The Mystery of Love

It is common to both the writings of Dostoevsky [particularly in the Brothers Karamazov] and in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony and St. Silouan, that each man must see and understand himself to be responsible for the sins of all. This can be a statement that troubles some – as if doing this were a mere spiritual game – or a violation of others’ responsibility. It is, in fact, a profound understanding of what it means to be a human, created in God’s image. The following short passage from the Elder Sophrony’s St. Silouan the Athonite provides some excellent commentary on the subject:

On the Difference between Christian Love and the Justice of Man

People usually interpret justice in the juridical sense. We reject the idea of laying one man’s guilt on another – it is ‘not fair’. It does not accord with our idea about equity. But the spirit of Christian love speaks otherwise, seeing nothing strange but rather something natural in sharing the guilt of those we love – even in assuming full responsibility for their wrong-doing. Indeed, it is only in this bearing of another’s guilt that the authenticity of love is made manifest and develops into full awareness of self. What sense is there in enjoying only the pleasurable side of love? Indeed, it is only in willingly taking upon oneself the loved one’s guilt and burdens that love attains its multifold perfection.

Many of us cannot, or do not want to, accept and suffer of our own free will the consequences of Adam’s original sin. ‘Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit but what has that to do with me?’ we protest. ‘I am ready to answer for my own sins but certainly not for the sins of others.’ And we do not realize that in reacting thus we are repeating in ourselves the sin of our forefather Adam, making it our own personal sin, leading to our own personal fall. Adam denied responsibility, laying all the blame on Eve and on God who had given him this wife; and by so doing he destroyed the unity of Man and his communion with God. So, each time we refuse to take on ourselves the blame for our common evil, for the actions of our neighbor, we are repeating the same sin and likewise shattering the unity of Man. The Lord questioned Adam before Eve, and we must suppose that if Adam, instead of justifying himself, had taken upon his shoulders the responsibility for their joint sin, the destinies of the world might have been different, just as they will alter now if we in our day assume the burden of the transgressions of our fellow man.

We can all find ways of vindicating ourselves on all occasions but if we really examine our hearts we shall see that in justifying ourselves we are not guileless. Man justifies himself, firstly, because he does not want to acknowledge that he is even partially to blame for the evil in the world, and secondly, because he does not realize that he is endowed with godlike freedom. He sees himself as merely part of the world’s phenomena, a thing of this world, and, as such, dependent on the world. There is a considerable element of bondage in this, and self-justification, therefore, is a slavish business unworthy of a son of God. I saw no tendency towards self-justification in the Staretz. But it is strange how to many people this taking the blame for the wrong-doing of others, and asking for forgiveness, savors of subjection – so vast the distinction in outlook between the sons of the Spirit of Christ and non-spiritual people. The latter cannot believe it possible to feel all humanity as a single whole to be incorporated in the personal existence of every man, without exception. According to the second commandment, Love thy neighbor as thyself, each of us must, and can, comprise all mankind in our own personal being. Then all the evil that occurs in the world will be seen, not as something extraneous but as our own.

If each human person-hypostasis, created in the image of the absolute Divine Hypostases, is capable of containing in himself the fulness of all human being, in the same way as each of the Three Persons of the Godhead is the bearer of all the fullness of Divine being (the profound purport of the second commandment) then shall we all contend against evil, cosmic evil, each beginning with himself.

I cannot help but quote again, with emphasis,  the Elder Sophrony’s statement: the destinies of the world might have been different, just as they will alter now if we in our day assume the burden of the transgressions of our fellow man.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





25 responses to “The Mystery of Love”

  1. […] The Mystery of Love « Glory to God for All Things. […]

  2. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    all humanity as a single whole to be incorporated in the personal existence of every man, without exception.

    I call this….Adam

  3. Anastasia Theodoridis Avatar

    Father, bless!

    You have just saved me from a horrible mistake I was about to make in order to avoid having my name associated with someone else’s grievous behavior. You have shown me the way out.

    Thank you!!!!

  4. Karl Edmond Avatar
    Karl Edmond

    How would this relate to the orthodox understanding of ancestral sin? This sounds more like the protestant understanding of original sin. Or am I missunderstanding?
    That being said I find this more powerful and convicting than any explanation of original sin that I have heard before.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Even the concept of ancestral sin is not very well-developed in Orthodox thought – most especially any sense of inherited guilt (as in original sin). What Dostoevsky, St. Silouan and others are saying comes primarily from the traditional teachings of Orthodox ascetics (the monastics) rather than from any of the major dogmatic councils. It fits more naturally with the Orthodox understanding of sin (which is mostly ontological-existential and not forensic-legal). If you see communion/participation (with God and with other humans and creation) as the primary characteristic of a life that is truly whole – such conclusions come very easily.

  6. Jeremiah Avatar

    When someone calls 911 and I come to there home, I have become aware of a sense of disgust I have at times. It usually comes in the form of the thought, “How can you live like this?” or, “Who would do something like that?” I try to repent as often as I catch myself, but if I could keep this thought that you have shared in my mind, it would go a long way to keep me humble.
    Unfortunately I am more proud than the Pharisee, but too blind to see that I am sinful as the Publican. Pray for me, a sinner.

  7. Victor Avatar

    “There but for the grace of God go I”
    But rather
    “There go I”
    What is it about us that keeps us trying to get out of things like this?
    As Adam would not accept the burden of common humanity so we flinch from every hint of blame…..
    This reminds me of the rich man and Lazarus, “even if one should return from the dead they will still not believe”. We have the risen Lord who has accepted all reproach and blame, not to pay off the Father’s ‘just wrath’ but to show us that the Father is not such a Master…and still we do not believe, still we do not follow in His way….
    How disordered we are
    Lord have mercy

  8. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

  9. Jeremy Avatar

    An edifying reflection, father. Tell me, have you ever read any of the works of Charles Williams? I would especially recommend ‘Descent into Hell’ (a novel), which was one of the books CS Lewis said influenced him most. One of it’s main theological themes, the other side of its treatment of hell as the descent into self, is the Doctrine of Substitution, to which I could never do justice in a single sentence, but which seems to me very much related to this topic: through acts of love we can literally bear one another’s spiritual and physical burdens, reflecting in part the mystery of the Cross.

  10. Anna Avatar

    How is it that we actually become and embody this love and allow all of humanity to enter our heart?

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, I think I’ve read most of Williams – particularly his Descent into Hell. His “substitution” as he calls it, is really more of a participation, or anadoche as is sometimes mentioned in Greek ascetic writings.

    I agree it is part of the mystery of the Cross. I think that though we are told to take up our cross and follow Christ – there is actually only one Cross – and we take up that one and same Cross which Christ has made the way of salvation for all.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would recommend the writings of the Elder Zacharias of St. John’s in Essex. His book The Enlargement of the Heart describes this path as well as anything I’ve seen.

  13. Anam Cara Avatar
    Anam Cara

    Anastasia Theodoridis said:
    “You have just saved me from a horrible mistake I was about to make in order to avoid having my name associated with someone else’s grievous behavior. You have shown me the way out.”

    Is there any time when it is alright to disassociate ourselves from someone else’s behavior?

    Case in point:
    We recently did this when a man from my husband’s church wanted to develop an evangelic tool and asked to borrow money ($15K) for this project. He set up some sort of business, society, something, pooled the money from various people (with a promise to repay those who loaned money when the project was finished) so that he had at least $150K that we know of, then spent the money on himself and is now, we believe, incurring more debts based on this business/society/whatever it is called. We and several others we know were concerned that we might be held liable for those debts if we remained associated and so have put in writing that the money is to be considered a gift and we have nothing more to do with the project.

    Was this wrong? Should we have left our names tied to this and perhaps had to pay off any other debts this man decided to incur without the knowledge or consent of those of us who he says “invested.” (We do not consider it an investment as none of us would have received any profits from this, only the original loan repaid).

    Are we to take on the burden of his guilt here? Is there a line where we are not to bear the burden of another’s transgression and if so where?

  14. Micah Avatar

    The Union of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the only archetype of union given to the Church.

    Whilst Their Union is pre-Eternal, the Church knows unity only when she walks in the perfect love of Christ.

    Glory to God, for all!

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    Anam Cara,
    I think on a daily basis we make the decision about where the line is for various reasons. Love requires freedom and cannot be forced, even by a commandment. Dostoevsky describes situations (in a novel) in which someone willingly goes to prison, though innocent, and that another joins him in Siberian exile for love. Love has no limits but it also has no compulsion.

  16. Doug C. Avatar
    Doug C.

    Great post, I had not thought of our responsibility to others in this way before. Regarding Anam Cara’s question; how does this question relate to love/forgiveness in terms of preventative measures? Trying to help others avoid the pitfalls related to association or other sins?

  17. Micah Avatar

    Great question Doug.

    What was lost in Eden is found in Golgotha — the entire universe is filled with the glory of the Pascha of our Christ (for those with eyes to see and ears to hear).

    I am copying a quote from Fr. Stephen’s post on the Inverted Pyramid which I think wonderfully explains the dynamic:

    Fr. Sophrony [Sakharov], in his book on St. Silouan, presents this theory of the “inverted pyramid.” He says that the empirical cosmic being is like a pyramid: at the top sit the powerful of the earth, who exercise dominion over the nations (cf. Matt. 20:25), and at the bottom stand the masses. But the spirit of man, by nature [unfallen nature as given by God], demands equality, justice and freedom of spirit, and therefore is not satisfied with this “pyramid of being.” So, what did the Lord do? He took this pyramid and inverted it, and put Himself at the bottom, becoming its Head. He took upon Himself the weight of sin, the weight of the infirmity of the whole world, and so from that moment on, who can enter into judgment with Him? His justice is above the human mind. So, He revealed His Way to us, and in so doing showed us that no one can be justified but by this way, and so all those who are His must go downwards to be united with Him, the Head of the inverted pyramid, because it is there that the “fragrance” of the Holy Spirit is found; there is the power of divine life. Christ alone holds the pyramid, but His fellows, His Apostles and His saints, come and share this weight with Him. However, even if there were no one else, He could hold the pyramid by Himself, because He is infinitely strong; but He likes to share everything with His fellows. Mindful of this, then, it is essential for man to find the way of going down, the way of humility, which is the Way of the Lord, and to become a fellow of Christ, who is the Author of this path.

    Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart


  18. Brian Avatar

    Thank you, Father. I needed this medicine.

  19. Considering Ravens Avatar
    Considering Ravens

    “There but for the grace of God go I”
    But rather
    “There go I””
    Victor, I really like this–may I quote you?

    Father Stephen, Anam Cara’s question above brings a question to mind for me as well. Might it not be more loving to allow someone to bear the consequence of their actions and learn from them, rather than be responsible for them and bail them out repeatedly?
    A few years back, I was in a position to help a family member financially. Sadly, she had a very difficult time managing money, and would continually repeat a pattern of impulsive spending followed by financial crisis. I eventually got to the point that I felt I was enabling, not helping, so I told her I could no longer help. I’ve never been quite sure if this was the right descision. It was certainly justifiable by the mainstream standards of self-interest, and I told myself it the right thing, but more recently I’ve been uncertain. Thoughts?

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m not speaking of bearing the responsibility and thus remove it from someone else. Rather it is not to separate oneself from the other but to understand that we share a common humanity and that in love, I can take and bear that burden in a mystical union that allows me to pray and not to judge and to share in the repentance of all mankind.

  21. Doug C. Avatar
    Doug C.

    Thank you Father Stephen for this clarification; sometimes in in my western thinking(afflicted upon me by many years of evangelicalism) I am unable to see the forest for the trees.

  22. Nemanja Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I have read this text by Elder Sophrony before, and I want to say that I have a big difficulty with understanding (and agreeing with) his primary point – understanding of the Original sin.
    I don’t see a similarity between a person who says: “Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit but what has that to do with me?” and Adam himself. Adam has commited a sin, he has chosen to eat the forbidden fruit (while he could have chosen not to eat), and he has rejected responsibility for HIS OWN SIN. I just don’t see how it is similar to a person who wasn’t there in the Garden of Eden and asks a question: “Why am I guilty for the sin of our forefather?”
    I always thought that we were not guilty for the Original sin in a moral way, but rather that the nature of a man had fallen with the sin of Adam and Eve, and that our fallen nature requires to be healed… Could you clarify?

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Sophrony is not commenting here on the doctrine of original sin, but on the existential/ascetical problem of how we react to the sins of others. Of course the fall has damaged us in ways that must be healed through Christ. But in the course of obeying the commandment to love one another, to love our enemies, we encounter the problems Fr Sophrony discusses.

  24. Georgia Avatar

    St. Paul felt deeply the burden of the sins of Israel in rejecting Christ so much as to identify with their sin and to wish he could exchange his place in faith in some way to benefit them. This was the fuel of his intercessions for them and for his passionate witnessing and preaching.

  25. Seraphim Avatar

    When Adam sinned, he lost all recollection of the glorious image of the divine person. It was not until God took on the flesh of Adam (in Christ) that the glorious image was fully restored.

    A remarkable and timely reflection, thank you!

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