By Priest David Starr

As we near the begin­ning of the Tri­o­di­on sea­son, the Church places spe­cial empha­sis on the need for repen­tance, as we will hear in this Sunday’s Gospel — the account of the tax col­lec­tor, Zacheus. But true repen­tance, as Zacheus shows us, con­sists of a turn­ing away from our errors and a change in heart.

The below text was orig­i­nal­ly pre­sent­ed at the cler­gy lenten retreat of the West­ern Amer­i­can Dio­cese of the Russ­ian Church Out­side of Rus­sia in April, 2013. It appeared in print in Ortho­dox Life, Vol­ume 66.4.

I am trou­bled by a cer­tain prob­lem­at­ic expe­ri­ence, which I have repeat­ed as both an Ortho­dox lay­man and priest, as both recip­i­ent and offi­ciant of the Mys­tery of Repen­tance. It is that pen­i­tence very often takes the form of a recita­tion of guilty acts, habits, and fail­ures repeat­ed from week to week. This is done with a sort of hope­less shame and lit­tle progress, except from time to time when some major access of grace works real change. While check­lists of sins and expres­sions of guilt can become means of real repen­tance, they are too often sunk in despair that habit­u­al fail­ures and addic­tions are inevitable effects of an inescapable human predilec­tion for sin. This is con­trary to the teach­ing of the Church. We have free will and the help of our Lord; jus­ti­fi­ca­tion in our holy faith is not a legal fic­tion or impu­ta­tion of inno­cence to the guilty, but an act of mak­ing or becom­ing right­eous.

Photo of Fr. David Starr holding the cross at the end of Liturgy

V. Rev. Arch­priest David Starr

Our prayers sug­gest that the pen­i­tent is able to receive an “image of repen­tance” (образъ покаяния), to inspire or give insight into how he may open him­self to the redeem­ing pow­er of God through Christ1 This is the work of the Holy Spir­it, that we are called to facil­i­tate. It is with a view to learn­ing how to help gen­er­ate such images that I began ask­ing for the whole­ness of repen­tance; where does it lead, and how can we imag­ine its final fruits? I have tried to access the help of the holy fathers in writ­ing on this ques­tion, and it has led me to the cur­rent pre­sen­ta­tion. I shall accord­ing­ly seek instruc­tion from you final­ly, for I intend this talk to be a means of learn­ing as much or more for the speak­er than the audi­ence.

Fruits Worthy of Repentance

Ear­ly in the Gospel accord­ing to St Matthew, St John the Fore­run­ner tells the Phar­isees and Sad­ducees who came to see him bap­tize:

O gen­er­a­tion of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth there­fore fruits meet for repen­tance: And think not to say with­in your­selves, we have Abra­ham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up chil­dren unto Abra­ham. (Mt. 3:7–9)

He lit­er­al­ly says, “Then make fruit wor­thy of repen­tance” (ποιήσατε οὖν καρπὸν ἄξιον τῆς μετανοίας), mean­ing, let the fruit be made at once or already made. He chal­lenges these reli­gious author­i­ties to hum­ble them­selves before God or be replaced by chil­dren wor­thy of God’s hum­ble friend and faith­ful ser­vant, Abra­ham. Those bap­tized have come with humil­i­ty, “con­fess­ing their sins.”2 If those who claim right­eous­ness with­out repen­tance are not right, repen­tance must be or con­tain some­thing essen­tial to right­eous­ness. What is true repen­tance and how is it exem­pli­fied?

Scrip­ture gives an enig­mat­ic answer: Enoch was pleas­ing to the Lord and was trans­lat­ed [or tak­en up], an exam­ple of repen­tance to the gen­er­a­tions (Sir­ach 44:16). To all gen­er­a­tions repen­tance is revealed as the mys­tery of the man who walked with God and dis­ap­peared, to become an exam­ple or image; i.e., a mod­el, an instance or man­i­fes­ta­tion. Gen­e­sis tells us only that he was pleas­ing to God and not found, because God took him away (Gen. 5:24). He was a prophet, quot­ed by St Jude and hon­ored in the Epis­tle to the Hebrews as a hero of faith who by faith was trans­lat­ed that he should not see death, … for he was first wit­nessed to be pleas­ing to God, since, the apos­tle adds, With­out faith it is impos­si­ble to please [God], for to approach God one must believe that he is and duly responds to those who seek him (Heb. 11:5–6). We were ask­ing for an image of repen­tance and found one in the Right­eous, faith­ful Enoch; what does it mean? Though we have no account of Enoch’s sins, we know he pleased God, walk­ing with him in faith and humil­i­ty; we shall lat­er con­sid­er how Moses did the same, walk­ing and rest­ing with the Lord, where no man knows to this day (Deut. 34:5).

Metanoia as the Key to Repentance

What is the mean­ing of the word “repen­tance” (μετάνοια) in the Gospels and Sep­tu­agint? This word in both Greek and Slavon­ic litur­gi­cal tra­di­tion imme­di­ate­ly sig­ni­fies a bow from the waist. More lit­er­al­ly, it means trans­for­ma­tion of the mind or trans­fig­u­ra­tion of thought and under­stand­ing. Com­ing from the verb, μετάνοεο, “to think after or again,” it sig­ni­fies a change of mind or a new way of think­ing. St Paul describes it in his let­ter to the Romans, say­ing:

I beseech you there­fore, brethren, by the mer­cies of God, that ye present your bod­ies a liv­ing sac­ri­fice, holy, accept­able unto God, which is your rea­son­able ser­vice. And be not con­formed to this world: but be ye trans­formed by the renew­ing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and accept­able, and per­fect, will of God. (Rom. 12:1–2).

It is thus a change of the whole per­son, begin­ning with the body, to please God and become holy, learn­ing to dis­re­gard the demands of the present world-order and acquire a mind reborn, re-shaped, and per­fect­ed accord­ing to God’s inten­tion in our orig­i­nal cre­ation. This is what Enoch did, walk­ing with God from this world into a uni­verse invis­i­ble to mor­tal eyes, yet acces­si­ble through faith and obe­di­ence. St Paul’s “renew­ing of the mind” is vir­tu­al­ly a def­i­n­i­tion of μετάνοεο. For a human per­son, becom­ing new must begin, as it did with St John the Baptist’s pen­i­tents, with acknowl­edg­ing the truth of one’s con­di­tion, which is the mean­ing of ἐξομολογούμενοι or “con­fess­ing.

Photo of the parish of St Juliana of Lazarevo in Santa Fe, New Mexico

The wilder­ness sur­round­ing St Juliana of Lazare­vo Ortho­dox Church, where our author is rec­tor, reminds one of the desert in which St John the Bap­tist preached repen­tance.

The Beatitudes — Pathway to True Repentance

The pur­pose for the rest of this talk is to try to dis­cern steps or an order of tasks by which we can do what St Paul, Holy Scrip­ture, and Tra­di­tion call us to accom­plish. The Apos­tle instructs us to give God our bod­ies; this is the mean­ing of the sym­bol­ic act most com­mon­ly called in the Slavon­ic “земной поклонъ” (zem­noy pok­lon), lit­er­al­ly mean­ing “rev­er­ence down to the ground.” To pros­trate one’s body on the earth before God is a first step and begin­ning of our “ratio­nal ser­vice.” But how do we go from an exter­nal ges­ture, how­ev­er sin­cere, to trans­form our thought process­es and reach full, con­sis­tent recog­ni­tion of the per­fect will of God? To con­form to this world’s habits of the flesh is a con­stant temp­ta­tion; indeed, our antic­i­pa­to­ry image of the holy life is in dan­ger at first of being a mere reflec­tion of our unre­gen­er­ate ideas of glo­ry and self-aggran­dize­ment. Though free, we can­not do what tran­scends our cre­at­ed nature; we can give our embod­ied selves to God but only He can make us spir­i­tu­al chil­dren who par­take of His nature. This must, as St Peter says, be giv­en to us from God; we can flee the cor­rup­tion of world­ly desire but what per­tains to eter­nal life and holi­ness must be grant­ed by the divine pow­er of our Lord Jesus Christ:

Accord­ing as His divine pow­er [He] hath giv­en unto us all things that per­tain unto life and god­li­ness, through the knowl­edge of Him that hath called us to glo­ry and virtue: Where­by are giv­en unto us exceed­ing great and pre­cious promis­es: that by these ye might be par­tak­ers of the divine nature, hav­ing escaped the cor­rup­tion that is in the world through lust (2 Pet. 1:3–4)

Our Lord Jesus Christ reveals the order in which our coöper­a­tion with God in the sal­va­tion of our souls is to pro­ceed. Accord­ing to St Matthew, when Christ had learned of the arrest of St John the Bap­tist, He went to Galilee and began to preach, say­ing, Repent: for the king­dom of heav­en is at hand (Matt. 4:17). After call­ing the dis­ci­ples and begin­ning to preach and heal, His first record­ed ser­mon begins with the Beat­i­tudes. Of the order of these St John Chrysos­tom says:

… Sure­ly He did it … to show that it is not pos­si­ble for one unpro­vid­ed, and unarmed with all those oth­er virtues, to go forth unto these con­flicts. There­fore, you see, in each instance, by the for­mer pre­cept mak­ing way for the fol­low­ing one, He hath woven a sort of gold­en chain for us.3

In oth­er words, the Beat­i­tudes are an out­line of the method­i­cal order of repen­tance to which we are called. St Syme­on the New The­olo­gian says they are an order­ly inven­to­ry of the pas­sions, giv­en for the self-exam­i­na­tion of his dis­ci­ples, includ­ing sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions of spir­i­tu­al strug­glers.4 Let us con­sid­er them in order.

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit
Young woman kneeling during Confession in a Russian Orthodox church.

The mys­tery of Con­fes­sion

The first is the inner mean­ing of a “full pros­tra­tion”: Blessed are the poor in spir­it, for theirs is the king­dom of Heav­en (Mt. 5:3). This sig­ni­fies con­fes­sion of spir­i­tu­al indi­gence, which is humil­i­ty. Chrysos­tom reminds us of Prophet David in the 50th Psalm, The sac­ri­fice for God is a con­trite spir­it, a con­trite and hum­ble heart God will not despise (Ps. 50:17 LXX).5 This sac­ri­fice is the recog­ni­tion that with­out God’s help the nat­ur­al man is spir­i­tu­al­ly resource­less. We are like­ly to be brought to this place by the humil­i­at­ing recog­ni­tion that like David we have mind­less­ly, if not with mali­cious fore­thought, done a deed that we might con­demn or despise in anoth­er. The con­tri­tion or bro­ken­ness of heart here named is a will­ing accep­tance and recog­ni­tion of our weak­ness, empti­ness, and lack of excuse for our fail­ure. St Syme­on goes fur­ther, includ­ing not only accep­tance of our moral and spir­i­tu­al pover­ty, but also renun­ci­a­tion of all earth­ly excuse, indig­na­tion or even grief at any insult, dis­hon­or or con­tempt, regard­less of source or cause.6 In oth­er words, pover­ty of spir­it is not only a recog­ni­tion of sin­ful­ness before God, but an accep­tance of the empti­ness of world­ly repute and per­son­al van­i­ty.