In the third chapter of The Compassion of the Father, Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues his discussion of the mystery of forgiveness. He begins by pointing out that in the Liturgy, the Lord’s Prayer follows the epiclesis and that it is only in this context of the invocation of the Holy Spirit who transforms us into the Body and Blood of Christ, that we can live the Our Father – with its petition to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” – to the full. Indeed, “if we expect God to forgive us to the extent of our own forgiveness, it is a vain hope because we ourselves are not able to forgive.” (74)
In the Bible we encounter the primacy of the forgiveness of God which would seem to contradict the words of the Our Father “forgive us … as we forgive.” Here Father Boris distinguishes two degrees of forgiveness. The first is universal and absolute, that in Christ God has forgiven us. This is unconditional, for God loved us when we were still sinners. But there is also second degree of forgiveness:
through the action of the Holy Spirit we are called to be collaborators with the work of God by assuming this mystery and this achievement, the fruit of the forgiveness of God. Universal forgiveness is offered by not imposed. The human being remains free – this is the great mystery of the Christian faith – in the presence of the love of God, the forgiveness of God, the light of God, which we may accept or reject. Thus our refusal of God is part of the mystery of His love. (75)
Moreover, in the prayer of Christ on the cross – “Father, forgive them…” – we encounter the supreme reconciliation with the Father. This prayer encompasses all times and space.
Being in solidarity with his executioners, we are all concerned with this prayer of forgiveness that Christ addresses to the Father. The slightest refusal of God, indeed the smallest rejection of His love, unites us with those who tempted Christ during His life, and with those who crucified Him. Thus the prayer of Christ is truly an epiclesis to the Father. (76)
But sin is more than simply individual deeds. Behind it there is a personal power that seeks to subdue and destroy humanity. It divides them, whereas Jesus died in order to gather together the scattered children of God. (Jn 11:52) Sin breaks our “communing” character, isolating us from God, from other people and from ourselves. God comes to be seen as far away and harsh. Human relations become characterised by hate, incomprehension and vengeance. And the human being disintegrates, losing integrity and unity of being.
The deep heart, the immaterial place in the image of God, though indestructible, becomes alienated, seriously overshadowed, darkened, and locked up in its own depth. The human being becomes a stranger to his or her identity and ultimate vocation, roaming like a suffering soul between heaven and earth. In this state of multiple dissociation, the human being is at the same time a victim of possessive Satanic powers and enslaved to his or her own desires. (77)
However, this does not take away our own responsibility – “Responsibility and guilt remain because the image of God continues to glow in the depths.” (78) Forgiveness means that when God wipes the sin away, He heals the underlying wound and creates a new heart.
Man cannot truly heal himself: he does not have the strength for it because the wound in him is too big; it continues to bleed and cause suffering. Only God can forgive. (78)
Thus forgiveness means us allowing God to heal the wound of our own heart.
When we hear the words of the priest at the eucharistic liturgy, “Let us lift up our hearts” and the response of the choir, “We lift them up unto the Lord,” what happens at that moment? What does it mean “to lift up one’s heart to God?” This can be understood in the sense of forgetting all that is earthly, human, secular, and of turning to God in a relationship of absolute verticality, of prayer, adoration, and total supplication. That, however, is only a way of perception because whether we like it or not, our heart is a universe. Our heart is wider than the world because it contains it; it knows that the world does not know this mystery it carries within. When our hearts are filled with everything that make up our existence, our joys, our sorrows, all our loves, all our hatred and sufferings, what can we do? We are not able to tear all this from our hearts. Thus, we can only lift up our hearts to God. Just as we expose the sick part of our body to radiation that can heal it, so do we lift up our sick hearts and ask the Lord to penetrate them; we ask Him to enter into our sick and beseeching hearts with all His power, His grace, His love, with all the presence, the light and the fire of the Spirit to consume what must be, to transform and recreate what must remain for the kingdom. (79-80)
In this process we also learn not to place ourselves at the centre of things – for “who am I not to forgive?” – and repentance becomes the key to forgiveness.
When I ask for forgiveness while viewing myself as “the least of men and the chief sinner,” the forgiveness of the other assumes another resonance. Therefore I cannot forgive unless I ask forgiveness from all and each. This is the preliminary and inner dimension of forgiveness. When I forgive, it is still the me that is at the center. Conversely, when I ask for forgiveness, I break this proud me; the forgiveness of the neighbour, or of the one whose neighbour I am, becomes necessary.
The mystery of repentance is the first work of the Holy Spirit, which is to bring us to recognise ourselves as sinners, aliens, and orphans. “Give your blood and receive the Spirit,” a patristic adage states. The Spirit descends on the world in tongues of fire, in dew of living water to quench the thirsty, in healing the wounds of sin, in leading the lost sheep to the house of the Father, when I discover myself – and me alone – as a sinner and guilty (1 Tim 1:15). I ask forgiveness from all and each, but above all from God who alone can forgive: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk 2:7) (81)