"A Great Understanding"  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

For today's Good Friday meditation, I turn to Kallistos Ware's "The Orthodox Experience of Repentance", found in his compendium The Inner Kingdom (Crestwood, New York, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2000), pp 45-48.

But what in fact is meant by repentance? It is normally regarded as sorrow for sin, a feeling of guilt, a sense of grief and horror at the wounds we have inflicted on others and on ourselves. Yet such a view is dangerously incomplete. Grief and horror are indeed frequently present in the experience of repentance, but they are not the whole of it, nor even the most important part. We come closer to the heart of the matter if we reflect on the literal sense of the Greek term for repentance, metanoia. This means "change of mind": not just regret for the past, but a fundamental transformation of our outlook, a new way of looking at ourselves, at others and at God--in the words of The Shepherd of Hermas, "a great understanding". A great understanding--but not necessarily an emotional crisis. Repentance is not a paroxysm of remorse and self-pity, but conversion, the recentering of our life upon the Holy Trinity.

As a "new mind," conversion, recentering, repentance is positive, not negative. In the words of St John Climacus, "Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair". It is not despondency but eager expectation; it is not to feel that one has reached an impasse, but to take the way out. It is not self-hatred but the affirmation of my true self as made in God's image. To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God's love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God I can yet become.

When interpreted in this positive sense, repentance is seen to be not just a single act but a continuing attitude. In the personal experience of each person there are decisive moments of conversion, but throughout this present life the work of repenting remains always incomplete. The turning or recentering must be constantly renewed; up to the moment of death, as Abba Sisoes realized, the "change of mind" must become always more radical, the "great understanding" always more profound. In the words of St Theophan the Recluse, "Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance."

The positive character of repentance is clearly apparent if we consider what comes just before the words of Christ already quoted, "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." In the preceeding verse the Evangelist cites Isaiah 9:2, "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them has the light shone." Such is the immediate context of our Lord's command to repent: it is directly preceeded by a reference to "great light" shining on those in darkness, and directly followed by a reference to the imminence of the Kingdom. Repentence, then, is an illumination, a transition from darkness to light; to repent is to open our eyes to the divine radiance--not to sit dolefully in the twilight but to greet the dawn. And repentance is also eschatological, an openness to the Last Things that are not merely in the future but already present; to repent is to recognize that the Kingdom of Heaven is in our midst, at work among us, and that if we will only accept the coming of this KIngdom all things will be made new for us.

The connection between repentance and the advent of the great light is particularly significant. Until we have seen the light of Christ, we cannot really see our sins. So long as a room is in darkness, observes St Theophan the Recluse, we do not notice the dirt; but when we bring a powerful light into the room--when, that is, we stand before the Lord in our heart--we can distinguish every speck of dust. So it is with the room of our soul. The sequence is not to repent first, and then to become aware of Christ; for it is only when the light of Christ has already in some measure entered our life that we begin truly to understand our sinfulness. To repent, says St John of Kronstadt, is to know that there is a lie in our heart; but how can we detect the presence of a lie unless we already have some sense of the truth? In the words of EI Watkin, "Sin...is the shadow cast by the light of God intercepted by any attachment of the will which prevents it illuminating the soul. Thus knowledge of God gives rise to the sense of sin, not vice versa." As the Desert Fathers observe, "The closer we come to God, the more we see that we are sinners." And they cite Isaiah as an example of this: first he sees the Lord on His throne and hears the seraphim crying "Holy, holy, holy;" and it is only after this vision that he exclaims, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips" (Is 6:1-5).

Such, then, is the beginning of repentance: a vision of beauty, not of ugliness; an awareness of God's glory, not of my own squalor. "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Mt 5:4): repentance signifies not merely mourning for our sins, but the "comfort" or "consolation" (paraklesis) that comes from the assurance of God's forgiveness. The "great understanding" or "change of mind" signified by repentance consists precisely in this: in recognizing that the light shines in the darkness, and that the darkness does not swallow it up (Jn 1:5). To repent, in other words, is to recognize that there is good as well as evil, love as well as hatred; and to affirm that the good is stronger, to believe in the final victory of love. The repentant person is one who accepts the miracle that God does indeed have power to forgive sins. And, once we accept this miracle, for us the past is no longer an intolerable burden, for we no longer see the past as irreversible. Divine forgiveness breaks the chain of cause and effect, and unties the knots in our hearts which by ourselves we are not able to unloose.

There are many who feel sorrow for their past acts, but who say in their despair, "Icannot forgive myself for what I have done." Unable to forgive themselves, they are equally incapable of believing that they are forgiven by God, and likewise by other human beings. such people, despite the intensity of their anguish, have not yet properly repented. They have not yet attained the "great understanding" whereby a person knows that love is ultimately victorious. They have not yet undergone the "change of mind" that consists in saying: I am accepted by God; and what is asked of me is to accept the fact that I am accepted. That is the essence of repentance.

This entry was posted on Friday, April 10, 2009 at Friday, April 10, 2009 and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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