Christ began His ministry by calling people to repentance:
“Repent, for the kingdom
of heaven has come near”
(Matthew 4:17). So naturally in the Orthodox prayer tradition repentance is a foundation for one’s self understanding and relationship to God. Repentance is the basis for our prayer life. God the Father sent His Son into the world to save us from sin and death. We enter into that salvation through repentance – by admitting we are in fact sinners who are being drowned by our sinfulness and in need of being saved. We stand in the presence of God as sinners, knowing our sinfulness and admitting our need for God’s forgiveness.
“The prayer of the sinner, whose heart is broken and humbled by remorse at the memory of his faults and failings, is better than the prayer of a boasting righteous man who is puffed up by conceit, who rides the horse of pride, and who conducts himself haughtily because he [seems to] stand firmly on the spiritual level. When a sinner becomes aware of his failings and begins to repent, he is righteous. When a righteous man becomes aware of his righteousness and his conscience is persuaded of it, he is a sinner.” (St. Isaac the Syrian, THE ASCETICAL HOMILIES, p 424)
Obviously in the above quote from St. Isaac, we recognize the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). That parable Jesus told about two men who went up to the temple to pray. And while we are to imitate the Publican’s tears, it is not merely an external imitation of behavior we are aiming for. It is a whole lot easier to bend our knees in prayer than to bend our stiff necks or humble our hardened hearts before God. We can even repeat the same words as the Publican but not mean them. The bending of the knee is an outward sign of our repentance, but it is the Publican’s heart we are to imitate, or that of the prodigal son when he came to his senses.
“For it is not the falling on one’s knees nor the placing of ourselves in an attitude of prayer, which is important and pleasing in the Scriptures, while our thoughts wander far from God, but rather the giving of the soul to prayer after rejecting all idleness of thought and every undue preoccupation with the body.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, ASCETICAL WORKS, p 154)
“Undue preoccupation with the body” is another way of saying that prayer is not all about technique: standing ot kneeling, clasped hands or raised hands. Prayer is being in God’s presence with all our soul, heart, mind and strength.
“When you are praying, watch over yourself so that not only your outward man prays, but your inward one also. Though you be sinful beyond measure, still pray. Do not heed the Devil’s provocation, craftiness, and despair, but overcome and conquer his wiles. Remember the abyss of the Savior’s mercy and love to mankind. The devil will represent the Lord’s face to you as terrible unmerciful, rejecting your prayer and repentance; but remember the Savior’s own words, full of every hope and boldness for us: “Him that comes to me, I will in no wise cast out’; and ‘Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden’ – with sins and iniquities, and wiles and calumnies of the devil – ‘and I will give you rest.’” (St. John of Kronstadt, MY LIFE IN CHRIST, p 162)
God is merciful and accepts our repentance. Too often we feel such shame or fear that we want to hide our sins from God, but the angels in heaven rejoice when we finally admit to our sins and decide to change our way of life (Luke 15:7, 10). We can’t hide our sins from God, but we can admit to them before Him, being honest, and then receiving from Him His mercy.
I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Want to bring joy to heaven? Then confess your sins and repent! We pray almost at every Orthodox service “that we might spend the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance.” This is not merely a pious wish but rather is to be our way of life.
Next: Praying (XI)