good and evil behavior, and took a very pessimistic view of humankind in general; all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, as Saint Paul said.  Yet with individuals they were forbearing and uncritical, and often very demonstrative in kindness.  They formed the habit of seeing the failings in themselves and the good in others.  They took seriously the Lord’s command, “Do not judge.”

Abba Theodore of Eleutheropolis said, “If you are chaste, do not judge another person who is promiscuous.  For you would then transgress the law just as much.  For the Lord who said, ‘Do not commit fornication,’ also said, ‘Do not judge.'”

This does not mean that we pretend what others do is necessarily good.  Sometimes evil must be challenged, and sometimes love requires intervention.  Any intervention, however, must not be motivated by vengeance or self-righteousness.  Instead, we must see ourselves as equally sinful and in need of mercy.  Our goal must be restoring the person to the love of God.

“Love sinners but despise their deeds,” said Saint Isaac of Syria.  “Remember that you share in the stench of Adam, and you also are clothed in his infirmity.  To the one who has need of ardent prayer and soothing words do not give a reproof instead, lest you destroy him and his soul be required from your hands.  Imitate doctors who use cold things against fevers.”

How can we evaluate another’s deeds and respond to them, perhaps even bring about correction and justice, and yet not judge them?  To answer that question, picture a courtroom.  See where the judge sits?  Don’t sit there.  That’s God’s seat, and he will judge on the last day.

Until that day we linger in the courtroom as the dear friend of the accused.  This person may be doing evil and willful things, and be cocky and defiant and not want our friendship.  Yet because we see what lies ahead, and we know that we are just as prone to sin, we do whatever we can to help him repent, turn, and escape the coming penalty.

At every Eucharist, Anna’s congregation prays, “You came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”  This solidarity with all of fallen humankind removes our grounds for self-approval, while making us even more concerned that everyone find repentance and salvation.  As we stand at the head of the army of sinners, we pray that God will have mercy on us all.

Saint Issac of Syria wrote, “And what is a merciful heart?  It is the heart’s burning for all of creation, for men, for birds, for animals, and even for demons.  At the remembrance and at the sight of them, the merciful man’s eyes fill with tears that arise from the great compassion that urges his heart.  It grows tender and cannot endure hearing or seeing any injury or slight sorrow to anything in creation.  Because of this, such a man continually offers tearful prayer even for irrational animals and for the enemies of truth and for all who harm it, that they may be guarded and forgiven.”

This naturally implies that we will forgive when the hurt is against ourselves.  If we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us, as Jesus warned.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we pretend the injury never happened.  But it does mean making a commitment to give up seeking revenge, and praying that God forgive the person as well.  We release the one who hurt us from his debt, seeing what a greater debt God has already forgiven us.  To the best of our ability, we should try to resume the relationship and behave toward the person with love, since that is the kind of forgiveness God models toward us.

Ultimately, no one can hurt us.  We have nothing to lose, because all our treasure is in Christ.  This can be a very hard lesson, and it may take a lifetime to learn, but even at the beginning of the journey we can recognize the truth.  Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  When we are hurt by another, it is because we think that person has stolen some of our treasure.  The process of becoming healed and becoming able to offer forgiveness comes with the realization that our real treasure is elsewhere; it is secure where no one can hurt it.

The great spiritual danger when we are hurt is self-righteousness.  The identity of being a victim is very seductive.  This is not to deny that the injury was objectively real, objectively unjust.  It is to point out that establishing victimhood as a core of identify will poison us.  We must take care that no root of bitterness springs up, as Saint Paul said.

Our daily temptations and irritations are minor compared with what the great saints have borne.  We resent forgiving friends and family, while Jesus told us to love even our enemies.  We have far to go.  Those who have gone further on this road can teach and inspire us.

One such example is Nikolai Velimirovic, who was a Serbian bishop in the last century.  He spoke out courageously against Nazism until he was arrested and taken to Dachau.  He knew about forgiving those who had hurt him.  Bishop Nikolai wrote this:

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

Enemies have driven me into your 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 your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.  Bless my enemies, O Lord.

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 your 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 you 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.

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