The Grace of Repentance

From Archimandrite Sophrony’s On Prayer

There, on the Holy Mountain, my life found its right track. Almost every day after the Liturgy I knew a feeling of Easter joy.And strange as it may seem, my constant prayer like some volcanic eruption proceeded from the profound despair that ahd taken over my heart. Two seemingly totally incompatible states met together in me. I am recording facts. I did not understand myself what was happeing to me. Outwardly I was no less fortunate than most people.

Later, things became clear to me: The Lord had granted me the grace of repentance. Tes, it was a grace. The moment despair slackened, prayer cooled off and death would invade my heart. Through repentance, my being expanded until in spirit I touch upon both hell and the Kingdom…

The heart is such a strange thing – well revealed by the great Elder’s writings. To be both in a place of despair and yet in a place of prayer. It is why “technique” has so little place in the spiritual life. There are things we can do, and yet all that we do is and must be in relation to God. God is not an object or any such thing. He cannot be found by technique. Christ offers the simple formula: ‘ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).

The answer to the human heart is to be found in a relationship that is personal, a relationship that is marked by freedom and love. Strangely, we cannot change the heart by our own actions, but only by the gift of God. Thus we pray and thus we wait – ’til He have mercy.

In this sense the goal of the human life is a state of constant repentance – again, not that we can repent as an action of our own. Repentance is the state of the heart when it is in communion with God. This is the reason that Orthodox spiritual writings place such great store in the “gift of tears,” and similar attitudes of heart. It is, in my opinion, why Orthodox spiritual writings are not overwhelmingly concerned with issues of social justice and the like. One ought to do justice, with this there is no disagreement. But it may also be the case that the difficulties one encounters in life is itself are the very occasions in which repentance is born. It is a recognition that were every “wrong” set “right” the primary issue of our existence would still be unaddressed.

Nothing could bear witness to this better than the life of modern man. We enjoy a better “quality” of life than any generation previous to us, and yet that “quality” is somehow not the meaning of our life.

Thus asceticism, in which voluntarily make our lives more difficult, is seen as an utterly necessary part of our spiritual being. It may not necessarily be the “hell” which Archimandrite Sophrony writes about, but there is still the reality of true asceticism. There can be no Christian life that does not embrace the Cross, and by this is meant as well a life that is shaped by the taking up of the Cross.

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24 Responses to “The Grace of Repentance”

  1. TheraP Says:

    So providential, your post. I am going on retreat from Monday to Friday – with a focus on repentance.

    Will you, dear reader, pray that God grant me the mercy of a fruitful retreat. I thank you in advance.

  2. (another) Elizabeth Says:

    “Repentance is the state of the heart when it is in communion with God.”

    Words fail, except wow. Thank you, Fr. Stephen. That’s some meditational meat (fasting, of course…) to wrestle with.

    TheraP, may you have a blessed retreat.

  3. yeamlak fitur Says:

    Father Said…”The heart is such a strange thing – well revealed by the great Elder’s writings. To be both in a place of despair and yet in a place of prayer. It is why “technique” has so little place in the spiritual life. There are things we can do, and yet all that we do is and must be in relation to God…

    Thank you Father!

  4. AR Says:

    That we can’t change our own heart…I realized this a few years back when I began to think of human choice and purpose as springing from the heart, not (originally) the will. I realized that if the heart is the deepest point of me, then there is nothing of me “in back of” my heart…only God is there, and this creates that point of helplessness where regeneration is concerned. The best systematic representation of this understanding that I could find at the time was Edwardsian Calvinism…but Orthodoxy explains it all so much better. We are not helpless to seek God, but we are helpless to find him.

    I think when all the imaginary stuff goes away and you face the things that you’ve been talking about here, Fr. Stephen, fear looms large. To truly ask, seek, and knock, knowing that Christ is the sort of God that gives, and is found, and answers, is terrifying. What will he do with me? Can I really bear to be turned inside out? Or rejected? Something tells me that if he rejects me it will be because of half-heartedness on my part and not through any lack in his own love. Still, this is terrifying. Sometimes I think that the only repentance of which I am capable is to refrain from faking it.

  5. Monday Highlights | Pseudo-Polymath Says:

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  7. Ioannis Freeman Says:

    “It is, in my opinion, why Orthodox spiritual writings are not overwhelmingly concerned with issues of social justice and the like. One ought to do justice, with this there is no disagreement. But it may also be the case that the difficulties one encounters in life is itself are the very occasions in which repentance is born. It is a recognition that were every “wrong” set “right” the primary issue of our existence would still be unaddressed.”

    “The primary issue of our existence” is re-union with the Holy Trinity. Therefore, I need help throughout the day to remember my desire to repent. Repeated exposure to the Divine Liturgy helps me. Words and phrases stick to me, and I start repeating them without conscious effort. For example, as the priest censes the altar during the cherubic hymn, he says, “For behold, through the Cross joy has come into the world…For enduring the Cross for us, He destroyed death by death.” Parts of this prayer that arise often are “joy has come into the world” and “Christ destroyed death by death.”

    Pondering the joy of the Cross, I acknowledge that the gravest injustice ever done by and yet against human beings was a collective murder of God on Golgotha. Melito of Sardis considered the injustice of Christ’s crucifixion this way: “O mystifying murder! O mystifying injustice! The Master is obscured by his body exposed…” [Para. 97, ‘On Pascha’].

    If tears come by grace in repentance, then they wash away the film of indifference that covers my eyes to my part in this murder. No longer is the Body of Christ obscured by my lack of repentance. Instead, I can identify again both the grief that accompanies this scene and the joy that accompanies such “mystifying injustice.”

  8. The grace of repentance | S I L O U A N Says:

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  9. David Dickens Says:

    Indeed I cannot change my heart and my tears are of the utterly ordinary type.

    “Thus asceticism, in which voluntarily make our lives more difficult, is seen as an utterly necessary part of our spiritual being.”

    I am often surprised that asceticism is easier than than the alternative.🙂

  10. Robert Says:

    Father, bless.
    You bring to mind a poem by Scott Cairns:

    Late Results

    We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers.
    —Milosz

    And the few willing to listen demanded that we confess on television.
    So we kept our sins to ourselves, and they became less troubling.

    The halt and the lame arranged to have their hips replaced.
    Lepers coated their sores with a neutral foundation, avoided strong light.

    The hungry ate at grand buffets and grew huge, though they remained hungry.
    Prisoners became indistinguishable from the few who visited them.

    Widows remarried and became strangers to their kin.
    The orphans finally grew up and learned to fend for themselves.

    Even the prophets suspected they were mad, and kept their mouths shut.
    Only the poor—who are with us always—only they continued in the hope.

    Scott Cairns, “Late Results” from Philokalia: New and Selected Poems

  11. Micah Says:

    Then their eyes were opened — and they recognized Him.

  12. Theo1973 Says:

    Father bless,

    I like how the prayer of absolution asks that the confessing servant be granted an image of repentance. I often feel the image of pride in me. What i find fascinating is that locating the image of pride is establishing the image of repentance. The image is one and the same thing.

    I have been moved by the words of Eve when she bore children in the old testament. I sometimes think the word evlogia has it’s root in the words Eve and Logia (Eve’s word) (I’m referring to when Eve said “I have aquired a son through the Lord”. I think if we learn to incorporate the Lord in all our activities, learn to commemorate Him, remember His presense in our practice of all the virtues and even in the plain and simple everyday acts of our human behaviour like breathing and sniffing and touching, that we can help ourselves to establish an image of repentance even before the act of sin (thus, minimise the possibility of sinning). I think it is very important that we learn to speak correctly, to take time to find God in every situation so that we don’t judge and poison our hearts with what are ultimately little lies. Little lies can outweigh the whole truth as much as a word of truth can outweigh the whole world (pinched part of this idea from Soltzenitsyn).

    BEcause the truth is as subtle as Christ was, we have to learn to live with the detail and subtleties of experiences. It is in the fine print that temptation lurks, in the bits that make us think that it might be okay to brush over this or that minor detail about a particular practice of church life. When we don;t have a subtle ear and eye, we become propogaters of lies. For example, the word Recreation is a wonderful liturgical term, it means the activity of the Holy Spirit, burning the old man in us and renewing him with the Spirit of Love. The word Recreation however, now means to play golf or to go rabbit hunting. I think these sorts of subtle changes to the meanings of words and concepts keep us apart from Him. But I must correct what i just said. Because even in hobbies, we can find God, we can see the small gold ball shoot off into the distance and think of a Christ ascending into heaven.

    I remember you once wrote a blog on the smallness of God. It made me think of the Word in the context of Microsoft Word. Could it be God’s way of reminding us everytime we switch on a pc that He is a Micro Soft Word. The biggest company in the world whispering His Truth, if only we’d stop to see the subtlety of Truth in all things.

    In Christ,
    THeo

    By the way, my wife and I just acquired a son through the Lord. Please remember him, Jamie, in your prayers (Dimitrios in Greek) through the Lord. TTL, Through The Lord, we should write TTL on our hands and remember to say it.

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    I will remember your new son. My 22 year old son is named Jamie (James, he says now). Many years!

  14. Theo1973 Says:

    i just reread my post, lots of typos in there. Sorry. What a lovely thing to have in common, a Jamie. I sometimes call him my brother, i feel more like his brother than his father. I love the saying of the early church, My Life is my Brother.

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    Theo,
    I could ask no greater blessing for you than that God give you the kind of joy I have known in my son.

  16. Merry O'Callahan-Bauman Says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    Your messages are a constant source of inspiration to my husband Michael. He sent me this today, as I am about to make my first confession and become a member of the Christian Orthodox Church on Pascha.
    Repentance is something that we all struggle with – daily. I find myself working toward an ever more peaceful joy inside myself, as I genuinely try to forgive and ask forgiveness – for the things and people that affect my life in a negative way. Taking a deep breath and asking God to intercede and help me find that path – with both new and old sorrows in my life. I am ever mindful of how many times – daily – I need to change a thought or feeling – to repent before it goes any further. Forgiving, and praying for that person, or that situation, is the only solution, but it does not always come easily. The struggle to do what is right brings us always closer to God. He knows what is in our hearts, and what we are trying to do to find Him – in all that bothers us or makes us hurt inside.
    Letting go and “letting God” is hard, but it is the first step towards real healing – when it comes to releasing the pain that we carry.
    Thank you for being such a wonderful beacon of love and inspiration in what is sometimes a dark and confusing world these days. I appreciate my husband very much, and he frequently quotes you and your blogs. He thinks very highly of you, and sometimes people deserve to know that they are also valued and thought of highly, so I share that.
    God Bless.

  17. paytonsaunders Says:

    You write, “It is a recognition that were every “wrong” set “right” the primary issue of our existence would still be unaddressed.”

    This helps me understand where social justice fits into Orthodoxy. I struggled to understand this for a long time, but this post makes it quite clear.

    Thank-you!

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    Merry,
    My great thanks – God is very kind to us and has blessed me with your kind words today. May your coming reception into the Church be a day of rejoicing. Many years to you and your husband!

  19. steve saunders Says:

    What is the”gift of tears” you spoke of? Where are the writings on this found?

  20. fatherstephen Says:

    The gift of tears is a manifestation of profound repentance common in the life of the great Desert and Eastern ascetics. You can read about it in the lives of the Desert Fathers and in the Philokalia (a spiritual collection used often in the Eastern Church). It is not particularly emotional – just a steady stream of tears that flow in prayer from one who has a broken and contrite heart.

  21. Micah Says:

    Wonderful, thank you for this Father Stephen.

  22. Daniel Wilson Says:

    Dear Fr. Stephen, bless!
    You wrote, “…Orthodox spiritual writings are not overwhelmingly concerned with issues of social justice and the like.” It would be most helpful if you could expand on this in a future post.
    There is an excellent short compilation of writings on charity by Church Fathers on the web site of St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Euless, Texas (http://stjohndfw.info/charity.html). These early Fathers strike me as advocates for “social justice,” in no uncertain terms.
    *******
    A sample:
    “Some think that the Old Testament is stricter than the New, but they judge wrongly; they are fooling themselves. The old law did not punish the desire to hold onto wealth; it punished theft. But now the rich man is not condemned for taking the property of others; rather, he is condemned for not giving his own property away.”
    St. Gregory the Great

    “Lift up and stretch out, your hands, not to heaven, but to the poor; for if you stretch forth your hands to the poor, you have reached the summit of heaven; but if you lift up your hands in prayer without sharing with the poor, it is worth nothing. Every family should have a room where Christ is welcome in the person of the hungry and thirsty stranger. The poor are a greater temple than the sanctuary; this altar, the poor, you can raise up anywhere, on any street, and offer liturgy at any hour.”
    St. John Chrysostom

    “Feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead.”
    St. John Chrysostom
    *******
    If, as Christians, we are asked to pray publicly (Divine Liturgy, etc.) as well as to pray privately (“in the closet”) shouldn’t we also respond “publicly” as well as “privately” to the evils we find in the world around us, as within us? And shouldn’t those responses be distinctly different?

  23. fatherstephen Says:

    Daniel,
    The commandment to remember the poor, to give alms, is absolute. With this I utterly agree and did not mean to imply that the remembrance of the poor is not a major concern in all the fathers. Fasting, prayer, almsgiving are the three most basic practices of the Orthodox life.

    I would not use the term “social justice” in that it is a modern political term, based in modern theories of economic justice, distribution, ownership of production, etc. Which goes (or can go) beyond what the fathers teach. But radical remembrance of the poor (even to giving away everything we have) is certainly taught. Though this is largely in the context of the change of heart (as is prayer and fasting). It is like love of enemy, etc. How can we become like God who gave everything for us if we do not give to those who have need? But I would not want to remove the point on the heart’s repentance. There are those who in the name of justice are more concerned to give away other people’s money but not their own. Thus my hesitancy on that phrase.

    But you are correct about the emphasis, rather universal, in the fathers on generosity and remembrance of the poor. It is a commandment. Sorry you had trouble posting. Good quotes. Thanks!

  24. Micah Says:

    Thank you for these words Daniel and for the clarification, Father. In the poorest neighbourhoods, there is the priceless pearl often hidden. The wonders never cease.

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