Monday, May 16, 2011


Another bothersome issue related to our attempts to forgive people is, "So I no longer have hard feelings toward this person, but he or she is not at all repentant; how am I supposed to relate to him or her now?" And it's a stumper. I'm going to tell you about my former friend, whom I'll call Eleanor, to illustrate the problem.

Eleanor had a bad reputation in town. People warned me about her. But I liked her anyway, and seeing she was friendless made me want all the more to be her friend. She seemed to want the same, seemed to need a friend. She was smart, she was Orthodox, she had compatible views about nearly everything, she was fun to be with. In the course of several months, we became - I thought - close confidantes. Once, we even took a short train trip together, I to visit my mother and brother, and she, ostensibly but not really, to visit a son.

I knew she wasn't happy in her marriage. I sympathized when she left her husband and moved to another city. I was ready, of course, to say yes when her husband was found to be so full of cancer it was inoperable, and Eleanor, feeling the need to come back to Richmond, wrote me wondering if she could stay with us.

Demetrios, though, said we would just be enabling her if we consented to this. Pressed by me to explain what he meant, he finally sighed and said, "You should know she has been seen all over that city in the company of some professor."

I clearly remember my incensed reply: "What vicious gossip told you that?" and he said, "Put it this way: her husband has twenty-one first cousins in that city. Plus their spouses and their grown children. No way to eat out anywhere without some of them knowing. Not only that, she has even brought him to church a couple of times."

Although amazed, I was/am in no position to judge anybody, so I tried not to.

She called me on the phone when she had arrived in town, having decided to stay at her former house with her husband until he died. It was only going to be an estimated four months, at most.

"You can stick it out that long," I said. "You can be reconciled for that long." And she agreed, although she didn't intend they should live as man and wife. At least, she said, they could get along, and she could be kind.

It was only three months. When I heard that Alex (not his real name) actually was near the very end, I phoned the house and asked for Eleanor, and whoever answered the phone just said, "She's not here," and hung up.

And where did she turn out to be? Touring Greece and Turkey, and visiting the Patriarchate, with her professor/lover! She had to be summoned home, and arrived there barely in time to be with her husband when he died.

At the prayer service and the next day at the funeral, her sons wouldn't even sit with her; only her daughter did. At the cemetery, as soon as the last "Amen," had been prayed, she turned to the funeral director and said, "Get me out of here!" My main recollection is of her red shoes disappearing into the black limousine.

I called her the next day to offer condolences. She told me she intended to stay here in Richmond for the Forty Days (the deep mourning period for Orthodox Christians) and then go back to her apartment in the other city.

Long before those 40 days were up, she had married her professor and disappeared.

A few short years later, he also died, and she came back to Richmond to bury him in the plot beside her husband that had originally been bought for her. The only reason we found this out was, Demetrios happened to be at the church that day with business at the church office, and when he opened the door to the sanctuary, to go inside and pray, he found the funeral in progress - and an usher at the door who told him who it was, but had strict orders to deny entry to all but a very few whose names were on his list.

Okay, so as I said earlier, when someone goes away and is no longer in your life, you don't need to deal with the issue of, "What now?" But if that person comes back, then what? Or if the person doesn't go anywhere and you still see him or her regularly, NOW WHAT?

What do you say? How do you act? It's not the same issue, quite, as forgiveness. It presupposes you've forgiven, in the sense of giving up any grudge, in the sense of maintaining tenderness of heart toward the other. But even when that's the case, what are you now supposed to DO?

One Sunday a couple of years ago, I spotted Eleanor among the crowd at the coffee hour. I had no answer to these questions, felt completely flustered, and all I could say to Demetrios was the same thing she had once said to the funeral director: "Get me out of here!" so we departed hastily.

Again, I'm only using this story as an example. Unless Eleanor comes back to stay (and she won't, because she has always despised Richmond), it'll be a moot question. What still troubles me is the more general question.

I only know two, seemingly (but surely not truly) opposite things. One is, you have to keep on loving. "Bless those who curse you, do good to them who hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you."

And the other is, you must not connive in the wrongdoing, mustn't pretend it didn't happen (or isn't still happening), must not approve of it, or (I suppose, but perhaps herein lies a mistake?) must not appear to approve of it. Have nothing to do with them, is St. Paul's guidance, referring only to our conduct toward "the brethren," though, not unbelievers.

The problem is how to reconcile these two "musts" at the practical level. Sorry, I still don't have any answer. Any insight you may have will be most welcome. Meanwhile, I just stumble along day to day, and some days seem to manage better than other days.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...
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Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Demetrios says, and I expect he's right, the reason no moral answer emerges for this question is that it isn't a moral issue in the first place. He says if you hae given up your hard feelings toward another, that is, have forgiven him, then the moral issue is resolved. The further issue of what to say, what do do, how to act if the other is unrepentant is not a moral issue, but a practical one. How to show love without showing approval is a skill to be learned. Like navigating between Scylla and Charybdis, I suppose.

And the way to learn it is by practice, and probably by failing sometimes, unfortunately.

But at least we aren't stumbling around blindly. We have the example of Jesus to guide us, Who dealt with many sinners and managed it perfectly all the time; and we have the Holy Spirit's inner promptings, as well.

Emily H. said...

I am certainly no person to give advice. I remember reading a saying of one of the saints (in the context of unbelievers who try to convince you of their point)that you should remain silent even if the other person presumes your silence means agreement with them. It was a sort of "aha" to read that the other's perception of you and even your pride of being seen to agree or not matters much less than loving the other person in silence and prayer. Perhaps it applies in this situation??

How to show love without approval...? I wonder if the way a Christian lives their life is enough to show a simple and quiet disapproval, without having to say anything, and from there one can get onto the ascetic of loving.

Then again I am rather naieve in the situation you describe and you should probably not listen to this fool. :}

Anam Cara said...

“…how am I supposed to relate to him or her now?”

I read this yesterday and didn’t want to answer hastily, so thought about it all night.

And after all of that, I think the answer remains a simple one: you are cordial.

I don’t see any reason why you have to pretend that someone is your bosom buddy. You had a relationship in the past, but no longer. Perhaps it could grow again, but maybe it has outlived its time.

If you met a stranger, you would be pleasant, but not immediately intimate. If love covers a multitude of sins, and God has placed our sins as far as the east from the west, perhaps we should treat things the same way. As though, after all these years, we have no knowledge of the past. Do not judge on the past which may be exactly that – PAST. She may be a changed person. You don’t know from seeing her across a room.

Instead be friendly, as you would to any stranger who appears. You have no relationship with her now, and you would be naturally a little cautious with a stranger who appeared, so put that same caution into effect here. You don’t have to instigate an immediate relationship with anyone you meet whether at church or on the street. If God has not called you to work with drug dealers, you wouldn’t take one home with you. You’d talk to someone, get some background, decide just what your place is with this person and go from there. You can do the same with her. Now you know some things about her, so you could ask about how the children are as opposed to saying, “do you have children?” to a perfect stranger. But you needn’t feel the need to approach her. Do you frantically talk to everyone who shows up at your church? Do you feel bad if you don’t spend a lot of time with each one? I’m betting not. Why is she different?

You do not have to welcome with open arms. But who knows that your small courtesies might awaken something in her and cause repentance if it hasn’t happened all ready.

In all of this with you, I see what might be called a “righteous indignation.” Eleanor behaved very badly. But I fail to see what she did personally to you. You did not enable her, so you were not drawn into her sin. In fact, you encouraged her to do what she should. In her free will, she decided what to do and when to do it. You might be upset that she didn’t do as you thought was right, but if you were upset with everyone who didn’t do what you wanted, you’d have no friends at all! I don’t see that she sinned against you. But perhaps that would be easier to forgive. You can easily forgive someone who offended you, but she offended God and you must defend His honor!

(to be continued)

Anam Cara said...

The same is true of the priest you wrote about a few days ago. I have no idea what the man did that caused you to be grateful that he was gone. I do not know if it was a personal failure on his part, and affront to you individually, or just unpleasant things that were keeping God’s love from being experienced in your church. So I don’t know if he “owed” you a personal apology (so that you would know he was repentant). But it has been 15 years, you say! Have you changed in those 15 years? Could he have changed in those 15 years?

“’I’m having a harder time.’ ... It would have been easier to forgive him if I knew whether he were the least bit repentant.”

It sounds like over the 15 years you had never forgiven him for whatever it is that he did. You still harbored ill thoughts.

“But "Out of sight, out of mind." How many others may there be I am not even conscious of not having forgiven, unless they too show up some day? It's easier to think you've forgiven someone who has gone away, out of your life, than to welcome him back.”

Perhaps the answer is not to “welcome back” but to allow a new creature, one who has had many experiences since you last saw them, many which may have changed them, to enter into your life with a fresh start.

You needn’t be friends with everyone, but you do need to love as God loves, wanting the very best for them. Your friendship, as hard as it seems, might not be the best for them. But be cordial, be considerate, make nice. As you navigate through the “getting to know you” you will know how deep that particular relationship should go.

And if nothing else, all this should teach you to forgive ASAP so things like this don’t keep popping up years later.

(sorry about the length - and maybe I'm wrong about all of it. Forgive me for any assumptions I have erroneously made. I probably should have stopped with "you are cordial.")

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Many thanks to both of you for your sound and wise words, which I shall try to take to heart.

Emily, yes, I agree. And if one is to err, let it be on the side of love!

Soulfriend, your advice to be cordial seems to me spot on. Yes, be cordial and give the other person a fresh chance. I think the "fresh chance" part is actually essential, and integral to the meaning of forgiveness.

In the case of the priest, you're right I hadn't forgiven him all these years - and wasn't even aware of that! When somebody goes out of your life, your hard feelings tend never to bother you anymore, don't make themselves obvious. Instead of forgiving, I simply forgot. Until he came back, and all those feelings with him.

In the case of Eleanor, her sins against me were too small to matter. I had no trouble forgiving her right away.

But it wasn't so much righteous indignation (which would require me first to be righteous!) as loyalty to the husband's family, with which we have always been close, and pity for her children, and yes, a belated care for my own reputation, which suffered considerably from association with this disgrace. (Among Greeks, reputation is everything.) But I think if I try to do the right, my reputation won't suffer and if it does among certain people, so be it!

Heartfelt thanks again to both of you.


s-p said...

I will ditto Anam Cara's words. One can be cordial to ANYONE, but that doesn't mean you need to go out of your way to say hello to them in a crowded room or if you see them in public (before they see you). If you wish to clear the air then by all means you should sit down with her and say, "Is our relationship as uncomfortable for you as it is for me now?"... She may be clueless about the effects of her behavior, but I suspect not. People do bad things in the heat of passion and maybe she sobered up, maybe not. If the relationship is not worth an effort to salvage and you see no future in it then by all means, just smile, make small talk and move on to the next person.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Good observations, s-p; thank you.

This particular friendship appears never to have been what I once thought it was. Can't rekindle what was never really kindled in the first place, so...

But you never know. Fifteen years IS plenty of time for someone to have changed.

Anam Cara said...

"Righteous indignation" was a bad choice of words on my part, although I'm not sure what term I should have used. What I meant was that experience of bearing a someone else's grudge which is different from bearing one another's burdens.