A brother sinned, and the presbyter ordered him to go out of church. But Abba Bessarion rose up and went out with him, saying: “I too am a sinner.”
The Christian confession that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23) and that we ought to remember this fact with regards to ourselves daily can often strike people (including Christians themselves) as overly pessimistic. But is such a claim one of pessimism? Is it necessarily like the dreary, uncharitable (but common) caricature of Calvinism? I, at least, do not think so, and I doubt Abba Bessarion would either.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the character of Father Zosima, who is based on a few different Russian Orthodox saints, teaches the other monks of his monastery,
When [a monk] realizes that he is not only worse than others, but that he is responsible to all men for all and everything, for all human sins, national and individual, only then the aim of our seclusion is attained. For know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man. This knowledge is the crown of life for the monk and for every man. For monks are not a special sort of men, but only what all men ought to be. Only through that knowledge, our heart grows soft with infinite, universal, inexhaustible love.
When we see such deep sin in our world, to the point that the ideas of societal progress and enlightenment become absurd, it is the person who denies their part in it who is most to be pitied. Abba Bessarion was empowered through his confession, “I too am a sinner,” to act with “infinite, universal, inexhaustible love.”
We do not know what the monk did who gets expelled from the community. And we are given no reason to believe that the accusation against him was unjust. Yet Abba Bessarion is able to send out a shockwave of love throughout that community and for all time through the record of his humility.
Justice, while good, can yet justly add tragedy to tragedy, but only love can transfigure tragedy itself into redemption.
The world is truly full of sin, of all sizes, from a single cruel word or resentful thought, to slavery, murder, and degradation of unthinkable and nearly unspeakable horror. Are many of these the sins of others? Yes, but that does not let me off the hook.
We—all of us together—have failed to live up to our infinite moral potential. We are guilty of all sin, from every white lie to every sadistic act. I say we, because I am not disconnected from other human beings, but as a human being I share a common nature with all and am, at the very least, guilty by association.
But it is more than just this. Christ has said that the one who has faith can move mountains, and that whoever asks, with a pure heart, for what is truly right and good in accordance with Christ’s character (i.e. in his name), will surely receive it.
Why is there violence, sexual immorality, exploitation, desperate poverty, and all the rest in this world? As a Christian, I must admit: it is because I have not yet truly learned to pray. It is because I have not obtained the blessedness I am commanded—and able by grace—to obtain.
St. Paul writes, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of universal acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first” (1 Timothy 1:15). I am the first of sinners, but in confessing such solidarity with the worst of humankind, I open the possibility of being one of the best—like the saints of all ages—whose heart truly “grows soft with infinite, universal, and inexhaustible love.”
The saying of St. Paul is faithful also for another reason: not only am I the first of sinners, but “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Without such hope, not as a mere postulate of reason but as an existential reality, life is utterly absurd and to go on living it is true insanity. The world is full of beauty and human beings are capable of and have obtained such great goodness.
Nevertheless, the evils of will and fortune render life without any transcendent, yet tangible, hope to be unworthy of our lives. Indeed, the Epistle to the Hebrews even says of the saints of the Old Covenant that the world—the place of passion, sin, and despair—was not worthy of them (Hebrews 11:38).
But we, when we hear the call for justice to right the wrongs of this life, we must follow Abba Bessarion. We must rise up and follow the one who sinned, saying, “I too am a sinner.” While justice, once again, is truly good, even very necessary, it is only such love that can truly set right every wrong. We may not be able to write civil laws based on it, but we can live our lives from it, in it, and for it.
Paradoxically, for Christians, the statement, “I too am a sinner,” does not result in despair but rather hope through Jesus Christ. Confession of such solidarity in sin—and the hope that only Christ can give—forms the most truly sane worldview and lifestyle we can have and constitutes a necessary step on the ladder of our ascent.
Without the statement, “I too am a sinner,” we may yet be able to achieve justice, but we would be tragically bereft of love.