Mercy and the New Creation
An axiom of Orthodox spiritual life is that we must constantly and always start over. Every day, every moment of our life, must become for us a new beginning of spiritual life.
This might seem strange to us. Being creatures of time, our minds are constantly running off to the past or the future. We remember, for example, our past sins and failures and as a result we begin to despair, saying to ourselves, “Will I ever be able to live authentic spiritual life? Will I ever learn to pray? Will I ever be able to forgive?” Or, similarly, we mentally wander off the future and say to ourselves, “Someday - maybe even tomorrow! - I will really get serious about the spiritual life! Tomorrow I will really pray! During the next lenten season I will take the fast seriously! Tomorrow I will read the Gospel!”
Of course, nothing in life ever gets done by bemoaning the past or by postponing action into a fantasy future that never comes. I saw a weight-lifting poster once that said, “The hardest lift of the day is lifting your butt off of the couch.” Likewise the only real spiritual life is not the fantasy in our head but rather the prayer we pray right now. The only real repentance is returning to God right now. We must, in the words of the Fathers, always be beginning; we must always be making a new start. And in this way, like Bill Murray’s memorable character Bob, we "Baby Step" our way toward the Kingdom.
And there is something else. This same wisdom of always making a new beginning, of making a new start in every moment, applies not only to repentance and prayer, but it also applies to our lives with others, specifically with our families and our marriages. So often we let the past struggles, disagreements, arguments, hurts and pains of our relationships weigh us down. We carry all of this around in our minds like a big bag of rocks that freights our lives with a burden they cannot bear. And then we wonder why our marriages fail, our friendships falter, and our relationships with others are so hard, so heavy.
But in our lives with one another, just as in prayer and repentance, we must always be beginning again. Every morning and, in fact, every moment, we must start over. This should come as no surprise to us. For just as God shows mercy to us in every moment and says, “Start over. Begin again.”, so we extend the same mercy to one another, not remembering past failures and weaknesses but allowing a new beginning to take place, one not weighed down with remembering past sins but one fresh and new. It is a new creation.
And isn’t that what mercy is, a new creation? Mercy, you see, is not just another day and another chance. It is a new first day, Day One of Creation. Mercy is as if we just emerged from the font, fresh and new. And mercy toward one another means giving to others the same mercy God has shown to us. Our Lord’s command to “Be merciful as your Father in Heaven is merciful” means, then, not simply that we give someone another chance, but that we give them a new beginning. I think this is what the scriptures mean when they speak of God forgetting our sins. God is, of course, all-knowing, so to speak of God forgetting anything is a bit problematic. But if by God’s forgetting is meant that we get not only another chance but a completely new start, God’s forgetting begins to make sense: it is mercy. And then it makes sense why we are told to not remember - and not remembering is the same as forgetting - the sins of one another. It is why, when Peter asked Christ if he should forgive his neighbor seven times the Lord said, “No, 70 x 7.” In other words, stop counting! Stop remembering! And just show them the mercy you have been shown, the mercy of a new start.
One of the truly beautiful things about mercy - real mercy, that is, not that fake “I guess I’ll give you another chance” stuff - is that, when we give to it to another, we receive it ourselves. What a burden we carry when we remember the sins of others. What a freedom when we simply start fresh and allow them to do the same. No counting our brother’s sins! No mental ledgers filled with everyone’s debts! Only and always mercy. As St Isaac the Syrian says, “A merciful man is the doctor of his own soul, because as it were by a strong wind from his heart he drives out the darkness of the passions.”
With love in Christ, Fr John
“Give me a word!”
If your heart has been softened either by repentance before God or by learning the boundless love of God towards you, do not be proud with those whose hearts are still hard. Remember how long your heart was hard and incorrigible. Seven brothers were ill in one hospital. One recovered from his illness and got up and rushed to serve his other brothers with brotherly love, to speed their recovery. Be like this brother. Consider all men to be your brothers, and sick brothers at that. And if you come to feel that God has given you better health than others, know that it is given through mercy, so in health you may serve your frailer brothers.
+St Nikolai Velimirovich
Among all His actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love, and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us.
+St Isaac the Syrian
If you see a man who has sinned and you do not pity him, the grace of God will leave you. Whoever curses bad people, and does not pray for them, will never come to know the grace of God.
+St. Silouan the Athonite