We must pray for other people with contrition and pain in our soul. We can only achieve this, if, due to our humbleness, we consider ourselves the cause of all the problems in the world.
The Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain
This insightful but “hard” saying of the Elder Paisios is very similar to a statement made by the literary character, the Elder Zossima, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, who taught that “each man is responsible for the sins of all.” In our individualized culture, particularly as it is marked by a strongly legal world-view, such statements sound like madness or an invitation to an extreme form of neurosis. And yet these things are taught by some of the most sane among us.
An insanity of our world is to refuse to acknowledge that we share a common life. None of us is saved alone, the fathers teach. If we do not share a common life, then the life of Christ cannot become the life of all. There would be no possibility of union with God nor would love mean anything deeper than the feelings and attitudes we have for one another.
Instead, the opposite is true. Our lives are a common life. Whether I want it to be so or not – my life is intimately connected with the life of every human being – both those now living as well has those who have gone before and those who are yet to come. This is an inherent part of the fullness of the Christian faith.
Refusals of this teaching mark the earliest sins of mankind. Adam refuses to accept union with his wife when he seeks to pass blame on her (and through her to God): “The woman You gave me – she gave me and I did eat…” In a similar fashion Cain, when confronted by God about the murder of his brother, defends himself by saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
There are many things in life that sustain the delusion of radical individuality. Wealth can insulate a person from the true sense of their interdependence on others. Many seek wealth in order to avoid necessities of dependence. We admire the strong and despise the weak. But all of us are weak. We enter the world in a state of complete dependence and often leave in the same manner.
Our fear of a common life is not unreasonable. Dependence, in our fallen world, often means that we are subject to the abuse of power by those around us. Of course only someone living in a fortress can resist much of the abuse of power that infects our world. But we are not told to overcome evil by running away. We are told to “overcome evil by doing good” (Romans 12:21).
It is this “good” which the elders of the Church enjoin. Recognizing and embracing our common humanity – our common life – is an act of love and an offering of the self. The act of prayer for another, when rightly prayed, always means taking upon ourselves the life of the other. This is the great mystery of life as communion. It is the very heart of love.
For those who have a strong psychological take on human relationships – I would quickly want to say that I am not arguing for the destruction of proper “boundaries.” To have a common life with others does not mean to destroy the uniqueness of our own personhood, nor to confuse my life with the life of another.
It is to step into one of the deeper mysteries of our existence. In my own life, perhaps because of my weaknesses, I have frequently been aware that I could not live except for the mercy and prayers of others. I have suffered only small things and been spared many greater sufferings through the kindness and prayer of others. Ultimately, we all live through the life of God who sustains us in our very existence.
I venture to pray for the world from time to time – but I know that my prayers in this regard are quite weak – for my love of the world and my willingness of be the “cause of all the problems in the world” is virtually nil. On most days it is enough of a struggle to take on prayer for those whom I know, particularly those with whom relationships are damaged. But such prayer is the path of the Cross. It leads us to a place where Christ is, taking on the sins of the world – for the life of the world and its salvation.