Sunday, August 31, 2014

Evening prayer for forgiveness, per Bonhoeffer

I am reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together for my Foundations for a Spiritual Life class. In the second major chapter, he discusses the religious schedule for a Christian family: morning prayer, reading from scripture, singing hymns in unison, etc. Especially appealing to me was his discussion of evening prayer. For Bonhoeffer, one important aspect of evening prayer is asking each other for forgiveness:

Then, too, the evening prayer of the family fellowship should include particularly the petition of forgiveness for every wrong done to God and our brothers, for God's forgiveness and that of our brothers, and for readiness gladly to forgive any wrong done to us (Life Together, p. 74).

In describing this practice, he makes reference to an old-time habit of the monks and the monastic orders:

It is an ancient monastic custom that by fixed order in the evening devotions the abbot begs the forgiveness of the brothers for all faults and defaults committed against them, and after the brothers assure him of their forgiveness they likewise beg the abbot's forgiveness of their faults and defaults and receive his forgiveness (ibid.).

The motivation for this is found in the Ephesians text: Let not the sun go down upon your wrath (Eph 4.26). Bonhoeffer comments:

It is a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that every dissension that the day has brought must be healed in the evening. It is perilous for the Christian to lie down to sleep with an unreconciled heart. Therefore, it is well that there be a special place for the prayer of brotherly forgiveness in every evening's devotion, that reconciliation be made and fellowship established anew (ibid.).

Imagine how fruitful a practice this must be in a number of different contexts, but especially in the marriage context! I am not myself married, but you often hear the proverb quoted to married couples: don't go to bed angry. At the end of the day to confront one another and to put aside all ill will, to refuse to go to bed unembraced and without having concretely expressed your love for one another -- that surely is an essential component of any happy relationship.

I think, too, that this practice is especially powerful once it becomes a habit. Even if I may not have done anything to my wife that day, it may still be important to ask forgiveness. Making a habit of asking forgiveness is important for at least these reasons: in the first place, it makes me less likely willingly to harm the other person when I know I will be confronting her later that night to ask for forgiveness -- the shame of apologizing will discourage me from hurting; secondly, I am less likely to hold a grudge against the other person knowing that they will come to apologize, in spite of the difficulty. The wounds seem less profound, less important, less worth keeping alive when we make a habit of apologizing and asking forgiveness of one another.