I added a simple prayer to a web prayer group yesterday. The comments that followed have been interesting. I posted, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is known as the Jesus Prayer. No one is positive about when it was written or how long it has been prayed, in just that format. But it has been around eastern Christianity for centuries. Instead of using a rosary, in the east we use a prayer rope. On each knot we recite that prayer. The hope is that we can pray it unceasingly, all day and all night long. It is a cry for mercy and forgiveness. The mercy we seek is not that of a master over his slave, but rather the loving arms of a Father, gathering in His hurting child.
On the page I added my prayer to, some of the comments were strange to me. But then I realized that it is a site for lots of denominations and rites. Many people on that site would not recognize the prayer. The one comment that got me thinking was, “The bigger the sin, the bigger the forgiveness.” Now, I can take that as comforting. It implies that no matter the size or content of the sin, forgiveness is waiting for me. This denotes a demarcation or ranking of sins. In the west, the common theology is venial and mortal sin. Venial sin is something that moves you away from God, but does not remove you completely from His Grace. A mortal sin, as the word implies, kills your relationship with God; you are separated from God totally. The usual “biggies” are murder (including abortion), adultery, stealing…you get the idea; one of the “Top Ten;” The Ten Commandments. So the bigger the sin, the bigger the forgiveness. And when you go to a priest in the western Church, he will give you penance that is appropriate for the sin you confessed. It may be, for example, 10 Hail Marys, 4 Our Fathers, and 2 full Rosaries (that would be a pretty hefty penance). If you committed a more grievous sin, the priest may ask you to “do” something in atonement. He may ask you to return a good you have stolen and offer to work at the place you stole from, for no pay. He may ask you to turn yourself in to authorities (which could be law enforcement, parents, teachers, school authorities, work place management, etc). He may ask you to volunteer at a homeless shelter or pray at an abortion clinic. He may ask you to seek someone you have wronged, and make it right. Most Catholics will attend weekly confession, if they can.
Over here, on the eastern side of the aisle, sin is taken a little differently. And so, when I saw that response to my post, I also examined it in light of my understanding of sin and forgiveness, from my Byzantine (but formerly western) perspective. In the eastern tradition, sin is sin. The action or thought either drew you closer to God or placed you further away from God. The distance is part of the sin itself, but it is still regarded as just a sin. The experience of confessing in the east is dramatically different than in the west. In our tradition, you stand with your priest in front of an icon of Christ. He wraps his orarion (or stole) over your shoulders and you bend at your waist in a low bow. He then begins to pray for you as you confess your sins to Christ, in the presence of the priest. The priest is just listening and praying for you, all at the same time. It is intimate, and yet you are in the front of the Church, confessing to Christ. He will then speak with you quietly and bless you.
In the east, the priest will not give you 3 Our Fathers to pray, although he just may! More often that not, he will, instead, ask you to perhaps read a verse from Scripture that holds special meaning for that particular sin; he may ask you to recite a common prayer (like the Jesus Prayer); he may further ask you to commit to regular Divine Liturgy attendance and perhaps to assist in an area that will help you recover and grow from your sinful act or thought. He may also suggest more frequent confession. But most importantly, forgiveness is offered as a salve on a wound. It is offered as a warm, all-encompassing hug from a passionate Father who cares for each of his children. God’s mercy envelopes each of us in its warmth and healing forgiveness. When we ask for mercy, this is what we seek.
So as to the idea of larger sins requiring more forgiveness, I disagree. God’s forgiveness is like a huge, down quilt you can wrap your whole body in. He is wrapping all of it (our sinfulness) in the same garment. He is forgiving all of what you have done in one moment, covering all you have done. Believe this or not, but I am a person who is fond of silent retreats. They do the most for my soul. At a silent retreat many years ago, a priest asked me, as I was partway through my confession, if I would like to come back later and have a “life time” confession. I had never heard of that but he instructed me and we made an appointment for later that day. Poor man; I don’t think he realized what he was letting himself in for! But over about 45-minutes, I laid bare every slight I had committed, every wrong deed done, every bad word uttered, every commandment laid to waste in my life to that point. And my penance? To go and sit in the Adoration Chapel and to just be in His presence, in prayer to God. No formulative prayer. No memorized, rote words. Just open myself before God and seek His forgiveness in my soul. I did as he suggested and just sat in that chapel, silently weeping. God touched my life in a moment – all of my life, all of my sinfulness, all in one confession. And His forgiveness was complete. It was not larger or smaller – it just was. I don’t think it took God any more effort for a simple prayer of forgiveness or for my 45-minute recap of every sin I could remember committing, back to an extra pack of Frito-Lay Bar-B-Que Chips I took when I was 9 years old and for tripping my brother when he was 3 and I was 5 years old! Forgiveness was just that – forgiveness.
I believe in the power of prayer, in the corporal prayer of our community when we gather, and in the power of God to hear us, to forgive us. God is good; He is omnipotent, omnipresent, and all-encompassing. To discuss a hierarchy of sin and its equivalent forgiveness puts God in a box He does not fit in. It is man-made and our own perception. God forgives. Period. The scope is unfathomable and I bow in thankfulness each time it touches me.