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.
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.
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
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.