On the Sunday of Forgiveness
Sermon preached by Ioana Chirieac on Sunday, March 17, 2013
"If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14). This Sunday is such a special day as we prepare for lent. Forgiving others and softening our hearts is the first step in allowing Christ in the midst of our lives, with body and spirit knitted together in the Holy Spirit, right here and right now.
“How was life under communism, and how did you end up believing in God?” is a recurring question in my life. Growing up in the communist Romania was challenging and difficult, with little awareness of what I was missing in terms of a spiritual life. The Romanian communist rulers did not destroy churches, nor made them inaccessible to people, but directly linked cynicism and sarcasm to a satisfying intellectual life. Being an intellectual was one of my goals growing up, as I loved reading and learning anything under the sun: from world literature, psychology, physics, to philosophy, so very soon I embraced a cynical attitude towards the church. From my point of view at that time, religion was for those who were naive and feeble of mind, and I proudly concluded in my twenties that I must be an atheist.
Once communism fell in the nineties, there was a huge religious fervor in Romania: many churches were built, priests were seen everywhere blessing houses and businesses. Everywhere I turned people talked about religion, which only increased my sense of contempt towards it. During that time I was going through some personal troubles, and one day I heard on TV a young priest talking about Christianity in my country. “If you are an established Christian, all the religious fervor in Romania is inspiring. But if you are not, it can close your heart. What can be done?” This struck a chord with me, as this was what I was experiencing. He went on saying “It is better to be honest with God and tell him that you do not believe in Him and pray to Him saying: “Our Father who art in Heaven”, if you are in Heaven. I don’t believe you exist, but if you do, “Hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come”, I don’t believe heaven exists, but if it does, “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven...” and so on.
That night I realized I could say this prayer with no one watching me, as I had nothing to lose. My mind reasoned, something like the Pascal Wager: if God does not exist, I am all set - I will go on with my life as I know it. But if God exists, I am in deep trouble - all the time that I ignored him, I sinned and made fun of him! So I might just as well pray. Down on my knees in my room, I open my heart to the possibility of an existing God and said “Our Father” while uttering my unbelief, asking him if he exists, to show himself to me through three signs. Little did I know what was about to unfold. The specifics of the first two signs are blurred in my memory, but events happened in the next two days and it became extremely clear to me that if God existed, he knew intimate details of my life which I never shared with others. I was feverishly waiting for the third sign.
In the third day, while hanging out with my best friend in a park, a gypsy approached me directly asking me if I would like to know my future. She offered to read my palm and “unravel the mysteries of my life”. With trepidation I wondered, “Is this my third sign?” I agreed and the gypsy asked to hold my beautiful golden pearl ring, a very expensive and special piece of jewelry I was wearing at the time. “Are you serious?” I knew she is going to steal it from me if I gave it to her. “No worries” she replied, “I will give it back to you - it is only for a short time that I need to hold it.” Grudgingly I consented. She went on and told me vague future plans for my life, which I am sure could have fit anyone, but seemed very deep and true to me at that moment. In the end I gave her money and asked for my ring back. Low and behold she told me she did not have it anymore “It disappeared”. I was furious. I was livid. And then she asked a question, which made me pause: “What is more important to you, your ring or life?”
As I pondered this question, so many things happened in the same time, it was as if time stopped, space expanded and a drop of eternity pierced my heart. All of a sudden I sensed that this woman must have a family, maybe even kids. Yes, she was indeed stealing and lying, and had no remorse, but I had this vision of her hungry little kids, waiting for her at the end of the day with bread. It just dawned on my “My ring will bring them bread”. Compassion filled my heart and an infinite desire to help her and her family overwhelmed me. I did not even want her to know that I was aware of her stealing from me and lying to me. Strange words resonated in my heart: “Let her think she fooled me. Choose life”. In the same moment, as I was letting go of my ring and forgiveness was melting my heart, I experienced an amazing feeling and vision of the presence of God, the Almighty God. I had this sudden realization that all my life He has been with me all along, knowing me so intimately as no one knew me before, forgiving all my sins, embracing me with His love. I realized in that second how impertinent I had been to demand three signs from God, from the Almighty God and the creator of the entire universe. And in spite of all my atheism, sarcasm, pride, and countless sins, He loved me and forgave me. And the feeling of His overwhelming forgiveness and love was all around me and in me. And I knew God existed, not just on an intellectual level. I knew He loved me as His beloved, and right then and there I loved Him back with all my heart, body, mind and spirit.
This experience of forgiveness started my journey in Christ, and how true is for all of us today and everyday: as we forgive others we experience God. St Isaac said "When one sees all as good and no one as impure, then we can say he is truly pure of heart". "If you see your brother in the act of sinning, throw about his shoulders the mantle of your love." When we allow our hearts to forgive others and ourselves, we become compassionate and we open ourselves to God, as He is pouring out His love, peace, joy and forgiveness in amazing ways. We become one with God inwardly, revealing the true communion and monasticism of the heart. According to Paul Evdokimov, one of my favorite writers, a Russian theologian and philosopher, “To make of one's life a liturgy, a prayer, a doxology, is to make of it a sacrament of perpetual communion.”
My prayer for all of us today is that, as we prepare for our Lenten journey and we forgive each other and ourselves, we let our hearts be filled with the heavenly treasures of forgiveness, compassion, empathy, humility, charity, love, patience, and faithfulness, being one with Christ, in perpetual communion, now and forever. I quote Nicholas Cabasilas, 14th century Greek saint "The soul thirsts for the infinite. The eye for light, the ear for sounds, everything for its end, and the desire of the soul to thrust itself toward Christ". Amin. +++