“Forgive us our sins…” Luke 11:4
One of the most powerful novels I’ve ever read is The Brothers Karamazov by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. In one portion of this classic the character Father Zossima tells his fellow monks the story of his brother’s, Markel, last days. Markel, who previously cared little for God or religion had a change of heart. He began asking for both God’s forgiveness and that of others. Next he did something no one could have expected, he asked the birds to forgive him. Here are his words: “Birds of God, joyful birds, you, too, must forgive me, because I have also sinned before you.” Zossima says “None of us could understand it then, but he was weeping with joy. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘there was so much of God’s glory around me: birds, trees, meadows, sky and I alone lived in shame. I alone dishonored everything, and did not notice the beauty and glory of it all.’ “ When Markel’s mother told him he was “taking too many sins upon yourself” he responded, “Dear mother, my joy, I am weeping from gladness, not from grief; I want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not even know how to love them.”
I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions lately concerning forgiveness but most of them related to people who had hurt one another. In forty years of ministry I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone speak of asking the birds or nature to forgive them but as I read Dostoevsky’s words again this morning it seemed like what Markel did was something we all need to do. In so many different ways we sin against Creation on a regular basis. The birds Markel spoke of have certainly suffered. At nearby John James Audubon State Park there is a museum that features a lot of items related to Audubon’s life. One item tour guides invariably point to is a well preserved stuffed passenger pigeon. At one time there were millions of these birds but today they are now extinct. I almost feel like the next time I’m there I need to ask its forgiveness.
To some asking a bird or some tree for forgiveness would sound ridiculous but I do not believe that it is at all. When you look at the stress that we have placed on animals as we’ve wiped out their habitat how can you not apologize? When you see where huge majestic trees have been clear-cut how can you not weep and feel sorry? When you see fish that have died from pollution dead on the shore how can you not ask for their forgiveness?
In Dostoevsky’s novel Merkel admits that he does not “even know how to love” all of God’s creatures. Elsewhere in The Brothers Karamazov one of his characters says, “Love all God’s creation, both the whole and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of light. Love the animals, love the plants, love each separate thing. If thou love each thing thou wilt perceive the mystery of God in all; and when once thou perceive this, thou wilt thenceforward grow every day to a fuller understanding of it: until thou come at last to love the whole world with a love that will then be all-embracing and universal.” It is certainly clear that Dostoevsky believed that we should, in fact, love all of Creation and for good reason—so that we might in turn know and love the Creator.
In any relationship where love is involved there will come a time when we must ask the one we love for forgiveness. If we truly love God’s Creation there will likewise be times when we must say “I’m sorry.” As I look around me it would seem that time is now.
(I photographed the northern cardinal and indigo bunting in western Kentucky and the raven at Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico.)