My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
These words from 1 John 2:1-2 are worth exploring as an introduction to the corporate character of the prayer of the heart. Two things are happening in the text: (1) Jesus Christ is our atoning sacrifice, a concept rooted in the Levitical sacrificial system. Most simply it means that Christ took our place. This makes the other thing possible. (2) Jesus Christ is our Advocate with the Father. He is especially suited to this task because by becoming human (John 1:1) he is one of us, and furthermore by his willingness to be “made sin” for us (2 Cor. 5:21 – another way of describing him as the atoning sacrifice) he understands us from within the context of our predicament.
As our prayer descends from head to heart, a similar process can occur. Authentic prayer not only unites us with God, it unites us with human nature and created nature, and through that, actually and truly (and not just metaphorically) connects us with other people. As this descent of mind to heart occurs we can also willingly become our neighbor (whether enemy or friend) and from that position of being united spirit and heart with our neighbor, confess our sins (not “their,” but “our” sins: me and neighbor united), pray for strength and wisdom, and, to use a familiar word, advocate for us (me and neighbor united).
I am not making this suggestion lightly. There are deep and hostile divides that alienate my neighbor and myself. To embark on such a descent of mind to heart will sometimes involve becoming that which I despise. Maybe my neighbor is a racist or abuses his family. Maybe my neighbor owns a business that does very bad things to the environment and takes advantage of the farm community in which I live. Maybe it’s as mundane as my neighbor being a Libertarian while I believe there should be more societal order. Whatever it is, there are a lot of reasons that I don’t identify with my neighbor and most definitely don’t want to become my neighbor.
One of Fr. Sophrony’s most famous sayings is, “Stand on the edge of the abyss of despair and when you feel that it is beyond your strength, break off and have a cup of tea.” This is our task in prayer. We embrace the other and hold them tight until we understand that they are us. We are all human, after all. We share the same nature and I really am them. As that union begins to occur their failures, hatreds, and sins (from my perspective) become my failures, hatreds, and sins. But I can only stand at the edge of this despair for so long. When I can no longer do it, I step back and have a cuppa tea (although, since I’m not a Brit, it’s more likely to be a Starbucks Americano double shot, rather than a cuppa).
Slowly, over a long period of time, as I stand at the edge of this hell which is my enemy’s life, I begin the process of being able to embrace that hell, the sins, misdeeds, and evil embodied in the other side, and recognize that this is not merely them, this is also me. As that begins to happen I can begin to understand my enemy and why this neighbor does what he or she does. Having “become sin” on their behalf, I can begin to confess those sins as my sins and my evil. I can begin to repent. And with the strength of repentance, I no longer need to stand on the edge of the abyss, or merely at the gates of hell, I can enter into hell along with Jesus Christ and hear his words of victory. And with assurance of those words of victory, I can return to the world forgiven, not needing to escape to the cuppa tea, but ready to engage with the world in joy and assurance.
But what does this accomplish, this descent from head to heart, which then becomes a descent to hell so that I can be where Jesus Christ is, announcing both forgiveness and victory? What does this have to do with social justice? Well nothing, really, and yet it has everything to do with social justice.
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