Of Whom I am First
by Khouria Faith Potter
Every week in the Liturgy, we Orthodox begin the prayers before Communion by saying: “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.” (This is a reference to 1 Timothy 1:15.) I’ll never forget during my first Liturgy when suddenly everyone began talking at the same time, each claiming to be the worst of sinners. It was jarring then. I thought: “You can’t all be the worst sinner.” I couldn’t imagine saying that prayer and meaning it. I mean, I knew I wasn’t the best person in the world, but I also knew I wasn’t the worst. I was somewhere in between, like most people. Also, I had deeply struggled with insecurities and shame, and I didn’t think I needed help to see the worst in myself. I was pretty sure I already saw it.
I was intrigued by Orthodoxy though, and I felt such peace when at vespers specifically. Every Saturday night before attending any social events, I would go and stand in the back of the church and soak in the beautiful, sung prayers in the candle-lit Sanctuary. It became my favorite time of the week. I would watch the Orthodox come in and venerate the different icon stations. After several months of attending, I watched a girl around my age venerate the icons and then turn around and bow at the people around her, who bowed back. It struck me in that moment that they weren’t exchanging a mere greeting as I’d thought before; they were venerating the living icons of Christ that surrounded them in each other. Tears began pouring down my face at the beauty of that thought and over the realization that followed of how far I was from living that truth. “What if I actually believed that each person I encountered was a revelation of Christ? Who would I be?” I asked myself. I had no idea. It was in that moment that I shifted from being curious about Orthodoxy to realizing my deep need for it.
As I began learning more about Orthodox thought, the individualistic mindset I’d always had about salvation was challenged. My salvation wasn’t something that had been accomplished in a vacuum at a single moment in time. It happened, yes, but it was still happening, and God willing would still continue happening, and it certainly was not disconnected from the people and even the world around me. My views on sin completely shifted as well as I went from seeing it in judicial terms of guilt and commuted sentences to viewing sin as disease of the soul. I needed healing, and to be healed we need to know our own wounds. Instead of asking “Is this wrong?” type questions, I began to learn to ask “Is this good for my soul?”
As I began to see my salvation as being connected to the salvation of the whole world, I realized that saying “…of whom I am first” was not a denial of reality but an acknowledgment of the deeper Reality that I am not separate from the sin of others, and my sin impacts more than just my own life. There’s a story my husband showed me recently of a sermon given by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. It was short and consisted only of him saying that a woman with a child had come to the church and been scolded for not wearing a headscarf, so she and her child had left. He didn’t name the person that scolded her, but commanded them to pray for her and her child for the remainder of their life. Their one small comment may have kept the woman from coming to church ever again. I’ve certainly had many days where I am not merciful and instead of looking at my own sin, I make snap judgments and look for fault in those around me and compare myself to others. I have no idea what the ramifications of my actions truly are and what harm I actually do on a daily basis. I have too much disease in my own soul to notice others’ sin, and my noticing of others’ sin is more evidence of the disease in my own soul.
In the season following my chrismation, it was like I had been given new eyes to see my own sin, and it was everywhere. I also had to learn though that I couldn’t just stew in these revelations. Staring at festering wounds accomplishes nothing. I had to take them to confession, bring them into the light, make amends where appropriate, and hear absolution spoken over these sins. I had not known how pernicious they were because I had trained myself to make excuses and exceptions for myself.
I realized much of the shame and many of the insecurities I had dealt with had actually been rooted in my pride. Learning to see my own sin, which I am still very much in the beginning stages of learning to do, has not increased my sense of shame or my struggle with insecurities. It has increased my sense of connection to others and made me view them with more mercy. I have also learned that believing the best about others makes for a much more peaceful life. (This is of course not to say that people who are being mistreated or abused should not get out of harmful situations or set boundaries that will make difficult and painful relationships more bearable.)
As this shift has happened in my heart, “… of whom I am first” has become one of the most meaningful moments of the Liturgy to me. The more I learn to see my own sin, the more I experience the mercy of the Lord, and the more gratitude I have for the Lord’s goodness and the goodness of those around me. We are about to begin Lent, and I am so looking forward to praying the prayer of St. Ephraim in my parish along with the Church throughout the world: