Healing Our Divisions

So, for a long while I was thinking that I was alone in feeling sad about the divisions in our world, and in our church. I didn’t realize that it was also preoccupying other people’s minds and hearts as well, until I overheard a number of people make various comments about the protocols related to the virus, and about masks, and this sort of thing and that was when I realized that these things must be on everyone’s mind, or at least many people’s, more than I had thought, and this must be a major issue and something that we all could address together, to hopefully help solve together, and heal any divisions we have, to help heal our world.

I.

So we all know we live in an age of divisiveness, in a world that is divided. And I think it is helpful to remember who is behind this division; it is the work of devils and demons, those in opposition to God. On the other hand God is one and undivided, and He calls us to be one in Him. Keeping this in mind, we can ask ourselves constantly, ‘who am I serving now?’ When we are about to send that angry text or email, or say that nasty thing about someone, we need to question ourselves constantly. “Which is more important now, to vent my anger, or to be an instrument for God’s will? Do I want my words and actions to add to the divisions here, or can I try to make them healing words, and actions that help bind up the wounds of others?”

There is so much that goes into being able to do this though, isn’t there? It means cultivating peace inside ourselves, praying for others, developing the discernment to know what may be helpful. In an age of division, such as the one we are currently living in, mistrust can rule the day. We hurt each other and then we lose trust in each other, and this leads to further divisiveness. And then our arguments give us no satisfaction; nobody changes their point of view, they just dig in deeper and fight for their position more vehemently. Can we set aside the argumentation, and focus instead on rebuilding trust? Can we lay ourselves down in the heat of the moment, and give ourselves to the other in some small way, so that they can begin to trust us again, and we can begin to trust them? It all can be very difficult. But I think some of the things I can share now from our Orthodox tradition, will be helpful in cultivating this ability in us.

II.

First though, there are two psychological terms that are used to describe the manner in which we interact with one another, or the levels that are occurring as we communicate with each other. The terms to describe this are ‘content’ and ‘process’. The terms themselves don’t really matter, but what they expose about the way we communicate with one another is important. The content level is the level we mostly pay attention to; it is the level which includes the topic of conversation, the details, the facts, our assumptions and conclusions, and the data we use to reason etc. This is the level where we focus our disagreements, and where we fight it out with each other. But there are other levels occurring simultaneously, and these are just as important, or really more important, when it comes to learning how to achieve harmony, or unity between us. The ‘process’ level of communication is how we are feeling, and how we are experiencing life, and experiencing each other; this includes ours and other people’s emotional reactions to the content, our motives, our desires; and these things can be very powerful, especially around topics that are very important to us, that we are passionate about.

I believe that it is the ‘process’ level where we can make the most impact towards unity of mind, and I think this is where Christ intends us to focus in order to achieve oneness of mind and spirit. This level points to what is essential about who we are as human-beings, I believe, and that we aren’t simply what we think, or the opinions that we hold, but we are much more than that, and those we disagree with also are much more than their opinions or their thoughts about ‘content’. As Christ and the Church teach us, we are all made in the image and likeness of God, this is the reality that can help bind us together as one. We need to remember this truth at all times; though we are all uniquely different people, with different ideas and views about things, more importantly we are unified by Christ and through Him, and because of the fact that we are made in His image and likeness; we share that common bond.

III.

So there are quite a few verses in the Bible about being of one mind and unified, but I’d like to just share this one from 1 Peter 3:8-9.

“Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another, love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous, not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing.”

I’d like to keep coming back to this verse again and again because there is so much in it that points to how we can work towards Unity within the Church. First of all, we are told to be of one mind here. The Greek word of interest is Homothumadon, or homo; unison, oneness + thumadon; temperament, emotion of mind. So we are told to have oneness of temperament, or unison of emotion towards one another.

There is a lot that could be said about this, but I would like to focus in on a couple points that Dr Jean-Claude Larchet discusses in his books, The Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses. He is a patristic scholar who has studied extensively the teachings of the ascetic tradition of the Orthodox Church and in these books his describes the healing of man’s fallen nature. In this fallen world of division, we have all learned to turn our emotions and temperaments against each other. But the Church teaches that one of the primary powers of the human soul is this aggressive power, or themos in Greek, the root of thumadon. So we use our aggression, our emotion, our anger against each other, but God calls on us to use it in a different way. He made themos for us, for our good and the good of others, and it was placed in us to fight against anything that would cause us to sin, and to fight against temptations. Rather than fighting against one another, we need to learn to use our aggressive power to fight together, against division and against divisiveness. In other words, we need to fight for the manifestation of love between us, and against the very things within us that make us angry at one another. Dr Larchet explains that the faculties which God gave us, such as themos, are all good, but we need to learn to use them for good again; we need to turn away from using these powers in a sinful way, and turn towards using them properly again, in a loving way. I think we need to take that more seriously as we interact with one another. The Church recommends acts of charity, and practicing humility, gentleness and compassion as ways to help us achieve this.

IV.

So, returning to the verse from 1 Peter 3:8-9:

“Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another…”

It is important for us, in the midst of disagreements to maintain a compassionate attitude for each other. This is difficult, but it’s the most important thing, more important than winning the debate, or being right, or being persuasive and convincing. All of these may have their place, but all should be done in the spirit of compassion, if we want to do it God’s way.

Compassion literally means ‘to suffer together’, com- meaning together, and –passion, to suffer. So we are asked to suffer together, to join in one another’s sufferings as we practice oneness of mind. What better place to suffer together, than at the time of an argument?! Because don’t we all suffer when we are arguing and fighting each other? Yes, of course, it can be very painful. Even if we win the argument, so to speak, it can still be painful and uncomfortable.

But too often we only feel our own pain at these times, and we don’t consider the pain of others, especially when we are focused on the content of our arguments. But this is the perfect time to step back and to reflect on the suffering of the other person. And I don’t mean that they are suffering physically, or in any conscious way necessarily, but they are suffering in what they care deeply about, they have passion in their opinions and their views. We need to consider this, so that we can come alongside them, even in our differences, especially in our differences, so that we can express compassion for them, and heal our divisions. We can do this by listening, and by being silent when the time calls for it, and putting ourselves ‘in their shoes’ for a time. This is a way we can practice humility and fight against our own nature, and not against the person with whom we have disagreement.

V.

Returning to 1 Peter 3:8-9 once again:

“Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another, love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous…”

Both St. Silouan and St. Sophrony write extensively about discovering the unity of mankind. They don’t discuss this as an abstraction but as a genuine reality; that we all are created as one, in reality. I can’t explain this truth, but I believe it. They teach that by the process of emptying ourselves we discover this unity. The emptying that they mean is setting aside our own pride, our own self-focus, setting aside love for ourselves and of only looking out for ourselves, and as we do this, a new love fills the vacuum, love for others, in the manner of Christ.

As this occurs we begin to see our brothers and sisters in this world as we see ourselves, and we begin to love them as ourselves. And we begin to want to treat them as we would want to be treated; with respect and tenderness, courteously and with understanding. This is done towards those we agree with, as well as towards those we disagree with, based upon our common life in Christ, and the fact that we are all made in His image and likeness, This attitude of oneness, compassion and tenderness towards each other is not dependent upon the content of our interactions with each other; but simply upon the fact that we are one in Christ, that each of us is made as a wonderful part of this creation, and is worthy of respect simply as a human being.  

St. Silouan writes about discovering love for ‘the whole Adam’, meaning all of mankind past, present and future. We all know the golden rule, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Well, sometimes in the midst of an argument or disagreement it is difficult to remember to apply this love for others, love for the whole Adam. This is where focusing less on the content of the disagreement and more on the process can be very helpful. For instance, let’s say you are in a heated disagreement and the other person says something that sounds crazy to you, and makes no sense. Instead of focusing on the content of their argument and trying to tell them why they are wrong, it can be more useful to imagine at that moment that you are this other person, with those views. Then you can ask yourself, “If I were this person, why would I think the way they are thinking, why would I do what they are doing and say what they are saying?” Spending our energy on this inquiry can lead us to greater understanding of the other point of view, and lead us away from judgement of the person.

VI.

Returning to 1 Peter 3:8-9 once again:

“Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another, love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous, not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling…”

Both Sts. Silouan and Sophrony consider love for our enemies as the defining factor for Christian living. But who is our enemy? In one sense we may not consider anyone a real enemy, but in another sense everyone might be considered a potential enemy; anyone who gets in our way, or opposes us in some way, or thinks differently than we do, or has opposing goals, etc.  Or anyone who hurts our feelings, they could be an enemy, and when someone offends us, it is very human to return evil for evil, reviling for reviling.

But both of these saints, I believe, would encourage us to hold our tongue at the very least and practice self-control. And as a great tool to further help us with this, they might encourage us to include in our daily prayers anyone who has hurt us or offended us; to make it a daily practice to pray for those who are on the other side of any issue, or anyone who presents content that we disagree with or dislike.

VII.

Finally, this verse from 1 Peter 3:8-9 describes blessings:

“Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another, love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous, not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing.”

Oneness of mind and unity within the Church, is a blessing that all of us can enjoy. But it also is a responsibility that each of us needs to take on, out of love and respect for each other. We have the freedom to choose to seek unity and to enjoy the blessings that come from this.

The theologian John Zizioulas in his book, Being As Communion describes the freedom that all of us have, as the very thing which makes us like God, and he says that we can exercise our freedom in love or in negation. But only in freely choosing love do we discover the truth and meaning of our being. Furthermore, love is expressed only in relationship with one another, so essentially we need one another in order to express and share love.

If we choose to allow divisions and disagreements in the Church to negate our love for one another, then we are all diminished together. Using our freedom for negation tears at the fabric of our communion, and we lose ourselves because of that; and we lose the blessings that come of living with one mind, and in unity with each other.

~FS

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