The Fruits of Repentance: Guiding our Flock towards the Mind of Christ

We present our bod­ies and nat­ur­al selves to God as all we have, emp­ty of per­son­al mer­it and help­less with­out God’s bless­ing. Like King David, admit­ting that he was con­ceived in sins and born in iniq­ui­ties1, the hum­ble soul relin­quish­es all claim to autonomous mer­it or indi­vid­ual sov­er­eign­ty, giv­ing up all pre­tense to divin­i­ty or roy­al­ty in any realm but God’s; there­by he becomes eli­gi­ble for cit­i­zen­ship in the king­dom of God. Like the prodi­gal son, he acknowl­edges that he has for­feit­ed the right to be con­sid­ered a son and inher­i­tor of the heav­en­ly Father, and beg­ging to become a hired ser­vant, he finds him­self by grace a mem­ber of the fam­i­ly of the heav­en­ly King. Humil­i­ty is the thresh­old of repen­tance. The reward or bless­ing assigned to this good begin­ning is sig­nif­i­cant­ly the same as that for the deci­sive final act of mar­tyr­dom; for theirs is the king­dom of heav­en. The begin­ning and the end of repen­tance are the incep­tion and com­ple­tion of the same thing, the rule of the heav­en­ly King in our lives.

Blessed are they that mourn

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be com­fort­ed (Mt. 5:4). The sor­row­ing shall be sup­port­ed and strength­ened; for mourn­ing for their sins and their sub­jec­tion to pas­sions, the hum­ble are able to receive coun­sel and learn from their fail­ures and trans­gres­sions. This is that gen­uine com­punc­tion that enables the sor­row­ing to reform habits and learn to act; humil­i­ty enables com­punc­tion.2 This is the sor­row most com­mon­ly asso­ci­at­ed with repen­tance in our com­mon under­stand­ing. The Holy Fathers place great empha­sis on the spir­i­tu­al pain of rec­og­niz­ing our sad con­di­tion of self-induced cor­rup­tion. This is a cru­cial­ly impor­tant step in the process of spir­i­tu­al learn­ing and ref­or­ma­tion. It must not be mis­tak­en for the pain of being wrong, which is not sav­ing com­punc­tion, but mere hurt pride. Self-hatred and dejec­tion are reflex­es of pride; where­as true mourn­ing is impar­tial, gen­tle, and respon­si­ble. Those who mourn tru­ly mourn for the sins of their peo­ple and the world, as did David, Paul, Moses, and even our sin­less Lord.3 When we can receive and prof­it from cor­rec­tion, we begin to mourn gen­uine­ly in the sense of the Gospel. Defen­sive­ness is a sign of unreadi­ness to mourn. Adam failed to say why he was hid­ing in the gar­den and excused him­self by blam­ing Eve, not yet mourn­ing, but indulging in world­ly sor­row until the mer­cy of God expelled him from the gar­den.4

Blessed are the Meek

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inher­it the earth (Mt. 5:5). The meek are οἱ πραεῖς, the gen­tle; a near syn­onym to hum­ble, it con­notes an unas­sum­ing and kind­ly spir­it. Unlike Adam, and still worse Satan, whose pride lift­ed them up in their imag­i­na­tions to god­like­ness5 and made them indig­nant when chal­lenged or hum­bled, the meek are free of anger and resent­ment, gen­tle to crit­ics and kind­ly dis­posed to cor­rec­tion.6  Meek­ness com­pletes the first three of the blessed states; these are clear­ly con­nect­ed. All are counter-effec­tive for humil­i­ty, sor­row, and gen­tle­ness mit­i­gate self-assertive pas­sions. Van­i­ty, pride, and anger feed off each oth­er and are coun­ter­act­ed in order by the cog­ni­tions per­ceiv­ing our depen­dent cre­at­ed con­di­tion, respon­si­bil­i­ty for error, and fel­low­ship with fall­en, suf­fer­ing mankind. The affec­tion of sor­row­ful com­punc­tion we com­mon­ly asso­ciate with repen­tance is most evi­dent here, but it is not repen­tance itself, which is the return of sin­ful human­i­ty from sub­jec­tion to the pas­sions to active ful­fill­ment of our nature and des­tiny. This is to become tru­ly like the Holy Trin­i­ty in free­dom, activ­i­ty, and mutu­al love.

Blessed are They that Hunger and Thirst After Righteousness

Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after right­eous­ness, for they shall be filled (Mt. 5:6). The need for right­eous­ness attests to its absence in the life of the world; the long­ing for it is nat­ur­al but sup­pressed by immer­sion in the envi­ous, par­a­sitic way of life into which the human social world has fall­en. Right­eous­ness itself is the order of mutu­al love; though it observes a nat­ur­al pro­por­tion­al­i­ty, it is nei­ther a math­e­mat­i­cal func­tion, as Aris­to­tle thought, nor ret­ribu­tive jus­tice as Anselm sup­posed. The uncon­di­tion­al law of love for God and uni­ver­sal love for neigh­bor named by our Lord is Right­eous­ness, for this is the sum of the law. St John says, “He means either the whole of virtue, or that par­tic­u­lar virtue which is opposed to cov­etous­ness.”7 Hav­ing begun to come to our­selves like the prodi­gal son, we see that hunger for love and the need to share its ener­gy is incon­gru­ous with this world; it impels us to return to the Father and one anoth­er. St Syme­on says, “It is God who is right­eous­ness, just as you hear him called ‘the sun of right­eous­ness.’ So he who hungers and thirsts for Him counts the whole world and the things in it as refuse.”8 For St Paul says, …Christ Jesus is made for us wis­dom, right­eous­ness, sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion and redemp­tion from God (I Cor. 1:30). We seem to be approach­ing the high­est blessed­ness, but this is not quite yet the summit.

Blessed are the Merciful

We must go on from long­ing, how­ev­er high and holy, to action as co-work­ers with God — in keep­ing with Christ’s prophe­cy to the dis­ci­ples, that as they went forth to do His work, He would be co-act­ing with them.9

Next we find that, Blessed are the mer­ci­ful, for they shall obtain mer­cy (Mt. 5:7). Chrysos­tom says these are mer­ci­ful not only in char­i­ty, but in their actions. St Syme­on adds the tru­ly mer­ci­ful are:

…those who have become poor for the sake of Him who became poor for our sakes. They have noth­ing to give, yet they are con­stant­ly spir­i­tu­al­ly mind­ful of the poor, the wid­ows, the orphans, and those who are sick. As they see them fre­quent­ly, they have com­pas­sion on them and weep warm tears over them.10

They are blessed in that the bless­ing where­with they bless oth­ers from their very hearts is at the same time God’s bless­ing to them. As the for­giv­ing are in so doing for­giv­en by God, so the mer­ci­ful are mer­ci­ful with God’s mer­cy, which they expe­ri­ence even as they pass it on. As purifi­ca­tion works in the lives of the hum­ble, sor­row­ing, meek, right­eous, and mer­ci­ful, remov­ing the ves­tiges of van­i­ty, resent­ment, ego­ism, and self­ish­ness, they approach a state so open to the divine mer­cy that they are free of the pas­sions and iso­lat­ing obstruc­tions to that love of God which gen­er­ates love of neighbor.

Blessed are the Pure of Heart

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God (Mt. 5:8). As the right­eous­ness with which they are fed and the mer­cy which they show are God’s right­eous­ness and mer­cy, the hearts of the blessed begin to reflect the heart of God. Though no crea­ture can com­pre­hend or pen­e­trate the essence of the Cre­ator of all, those who love and savor His good­ness and com­pas­sion come to know Him ever more clear­ly as the source of the virtues they man­i­fest — which, as they know from expe­ri­ence, have come to them by His Grace through repen­tance. In puri­ty derived from humil­i­ty, mourn­ing, and meek­ness through love and mer­cy, St John says:

…There is noth­ing which we need so much in order to see God, as this last virtue [puri­ty]. Where­fore Paul also said, “Fol­low peace with all men, and holi­ness, with­out which no man shall see the Lord.” (Heb. 12:14) He is here speak­ing of such sight as it is pos­si­ble for man to have.11

This qual­i­fi­ca­tion opens the great ques­tion, how it is pos­si­ble to see God, giv­en the many pas­sages (e.g., Jn. 1:18, I Tim. 6:16, Exd. 33:20) that deny that God can ever be seen by any human being. This ques­tion bears on the final fruit of repentance.

St Gre­go­ry of Nys­sa tells us that no crea­ture can know the divine essence, but that the puri­fied human intel­lect of one such as Moses or St John the The­olo­gian may by the grace of God be ini­ti­at­ed into the mys­tery of the lumi­nous dark­ness in which God is said to dwell.12 In order to enter that dark­ness, Moses had to be free of earth­ly ambi­tion, attach­ment to all things pro­fane, and of the illu­sion that God could be likened to any cre­at­ed thing or com­pre­hend­ed by Moses’ under­stand­ing. Beyond that he had to love the beau­ty of God above all else and approach Him with trem­bling obe­di­ence, accept­ing that he could know only what God enabled him to see, and sur­vive it only by God’s pro­tec­tion.13 Thus he was enabled, fol­low­ing God, to enter the pro­tec­tion of the rock, sym­bol­iz­ing Christ, and par­tic­i­pate in the divine life, fol­low­ing his Lord, whose back he was thus said to see. The notion of the divine dark­ness beyond the most bril­liant light is one which St Gre­go­ry clear­ly shares with St Diony­sius, who urges his addressee to aban­don all else and strive pure­ly and beyond know­ing to be unit­ed with Him who is “beyond all being and know­ing, in the super­nat­ur­al ray of divine dark­ness.”14

Blessed are the Peacemakers

St Syme­on the New The­olo­gian, writ­ing lat­er in the tra­di­tion, says:

The soul, how­ev­er, who has attained to this sees God from every [side] and is rec­on­ciled to Him…Peace is estab­lished between our Mak­er and God on the one hand and the soul that was hos­tile to him on the oth­er, and it is thus called blessed by God for hav­ing made peace, for He says, Blessed are the peace­mak­ers, for they shall be called sons of God (Mt. 5:9).* 15

Russian icon of the Sermon on the Mount
The Beat­i­tudes are cen­tral to the Ser­mon on the Mount.

The Greek is emphat­ic: “They them­selves shall be called sons of God.” They are unit­ed to God in what St Paul calls the peace of God which sur­pass­es every mind [and] will keep your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:7). 16 The peace which St Syme­on sees made is inner still­ness or hesy­chia. St Diony­sius, using them as syn­onyms, says that the divine peace and still­ness are inef­fa­ble and immov­able with respect to any known process, yet they give name to how God makes peace and remains still both in Him­self and in rela­tion to His vast range of expres­sions and tran­scen­dent res­o­lu­tions of mul­ti­far­i­ous pro­ces­sions into uni­ty.17 Nev­er­the­less, though we can nei­ther express nor com­pre­hend it ratio­nal­ly, we wit­ness and are taught to reen­act it in coöper­a­tion with the prov­i­den­tial phil­an­thropy of Christ who rec­on­ciles us in the Spir­it to Him­self and through Him­self to the Father, mak­ing us His co-work­ers with the gift of eter­nal peace in rec­on­cil­ing all things.18 The coöper­a­tion of which he speaks is a gen­uine par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Divine activ­i­ty, in which hesy­chia names the con­di­tion enabling us to par­tic­i­pate in the uni­fy­ing works in har­mo­ny with God’s will. The “sons of God” of which St Matthew speaks are named after Christ Jesus, whom they have come to resem­ble; they are indeed “chil­dren of God,” as some trans­la­tions have it, but matured into heirs in the like­ness of the Only Begot­ten Son.