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Sin as Pollution and Forgiveness Vespers

[Ancient Faith Radio; April 8, 2008]

Well, another Forgiveness Vespers has arrived, and challenged us in many ways, not least challenging those muscles that run up the back of our legs, with all the making metanias, and certainly brought forth some tears and a lot of hugs, and a profound sense of being bonded with the other people in our church.  At Holy Cross, we have about—I guess on a Sunday morning we see a hundred to a hundred thirty people.  There’s some variation; people travel and visitors show up.  But at Forgiveness Vespers, we usually have around a hundred people there.


And it’s a lot of people.  It takes about an hour for us to go all the way around the circle and have every possible pair exchange the forgiveness. 


Our deacon, Deacon Mark, is very good at math, and he said, one year he said that it figured that it meant 20,000 acts of forgiveness.  If there are a hundred people, it works out to 20,000 acts of forgiveness.  And I don’t understand math, so I’m not going to put forward that number myself, because I’m very easily confused when it comes to numbers. 


Some other people said no, it’s only 10,000.  There are all kinds of guesses at what it was.  Mark explained that what he was working on is that if it’s two people, there are four separate actions: that one asks forgiveness and the other accepts it, the other asks forgiveness and the first accepts it; that’s four different acts.  So if you count four for every pair, that’s how you get the number 20,000.  And if that’s not correct, please don’t send me an email about it, because I’ll believe anything.  You could tell me anything about numbers and I will just believe you, because that it definitely not my strong point. 


The question that always comes up every year is, here I am, asking for and receiving forgiveness from people that I don’t know that well, and I can’t think of anything I’ve done that was a sin against them.  I can’t think of anything that they’ve done against me.  What do we do in a situation like that? 


My husband always makes the point that you don’t necessarily know; with this person who’s asking your forgiveness, resist the impulse to say, ‘You haven’t done anything,’ because you don’t know.  It may be that they had a thought about you.  It may be that they had a judgmental thought, or that they dislike the way you wear your hair or something.  There might be something on their conscience that they really need you to forgive.  So take it seriously and offer forgiveness. 


And you might be asking forgiveness from people that you haven’t interacted with very much.  Well, maybe that’s what you have to ask forgiveness for.  Maybe you have ignored them.  Maybe you haven’t been tuned in to their need for interaction.  So that in itself might be a reason for you to ask forgiveness.


But also, there’s something about the whole world of interaction, that any of our sins, I think, that any of our sins contribute to the morass of sins in the world.  It’s kind of like air pollution.  It’s that sin empowers the evil one, and that even our little sins are contributing toward the power that the devil has to inflict pain on others.  So there’s a way in which all of our sins affect each other, even if it’s not a sin directed at someone else. 


So I wanted to read here something that someone else wrote that I think expresses this, the sort of quality of sin as a pollution, as a force.  And on of the things that’s hard about being a writer is that other writers are just so terrific sometimes, that if you read what they said, for me, anyway, it blocks me being able to think of how I would say it, because the way they said it was just so great.  So I have to be careful not to read too much CS Lewis, for example, because if he said it, he said it so well that if I read the way that he expressed it, I will never come up with an original way to say it myself.


This is an excerpt from one of Garrison Keillor’s monologues on Prairie Home Companion from a long time ago.  I heard it when it was broadcast maybe 15, 20 years ago.  A long time.  And it impressed me so much that I got a cassette recording and actually transcribed it.  So I don’t know if this appears in any of Keillor’s books.  This is something that I typed up from listening to the broadcast. 


The title of the story, of this monologue, was Letter From Jim.  And the whole thing was ostensibly a letter that Garrison Keillor had received from his friend Jim.  And Jim is talking about how he is being tempted to have an affair with a woman that he worked with, with a woman in his office.  And he was irritated with his wife and irritated with the family, and wanted some excitement and adventure.  He was going to a conference in Chicago that had to do with work and this woman was going with him.  And he sort of had it in the back of his mind that this would be an ideal opportunity to inaugurate that affair, while they’re both out of town and away from family and spouses.


So Jim, in this letter, it’s at the point of the letter where he says he’s waiting.  He’s waiting for the woman to pick him up and give him a ride to Chicago. 


‘I thought, so this is what adultery is like: simple.  I sat down in the front yard under our spruce tree and waited for her to pick me up.  I believe that men and women can part for many reasons, including the lack of love and appreciation.  I left my parents for my wife because she appreciated me and they didn’t.  Twenty years later, I sit in my own front yard, waiting to join a woman who appreciates me more.  But in five years, or six, or eight, will I go to a higher bidder?  What happens when I’m older and my grade falls?  Who do I choose when I’m old and can’t run fast and nobody chooses me? 


‘I sat there in the front yard and thought, so this is what adultery is like: it’s just horse-trading. 


‘As I sat on the lawn, looking down the street, I saw that we all depend on each other.  I saw that although I thought my sins could be secret, that they would be no more secret than an earthquake.  All these houses and all these families, my infidelity will somehow shake them.  It will pollute the drinking water.  It will make noxious gasses come out of the ventilators in the elementary school. 


‘When my wife and I scream in senseless anger, blocks away a little girl we do not know spills a bowl of gravy all over a white tablecloth.


‘If I go to Chicago with this woman who is not my wife, somehow the school patrol will forget to guard an intersection, and someone’s child may be injured.  A sixth-grade teacher will think, ‘What the hell?’ and eliminate South America from geography.  Our minister will decide, ‘What the hell? I’m not going to give that sermon on the poor.’ Somehow, my adultery will cause the man in the grocery store to say, ‘To hell with the health department, this sausage was good yesterday; it certainly can’t be any worse today.’


‘I just leave this story there.  Anything more I could tell you would be self-serving.  Except to say that we depend on each other more than we know.’


That was an excerpt from a Garrison Keillor monologue called, ‘Letter From Jim,’ that I like very much, and as I read it, I admire so much, how, in that paragraph it’s getting stronger and stronger, and then, pow!  That sentence is so memorable, what an image just impressed on my mind, “When my wife and I scream in senseless anger, blocks away a little girl we do not know spills a bowl of gravy all over a white tablecloth.”


Man, I will never be able to think of a better way of describing the action of sin in our common, shared world as a pollutant and it’s effect on other people.  I just see that gravy spilling all over the tablecloth.


Keillor is such a good writer, that after he comes out with that line, which, pow! You know, has such impact, immediately he backs off and he begins to use a little bit of humor.  He says the school patrol will forget to guard an intersection, the sixth-grade teacher will eliminate South America from geography, the minister will decide not to give a sermon on the poor, the man in the grocery store will decide that the sausage is good for another day. 


He’s really a genius with dealing with an audience that way, because you come forward and then you have to give them a chance to breathe.  A statement as strong as that spilled gravy, it needs time to soak in, and you need to, kind of just let something else happen for a couple of sentences, make it a little bit lighter.  What a terrific writer.  Just makes me mad because he’s already chosen the very best way of expressing that analogy, and now I’ll never be able to think of how I’d put it in my own words. 


Well, as with him, I’ll just leave the story there.  Every year, we come around to Forgiveness Vespers, and we ask forgiveness from people we can’t think of anything we’ve done, and we receive forgiveness from people that, to our knowledge have not harmed us in any way.  But we’re scrubbing clean the tablecloth, in a sense.  We are erasing all the little resentments and injuries that are objectively there, whether or not we register them, and letting all that go. 


Think how much the devil hates that.  If Deacon Mark is right, 20,000 times, twenty thousand acts of giving and receiving forgiveness just in our little church of Holy Cross, just with a hundred people on a Sunday evening.  Multiply that all around the nation, all around the world in every Orthodox church, and you can see that Forgiveness Vespers is something that the devil really hates.

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