Near the end of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Nobel Prize winning novel “Quo Vadis,” the character Chilon is in Nero’s gardens which are illuminated by Christian martyrs being burned upon stakes – to the delight of Nero and his cohorts. Chilon comes upon Glaucus, a righteous man whom he had individually betrayed earlier in life and who was now suffering a horrible death because of his betrayal of the Christians of Rome:
Chilon’s face was horrifying, twisted in such agony and terror as if the tongues of flame were licking his own flesh. Suddenly he lurched forward, stretched his arms upward to the sufferer and screamed in a frightened, panic-stricken voice:
“Glaucus! In Christ’s name! Forgive me!”
Silence gripped everyone. A shudder ran through everybody near, and all eyes were fixed on the tormented old man on the stake as if they had a will and power of their own. The head of the martyr nodded slightly or seemed to be nodding, and a moan drifted down from the top of the mast.
Years prior, Glaucus, a physician and truly good man, had been sold into slavery with his family which he lost and had been left for dead by Chilon. His horrible and painful death was also in some part on account of Chilon. Yet his last act in this life was to forgive the man who had been the source of such great grief.
Why? For what reason should Glaucus forgive Chilon? Chilon had committed such severe evil; he had sold out Glaucus and the Christians at every opportunity for personal gain. He committed great evil with selfish intent. He knew what he was doing. Does such a man deserve forgiveness? If life is about the balancing of scales, equity, of meting out justice, of sitting in judgment; then the answer is clearly no. That is, if life is about these things.
There is another way. If life is about our knowledge of good and evil, and how it can be transformed through love, then the story of Glaucus and Chilon is one of love rather than justice. If all of Creation is good, and if mankind has made the choice to see good as evil, then forgiveness is our path home to see all things as good. Charles Williams in “He Came Down From Heaven” writes, “Men had determined to know good as evil; there could be but one perfect remedy for that—to know the evil of the past itself as good,…to know all things as occasions of love.” But how? How is it possible to know evil as good and all things as love? The Creator opened that door by having ultimate good submitting to ultimate evil in an act of love so that our knowledge of good as evil can be transformed, reversed. It is through this transformation, this “interchange of love, as a means of love,” that we can know all things as good. The turning of evil on its head, to transform evil into an act of ultimate love, is to bring us home to the good. In our lives, this is experienced through repentance and forgiveness.
Repentance concerns the relationship between God and man. By repentance, Williams means “a passionate intention to know all things after the mode of heaven, and it is impossible to know evil as good if you insist on knowing it as evil.” To him it is a “reidentification of love” between heaven and earth. It is the transforming of the thoughts of man from earth into heaven – to see all things as good, to believe all things as good, and to desire the good. For those who believe in an all-good and loving God, this makes sense.
Forgiveness between men, however, is of a different nature. We may place no conditions on the forgiveness we offer:
It is all very well for the Divine Thing of heaven to require some kind of intention of good, not exactly as a condition of pardon but as a means of the existence of its perfection. Men were never meant to be as gods or to know as gods, and for men to make any such intention a part of their pardon is precisely to try to behave as gods. It is the renewal of the first and most dreadful error, the desire to know as gods; the reversal of the Incarnation, by which God knew as Man…. The intention to do differently may be passionately offered; it must never be required…. The ancient cry of “Don’t do it again” is never part of a pardon.
Time and again in life we do see good things come from events that seem, at first, to be bad or unfortunate. We know certain trite sayings about silver linings, but there is truth in them. Relationships bear this same truth; the difficult periods can be transformed and seen as good. But to demand, require, or obligate is not to love.
On Forgiveness Sunday, I had the unfortunate experience to briefly hear the following comment in passing at church: “If someone has lied to your face, it is not enough to just ask for forgiveness; you have to say what you are asking forgiveness for.” I grieved at this because not only is this not so, but it is an offense to goodness and love. Such utterances shake the foundation of life; heaven quakes at man putting himself in the place of God. When we place conditions on forgiveness, we put ourselves in the position of God and we deny the purpose of the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection. When we demand something in return for forgiveness, we replace love with commerce and choose once again to know the good as evil.
In the interchange of love between Glaucus and Chilon, the sincere repentance of Chilon mattered in his relationship with God so that he could know the evil of his life as good. It could not be a condition, however, of the forgiveness offered by Glaucus. In order that Glaucus could know evil as good, he had to forgive Chilon for the martyrdom he suffered. Earlier, Glaucus had forgiven Chilon for his betrayal into slavery, for which St. Peter remarked, “Christ triumphed within you.” Glaucus in turn had delight in his eyes, “as if he had been granted a bounty beyond reckoning.” And he had. He saw evil as good; and thereby saw the good of Creation restored. It is the interchange of love, which forgiveness freely offered brings about, that transforms our vision of evil into good and returns us to where we were originally intended to be.
Rdr. Timothy, a sinner