Archive for March 27th, 2009

A Story of Repentance

March 27, 2009

One of my favorite books comes from the last years of the Soviet Union. It is the story of Tatiana Goricheva, a member of the “intelligentsia” and a Soviet-era dissident. Her book, Talking About God Is Dangerous, offers fascinating insights into both a period of time and the period of a human soul’s conversion by grace. The little volume is out of print but can be found on the internet for as little as a dollar. I share a sample as she tells of her first confession.

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We knew virtually nothing

goricheva…I had come to make my confession for the first time in my life. Shortly beforehand I had become a Christian by the grace of God. I had no deeper knowledge either of Christianity or of the church – who could have taught me? I and my newly-converted girl friend, both in the same position, learned what to do by imitating our old women, who zealously preserved the Orthodox faith and practices. We didn’t know anything. But we had something which in our day should perhaps be treasured more than knowledge: a boundless trust in the church, belief in all its words, in every movement and demand. Only yesterday we had rejected all authority and all norms. Today we understood the deliverance that we had experienced as a miracle. We regarded our church as the indubitable, absolute truth, in minor matters just as much as in its main concern. God has changed us and given us childhood: ‘Unless you become as children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’

I only knew that it was necessary to go to confession and to communion. I knew that both confession and communion were high sacraments which reconcile us with God and even unite us with him, really unite us with him in all fullness, both physical and spiritual. I was formally baptized by my unbelieving parents as a child. Whether they did that out of tradition or whether someone had persuaded them to do it, I never discovered from their explanations. Now at the age of twenty-six I had decided to renew the grace of baptism.

Like a hardened crust

I knew that the priest himself – the well-known confessor Father Hermogen – would ask me questions and guide my confession. Then the day before I read a little booklet in order to prepare myself for confession, I discovered that I had transgressed all the commandments of the Old and New Testaments. But quite independently of that it was clear to me that the while of my life was full of sins of the most varied kind, of transgressions and unnatural forms of behavior. They now pursued me and tormented me after my conversion, and lay like a heavy burden on my soul. How could I have not seen earlier how abhorrent and stupid, how boring and sterile sin is? From my childhood my eyes had been blindfolded in some way. I longed to make my confession because I already felt with my innermost being that I would receive liberation, that the new person which I had recently discovered within myself would be completely victorious and drive out the old person. For every moment after my conversion I felt inwardly healed and renewed, but at the same time it was as though I was somehow covered with a crust of sin which had grown around me and had become hard. So I to longed for penance, as if for a wash. And I recalled the marvellous words of the Psalm which I had recently learned by heart: ‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.’

The experience of a miracle

And so my turn came. I went up, and kissed the gospel and the cross. Of course because I felt dismay and apprehension, I was afraid to say that I was confessing for the first time. Father Hermogen began by asking,

‘When did you last fail to go to church? What festivals have you deliberately neglected?’

‘All of them,’ I replied.

Then Father Hermogen knew that he was dealing with a new convert. In recent times new converts have come into the Russian church in large numbers, and they have to be treated in a different way.

He began by asking about the most terrible, the ‘greatest’ sins in my life, and I had to tell him my whole biography: a life based on pride and a quest for praise, on arrogant contempt for other people. I told him about my drunkenness and my sexual excesses, my unhappy marriages, the abortions and my inability to love anyone. I also told him about the next period of my life, my preoccupation with yoga and my desire for ‘self-fulfillment’, for becoming God, without love and without penitence. I spoke for a long time, though I also found it difficult. My shame got in the way and tears took away my breath. At the end I said almost automatically: ‘I want to suffer for all my sins, and be purged at least a little from them. Please give me absolution.’

Father Hermogen listened to me attentively, and hardly interrupted. Then he sighed deeply and said, ‘Yes, they are grave sins.’

I was given absolution by the grace of God: very easily, it seemed to me: for the space of several years I was to say five times a day the prayer ‘Virgin and Mother of God, rejoice’, each time with a deep prostration to the ground.

This absolution was a great support to me through all the following years. Our sins (the life of my newly-converted friend was hardly different from my own) somehow seemed to us to be so enormous that we found it hard to believe that they could disappear so simply, with the wave of a priest’s hand. But we had already had a miraculous experience: from the nothingness of a meaningless existence bordering on desperation we had come into the Father’s house, into the church, which for us was paradise. We knew that with God anything is possible. That helped us to believe that confession did away with sin. And the starets also said, ‘Don’t think about it again. You have confessed and that is enough. If you keep thinking about it you are only sinning all over again.’

Careful Devotion to Christ

March 27, 2009

nikolai_bogdanov-belsky_in_churchIn writing about monasticism, I recently made mention of what I called “careful devotion to Christ.” In turn, a reader asked me to write further on “careful devotion.” 

In many ways the great problem of our age is the two-storey universe (which is make-believe) in which we live as religious people. We live in a secularized atmosphere, where “reality” means the hard stuff around us, but generally does not include what we believe religiously. We live in the neutral zone – the first floor of the universe where only a suspension of the natural law will yield contact with God.

This, by no means, is the dogma of the Church. Instead, it is the legacy of the history of the late years of Western Civilization, a by-product of the Reformation and the popular response to its ideas. It is, or will be, the death of Christianity as taught by Christ unless it is resisted and renounced. In time, those who live in this manner will either cease to believe in God, or will find that their children have abandoned Him, or left the faith to find Him elsewhere, having concluded that Christianity is bankrupt.

The intention I had in writing about monasticism and its importance – was the resurrection in young hearts and minds of the belief in a one-storey universe. Young hearts need to come to the fixed conclusion that God is everywhere present – is more real than the things they think of as “real” and is deeply and utterly committed to our transformation into the image of His beloved Son.

Monasticism with anything less remains a disciplined life – but without such a conviction of the heart would remain as powerless as the two-storey Church. It would be a monasticism that lacked God in anything other than an abstract sense. Such a life would be madness.

The great ascetics of the Church, throughout its history, believed with all their heart that fasting, prayer, repentance and tears, obedience and radical forgiveness of everyone for everything, were tools given us by God for our cooperation with His work of grace – and that such “spiritual labors” yielded fruit – “some a hundred-fold, some sixty-fold, some thirty-fold.” They hungered for the Kingdom of God and believed with all their heart that it was possible to enter that blessed state to some degree in this life-time. 

Orthodoxy is not faith in abstractions, or about a reward, up-there, someday. It is as real as the Incarnation of the Word. It is as real as the leprosy healed by Christ. It is as real as the storm He calmed from the boat. It is as real as the nails which held His flesh on the cross. No abstractions. Christ’s resurrection is not the victory of abstraction over reality, but the victory of Reality over the delusion of death and all its kingdom. It is the union of earth and heaven, created and uncreated. In such a union there cannot be two metaphysical floors of reality. 

It will sound somewhat silly for me to suggest that we learn to pray to God as if He really existed. Of course, God really exists. But the habit of the heart in a two-storey universe has deep and secret doubts about that very reality. True asceticism hungers for the Kingdom of God above all else, knowing that it is the only proper ground of reality.

Of course, such devotion is not meant only for monastics. I simply look for them to help lead the way. In the last analysis, every Orthodox Christian must learn a “careful devotion to Christ.” We must fast, pray, weep, repent before God, and seek to remember Him moment by moment – and never as an abstraction. Compared to God, we are the abstractions. But God has become man, and in that event the abstraction of our schismatic existence was overcome. In the life of the Church we are now united to Reality. Why do we settle for less?

Why are our enemies more important than God? They must be or we would forgive them.

I could take this question and apply it across-the-board of our Orthodox lives. God is less important to us than many things because we believe in the reality of those things more than the Reality of God. It is two-storey thinking. 

Some suggestions (all of which are aimed at overcoming the false sense of God’s distance):

1. Recognize that though “God is everywhere present and filling all things,” you often go through the world as if He were not particularly present at all and that things are just empty things. When you see this, make it a matter of confession.

2. Always approach the Church and the sacraments (where we have an even more specific promise of His presence) with awe. Never treat the building or things that have been set aside as holy as though they were common or empty. Do not divide your life into two – now He’s here, now He’s not. Syrian Christians traditionally believed that the Shekinah presence of God left the Temple and took up abode in the cross – every cross – and thus had extraordinary devotion to each and every cross. We should never be indifferent to the icon corner in our home. Cross yourself whenever you pass it or come into its presence.

3. Make careful preparation for communion. Always read the pre-communion prayers if you are going to receive communion (and perhaps even if you are not); pray Akathists that particularly focus on Christ and His presence, such as the Akathist to the Sweetest Lord Jesus. The traditional Western hymn, written by St. Patrick, known as his “breastplate” is also a very fine hymn to know. Find it and keep it with you and learn it.

4. Lay to heart Psalms of presence, such as Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and Psalm 91, “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High,” and any others that strike you. Repeat them frequently through the day.

5. Throughout the day – search for God. He is everywhere present, and yet our searching helps us to be more properly aware. In searching, expect to find Him. He delights in sharing His presence.

6. More than anything else, give thanks to God for all things. There is no better way to acknowledge His presence. I Thess. 5:18 (a much neglected verse) says: “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”

The vast majority of us are not monastics and will never be. But we need not abandon ourselves to a Godless world, dotted by oases of His presence. The careful devotion to Christ recognizes Him everywhere (not as in pantheism) but in His goodness and His sustaining of all things, and in His person. We can be bold to overcome the “demons of feeble impertinence.”