Saturday, April 16, 2016

The building up of the heart
by the grace of repentance.

Father Sophrony in the middle surrounded by Father Zakharia
and Father Symeon, Father Kyrill and Father Raphael
   Christ’s Gospel begins with the words: "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." These words resume the dialogue between God and man, which was severed in Paradise by the disobedience of our fore­fathers. But these words are now proclaimed with a new creation in view, a new generation, whose Head is Christ, the Creator Himself. It follows that repentance is the begin­ning of our turning against sin, so that God's original pur­pose for man and His creation of man in His image and after His likeness may finally be fulfilled.
   There comes a time in man's life when he feels that all the works he has undertaken bear the seed of corruption and are unable to stand before the gaze of the eternal Judge. Such a perception leads to what Father Sophrony called blessed despair, which, in turn, leads to repentance. This is that same "godly sorrow [which] worketh repentance to sal­vation" that the Apostle spoke about (2 Cor 7: 10).
   It is said in the life of St Ambrose of Optina that, shortly before his death, he was asked what rule of prayer he had kept, and the Saint replied: "There is no better rule than the rule of repentance which the publican teaches us: 'God be merciful to me, a sinner.'" It often happened that, before their death, great Saints like St Sisoes the Great asked God to prolong their life so that they could have more time for repentance. This shows that repentance is not necessary at the outset, but also in the middle and at the end of one's spiritual life.
   Man's first step towards repentance is to sever his ties with the outside world so as to enter his deep heart. The second step is to find the deep heart so that he may be healed by God's grace, and find unity within himself as well as with the whole world.
   Christian life begins with faith in Christ and repent­ance, which are laid down by the Church as conditions for baptism. According to the teaching of the Fathers, man's natural birth of his parents is followed by a second birth which is spiritual, and accomplished by the sacrament of baptism: But there is also a third birth which is accom­plished by tears of repentance.
   Christian life is not static: it grows and is dynamic. The believer must keep the spirit of repentance even after bap­tism, so as to make good use of the grace he has received. He does this by keeping God's commandments. According to St Mark the Ascetic, the Lord is hidden within His command­ments. Therefore, by keeping the commandments, the believer is pleasing to his God and Father. He shows that he is a regenerated child of God. He fulfils His will and remains in his Father's house.
   According to the Prophet Isaiah, there are two levels of life and thought: divine and human. They are as far from each other as heaven is from earth. By the grace of repent­ance, man keeps to the divine level - in the vision inspired by the divine commandments. Thus is he preserved and he grows as a child of God.
   From its early stages, repentance is accompanied by great consolation. As the fulfillment of a commandment, it carries a reward from God. Repentance is abstention from the dead works of sin and attachment to the living God. It is inspired by faith, which quickens and leads to an abundance of life. It overcomes man's alienation and re-unites him with God, his Archetype.
   Thus, repentance in a spirit of faith and humility gives the believer hope that he will not die in his sins. Whoever really repents cannot suffer from morbid despair, because he is consoled. He can only despair of his spiritual poverty, and he lives the grace of this despair alone with the One God. Contrariwise, whoever is sullen in the company of his fellows shows that he is not living his despair alone before God. He burdens his brethren, when he has been com­manded to be pleasing to them.
   Fr Sophrony used to stress repentance as a way of life in which one can find one's heart, which is the meeting ­place of God and man. Repentance breaks down the walls surrounding the heart. In the early stages, tears are more often than not of a psychological character, as the expression of regret. Yet they are to be valued since they relate to God and recruit man's spiritual powers. (I remember once a young Greek girl told Fr Sophrony: "Father, I cry very easily, maybe it is psychological, maybe I am wrong." Fr Sophrony replied: "Let the tears come and turn them into prayer." That is to say, it does not matter if the tears are psychological, for if we mingle prayer with them, they become spiritual.) Nevertheless, when the heart opens, our weeping is of an­other kind. Such weeping is like the earthquake of old in the life of the Prophet Elijah. The earthquake is necessary so that the gentle breeze can follow." The rushing mighty wind comes first and makes ready for the coming of the Comforter. The earthquake and the rushing mighty wind are the travail of repentance, which cleanses man's heart from filth and the corruption of death, so that he can receive the incorruptible consolation of the Spirit.
   Repentance opens up man's deep heart before God so that the grace of the Holy Spirit may abide therein. When man receives grace of this kind, he experiences the begin­ning of his third birth - the birth wherein he works together with God for his regeneration. Man then acquires the state of Christ. In his heart, he receives Christ Who Himself be­comes the minister of his salvation. The eyes of his soul are opened, and he sees God and his neighbour in another way.
   The first commandment of love is fulfilled through repentance because his whole desire is directed towards God. Repentance unifies all his powers, and he turns to­wards God with his whole being until he reaches the level of God's great commandment, which is to love God with all one's soul, mind and heart. He starts to see his brother and the whole world as God sees them and from then on his one desire is "that all may be saved by Him", as St Silouan used to say. He longs and prays that the portion of mercy he has obtained may become the lot of all mankind. Thus, man becomes universal, and comes "unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (Eph 4: 13).
   Finally, through repentance man becomes true, for he now fully recognises the sinfulness of his fallen nature. As the Apostle and Evangelist John says: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But sin is the inheritance and regrettable 'contri­bution' of every man, because of the cosmic dimensions of its consequences. As soon as the believer perceives his sin, he does not hide it, but confesses his fall before the Face of God. He brings his sin to light and it is wiped away. In this lies the power of the mystery of confession: who­soever repents and confesses his fall before God acknow­ledges a universal truth, and if there is a time when man is infallible, even in the sight of the Lord, it is when he con­fesses his sinfulness. Then, more than at any other time is he truthful, and when he is truthful, he attracts the Spirit of Truth, Who transforms him by the grace of repentance. This brings the believer to a deep awareness of his spiritual pov­erty and, in response to his repentance, the Holy Spirit grants both healing and justification.
   Moreover, by repentance and confession, the Christian demonstrates his faith in God's power to save, and shows that his hope is not in man, nor in an angel, but in Christ alone Who purchased him by the Blood of His sacrifice.
   Finally, repentance and confession are the cross taken up by the believer for his salvation and justification. It consists of the shame suffered in disclosing his sins to God in the presence of a minister of the Church. By doing this, he puts himself in the way of the Lord, and the Lord comes to accept his shame, however great or small, as a sacrificial offering of thanks, and in return He grants him grace which restores him. Whoever places himself in the Lord's way through voluntary shame will find that the Lord is his companion, since He said that He is the Way, the Way of both Truth and Life. Therefore, both grace and the life of the great Fellow-Traveller Himself are accorded to the be­liever who humbly desires the company of the Lord. In a word, by voluntarily accepting shame in confession, one not only escapes involuntary shame at the Last Judgment, but one also receives God's eternal recognition.
   But grace is received in all fullness when man repents for all mankind. As soon as man's personal repentance bears fruit, God shows him the entire fallen race of Adam, and man then makes his prayer and repentance the cry of the whole earth. One often sees this in the Righteous of the Old Testament. A characteristic example is that of the three Holy Children who stood in the furnace unharmed as they repented of Israel's apostasy in Babylon, taking it upon themselves. They accepted the hellish flame of the furnace as just retribution from God for the sin of their people. We also see such examples in the lives of the Saints: the Holy Apostle Paul wished to be anathema for his people; Moses prayed for his people, and asked God to blot him out of His Book unless his whole people be saved. And in our own time, St Silouan raises up to God a prayer of repentance for the whole world.

Archimandrite Zacharias (2007), The Hidden Man of the Heart, the Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Essex, U.K.