“The old man longed for Him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all His answer.”
The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky
The soft swell of the Trisagion washes over me as I sit in the crowded sanctuary, looking up at the soaring arches of the ceiling.
Holy and Mighty
Holy Immortal One
Have mercy, have mercy on us
The music rises and falls like wavelets of the sea, lapping patiently away at the stubborn expanse of our American distractedness. That song is about as close to church antiquity as we ever get in our postmodern evangelical setting. They say the Trisagion goes back to Constantinople and the very roots of our Christian tradition.
But it is no historical meditation in which I am caught up. There is a bitter struggle going on inside me today.
I have always been an extrovert, but I cannot look anyone in the eye at church this morning. The cheerful smiles of my friends, the warm welcome of the lady offering the carefully folded bulletins, the aural chrism of the worship team drawing us into the presence of God Himself: today these all fade into a blurry glaze of grief, obscuring my thought and wringing my heart even tighter into a knotted-up tangle of hurt:
Why did he do it? It could have all been worked out. She knew it wasn’t true, that she was still hiding something. And he let her do it. I told the truth, and none of them did. I owned more, apologized for more, wept over more, gave up more, changed more than any of us had ever done before. Was it fear that drove him? Did he think I would tell everyone what I know? I won’t, I wouldn’t – but how would he know that? What happened to our friendship of 10 years, is it over? He said it was over. Should I confront him then? But I already did that, and it just got uglier. How could he deny the truth so unfeelingly? Was there ever anything between us, or was it just always a sham? Is it really all my fault what happened? Maybe I should have just taken the fall like he told me to, died on my sword like he told me to. Maybe I should just pretend to everyone, like he told me to, that everything is OK, that we didn’t actually get crushed by the deceit and the cover-up, that nothing else needs to be said about it: Dixi. Why did he do it? It could have all been worked out…
I realize with a start that I have been cycling over and over the words in my mind, chewing viciously on them, attacking them as if they were a knot of gristle that cannot be digested. But as I do I begin to discern a strange and a forbidden taste stealthily appearing, one that is not meat or food, but something wholly different, something that tears down instead of builds up, something as unnourishing and unwholesome as prayers for perdition rising in the dark cathedral of my heart, something suggested by the wise and dread spirit, something that sits upon the Beast and raises the cup, and on it will be written “Mystery”…
It is a frightening realization, and my spirit is jolted back to sudden life by the bright strength of the worship team’s intonation:
Have mercy, have mercy on us
And again there is a moment of contrition. What is it that I really want? So I have been wronged; Jesus was wronged too. So I have been misunderstood; Jesus was misunderstood too. If what I really wanted was restoration, would my prayers not sound more like Father, forgive them and less like Lord, shall we call down fire from heaven?
Forgiveness varies in difficulty according to the measure of what you have lost. If all it cost you was a moment or two of your pride, it is easy to forgive someone. But if what it cost you was the relationship itself, if the love you shared with the person who hurt you is (as far as you can see) gone forever, it is as hard to forgive them as it is to accept the loss of their fellowship. That is to say, it is impossible.
But what is impossible with man is possible with God. He does not abandon me to my ignorant attempts to correct His work, but instead He moves toward me in pity. As I worship He gently heals my wounded being with the ministering of His Spirit, and in love He restores to me all the meaning and joy I had foolishly sought to find in another human being. Jesus leans down in silence to kiss my bloodless lips, and a new hope comes to life within me.
It is a hope that brings me to ask not only for mercy on me, but instead for mercy on us. It tells me to cease my strivings and wait instead for Him to act. It tells me to give up my poisonous freedoms and eat instead of the bread of heaven that gives eternal life. It is a hope that calms my heart and bids me stay with those I love instead of turning away from them, and as I stay it bids me truly love instead of hating them. And as the Prisoner who took His punishment in my stead goes out into the dark alleys of the town, my heart goes with Him, for I would go and do likewise.
PostScript: I should probably note that I do not here intend to critique the Roman Catholic church (as I believe Dostoyevsky did not), but rather with Solzhenitsyn I describe the line dividing good and evil that runs through every human heart, of whatever Communion they happen to be a member.
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