The best way to begin anything is by being at peace with those you are beginning with. Orthodox Lent begins today, but because we follow the Jewish tradition of beginning the new day at sundown, it technically began last night, right in the middle of the service we call Forgiveness Vespers. At the end of this service, we all ask and receive forgiveness of each other in one of the most powerful human experiences I have ever had. Usually, when others offend us, we stay away from them, or we shrug and say, "I'll get over it." True forgiveness is much different, much more difficult, and much greater. It changes lives.
One person stands in front of another. Each bows, out of humility before the other and in acknowledgement of the image of Christ within every human being. Then each says to the other, "Forgive me." Sometimes specific sins are mentioned, if one person can recall something said or done (or not said or done) to offend the other. The other forgives, and then asks forgiveness. Then they embrace, usually with traditional kisses on the cheek, but sometimes with just a hug.
I don't tend to be overly emotional, but I have never attended this service without weeping profoundly. It surprises me how much remorse I feel each time I exchange forgiveness with someone; some because I have been offensive toward them, but many because I haven't been anything toward them at all -- I may not even know their names. I am ashamed of my reticence, of being caught up in my own preoccupations and refusing to give them time for friendship. And it surprises me how much love I have for them, too. I lost track of the number of times I said, and heard, "I love you." Usually I these words are reserved for goodbyes and very close friends, but there is a closeness that comes from being vulnerable, and nothing is more vulnerable than looking directly into another's eyes and asking forgiveness for hurting them in ways you may not even know about.
The eyes. I realized this last night: they are what makes this such a transformative experience. At a time and place when "interface" is a common word, but real faces a rare commodity, it's a scary thing to look into someone's eyes, just inches from your own, often filled with tears, always filled with a soul. You are laid bare, exposed. You may know they will forgive you, but it doesn't make it any less daunting to look into their eyes and ask.
Nothing makes me sadder than knowing how few people have ever experienced this kind of forgiveness from an entire community. Imagine exchanging forgiveness -- true forgiveness, which preceded by true remorse -- with the people you work with. With your classmates, students and teachers. With your neighbors. Your friends. Your family. I would venture to say that wars, violence and ugliness of every kind might simply melt away in the face of such overwhelming love.
My friend and fellow teacher Mary currently lives overseas. Last night she told me about her first experience exchanging forgiveness in a language she barely understands, with people she hardly knows. Her words are so fitting and so much more articulate than anything I could say, that I asked permission to share them with you:
As I passed through the rite, it occurred to me to be sorry simply that I am an American, and that our countries have not always gotten along. I felt sorry we have not always understood, not always helped, not always been, and still are not able to trust. I felt a part of a greater whole that is part of the whole problem of humankind; and I felt a part of the solution as well, because of this most basic participation in the simple rite of forgiveness. The reality of language's limitations was present, but so was the reality that language is not really important at all. I understood them; they understood me. The smile, the hug, the kiss, the bow, the tears, the attempt -- any one of them was all that was needed for the language of love and forgiveness.