(Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, p. 97)
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
Orthodox asceticism always presents us with a serious challenge to our tendency to oversimplify religion. On the one hand, it seems to argue for nothing except absolute obedience to rules as THE way to follow Christ. On the other hand, it reveals that strict obedience not only is a vacuity but is spiritually dangerous for it deceives us about its purpose. As we continue on the spiritual sojourn of the Nativity Fast, we can think about the purpose of fasting and self-denial.
The same amma also said “it is neither spiritual discipline nor vigil nor diverse toil that saves us if there be not genuine humble-mindedness. For there was a solitary driving off demons and he used to examine them:
‘What makes you come out? Is it fasting?’
They would say: ‘We neither eat nor drink.’ ‘
Vigil?’ he would say –
and they: ‘We do not sleep.’ ‘
Withdrawal from the world?’
And they would say: ‘We exist in the deserts.’
‘What then makes you come out?’
and they would say: ‘Nothing conquerors us other than humble-mindedness.’ Do you see that humble mindedness is victorious against demons?” (Amma Theodora, Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 129)
The spiritual victory over the demons does not occur in the desert, or in monasteries but in the humble of heart. As the demons honestly (!) answer – just like monks, they don’t eat, they don’t sleep, and they don’t live in luxurious cities with every cosmopolitan amenity [so those who think the city is the playground for demons might be surprised to learn the demons don’t live in the cities but in the deserts!]. It isn’t strict ascetical practice which defeats demons, but humility.
If asceticism simply means being obedient to rules of self-denial, then monks are simply behaving like demons. The real warfare for monks as for all Christians is to nurture and develop humility – a humble heart. For the demons neither have humility nor can they abide in the humble heart for that humble heart is the abode of God!
For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15)
Lent, especially Christmas Lent, cannot be reduced to keeping strict rules of food fasting. For its goal is to prepare the humble heart in which the Lord Jesus can come and abide. What cleanses our heart is humility, which is the goal not only of Lent and asceticism but of the sacrament of confession as well.
“Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.
Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.” (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 18272-80)
The person who possesses knowledge and knows the truth confesses to God not by reminding himself of things he has done, but by patiently enduring what happens to him. (St. Mark the Monk, Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 2664-2666)
As we move into the Nativity Fast, it is a good time for us to examine our consciences to see what is in our hearts, and to know of what we need to repent in order to follow Christ. For basically repentance is removing all those obstacles from our hearts and lives that prevent us from being faithful disciples of Christ. Confession occurs not just when we go to the sacrament, but daily when we admit our faults and failures to our Lord. As St Mark the Monk notes above confession occurs daily when we realize that much of what happens to us is the result of our own choices and because we live in a fallen world. When we recognize the effects of the Fall on our daily lives, we are admitting that the power of sin in the world is noticeable – both in how we behave and how others behave toward us. The fact that life is not fair, that sin abounds, tells us this is the world of the Fall. There is a reality that the only person we can change in the world is our self. [This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work for justice. It does mean that we must never cease struggling against the sin which is in our own hearts.]
St. Basil the Great rejected any idea of predestination or pre-determination based on the inescapable power of original sin. If everything is predetermined by original sin or by genetic makeup then indeed even efforts for justice, correction and reform are worthless since we would only be struggling against an all-powerful fate over which we can never win. We are to wrestle with those parts of our self over which we actually have control – the only sins we commit occur in those things over which we have control. Some in the Patristic age thought even doing something once did not constitute sin. It is sin only if we repeat the action knowing it is wrong – doing it once is a mistake, repeating it is sin. As St. Basil notes, it really doesn’t do any good for legislators to pass laws forbidding something over which a person has no control anyway. St. Basil is speaking rhetorically, for he believes people do make choice, at least some. Not everything we do is predetermined in us.
“If the origin of our virtues and of our vices is not in ourselves, but in the fatal consequence of our birth, it is useless for legislators to prescribe for us what we ought to do, and what we ought to avoid; it is useless for judges to honor virtue and to punish vice. The guilt is not in the robber, not in the assassin: it was willed for him; it was impossible for him to hold back his hand, urged to evil by inevitable necessity. Those who laboriously cultivate the arts are the maddest of people. The laborer will make an abundant harvest without sowing seed and without sharpening his sickle. Whether he wishes it or not, the merchant will make his fortune, and will be flooded with riches by fate. As for us Christians, we shall see our great hopes vanish, since from the moment that one does not act with freedom, there is neither reward for justice nor punishment for sin. Under the reign of necessity and of fate there is no place for merit, the first condition of all righteous judgment.” (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 3624-31)
For St Basil the failure of predestination thinking is that it tells us nothing matters. Not only can we incapable of resisting sin – we also are incapable of change so repentance is impossible. Predestination means even goodness and success will only happen by fate, so no use trying to do good either. No use planting crops or working hard since fate determines everything including whether there is food to eat. Might as well just sit back and wait and see what happens. But at this point even many predestination believers can see that it does matter if you try – there is food to eat only because people work hard to make it so. There are roads, bridges, stores, internet and electricity only because people make the effort to make it happen. Everything is not just unfolding by fate, people are making decisions and acting on them. What we do matters and changes the course of human history. The same is true about our behavior good and bad.
It is because our behavior matters and does affect both others as well as our self, that the examination of conscience and the confession of sins is important. We are by nature relational beings, we need to consider how our behavior, thoughts and even our attitude is a reflection of whether or not we are guided by the Gospel commandment to love one another as Christ loves us (John 13:34). Admitting our sins, faults and foibles is not failure but rather how we show that we recognize Christ’s lordship over our daily lives. Confession is acknowledgment of reality, of what is in our hearts, as shameful as it might be, as reluctant as we are to admit it.
Do not conceal your sin because of the idea that you must not scandalize your neighbor. Of course this injunction must not be adhered to blindly. It will depend on the nature of one’s sinfulness.” ( St. John Climacus, Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life, Kindle Loc. 1624-25)
St John Climacus recognizes that admitting one’s sins is a good thing, and yet it has to be practiced with wisdom and discretion. Just a fear of scandalizing others is not in itself justification for concealing one’s sin (note he said sin, he didn’t say every thought that comes into your head, just your sins. The behavioral sin might be obvious to others, but we don’t need to discuss with everyone every errant idea that passes through our minds). However, as he also notes, he is not putting down an unbreakable rule – one has to use wisdom in knowing when to openly admit to one’s sins. There are some things we do which it is not wise to tell everyone. We need to confess those to our father confessors, to those who are better prepared to deal with humans as fallen sinners. If we are honest to our self about our sins, we recognize also how our sins impact our lives and the lives of those around us – especially the ones we love. Instead of becoming bitter for sin or blaming others regarding sin, when we recognize its power in our life, we can make an effort to correct it and to find the better way to love others or at least to own it and repent of it.
“Do not be ashamed to enter again into the Church. Be ashamed when you sin. Do not be ashamed when you repent. Pay attention to what the devil did to you. These are two things: sin and repentance. Sin is a wound; repentance is a medicine. Just as there are for the body wounds and medicines, so for the soul are sins and repentance. However, sin has the shame and repentance possesses the courage. I beg of you, pay careful attention to me, so you may not confuse the order and lose the benefit. There is a wound and there is a medicine, sin and repentance. Sin is the wound; repentance is the medicine. In the wound there is rottenness; the medicine cleanses the decay. The putrefaction, reproach, and mocking are caused by sin. However, courage, freedom, and the cleansing of sin accompany repentance. Pay attention carefully. After the sin comes the shame; courage follows repentance. Did you pay attention to what I said? Satan upsets the order; he gives the courage to sin and the shame to repentance. . . . There exist a wound and a medicine. The wound has the rottenness; the medicine can cleans the decay. Could the decay be derived from the medicine, the cure from the wound? Do these things not have their own order and those things theirs? Is it possible for this to pass over to that, or that to this? Never!
Let us now come to the sins of the soul. Sin has the shame, sin has the contempt and the infamy as its lot. Repentance has courage, repentance has fasting. Repentance procures righteousness. ‘First tell your transgression, so you may be justified’ and, ‘A righteous man accuses himself at the beginning of his speech.’”
“The Christian concept of envy is twofold. It is the resentment experienced by one person when another person is perceived to have some good that he or she lacks, coupled with the strong desire that the other person be deprived of it.
Rather like vultures and flies, which gravitate toward stenches and festering sores, envious persons glory in the faults and failings of others, relishing the opportunity to broadcast such misdeeds to tarnish reputations.
Thus the healing of the illness of envy requires re-educating the mind as to what constitutes true good (i.e., virtue) and redirecting our fundamental, ambitious impulse away from the noxiousness of envy to this healthy end.”
“Confession extends the healing of baptism to the realities of sinful life after baptism. ‘Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects‘ (James 5:16). Accountability to the other, and ultimately to the Other, is a healing act of humility, a necessary and often painful condition for real change and repentance. When one bares one’s soul to at least one other person then real accountability and potential for change can occur.”
(Daniel B. Hinshaw, Suffering and the Nature of Healing, p. 243)
In confessing our sins to another, we come to experience our human life as being truly social – we are members one of another. “Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25). Confession is teaching our self to put away falsehood – lies, pretension, pretending, covering up, deception, self-deception, hypocrisy, acting for show – so that we speak the truth about our self not only to our self but to those we are supposed to love. In confessing to another, we get outside of the confines of the self, and experience our organic unity with the rest of humanity. We realize we share a human nature not only with the sinful Adam but also with the Christ.
Every human is part of a bouquet – there is beauty in each of us, and yet when arranged with others, the glorious result is even more stunning and profound. The individual beauty of each flower is highlighted and intensified by being in and with all of the other flowers, leaves, stems and greenery of the arrangement.
“Our tendency is to conceal and minimize our sins, thinking that God’s compassion means that He will ‘go easy on us’ and understand that ‘we’re only human.’ This section of the Canon [of Repentance of St. Andrew of Crete] invites us to a different view: that all our sins are very serious (even those we don’t know about), and yet God is abundant in mercy. He already knows all about our sins, and is ready to rush toward us in compassion. All that is necessary is for us to admit we need his compassion. Repentance is truth telling, and ‘the truth will make you free‘ (John 8:32). What hidden sins can you begin to admit, and allow God to take away?”
(Frederica Mathewes-Green, Firstfruits of Prayer, p. 14)
May the infinite love and mercy of the Lord triumph, in consequence of our sincere recognition and confession of our sins; and may the sinful flattery of the Devil, teaching us to conceal our sins and not to acknowledge them, be covered with shame! May all the snares and bonds of the Devil be torn asunder by our repentance, like a cobweb!
The Devil seeks that we should conceal our sins, and thus give ourselves up to them in secret still more and more easily; but let us even here destroy his snares and wiles; let us confess our sins, in order that we ourselves and all others may see to what abomination we are giving ourselves up or have given ourselves up, and that thus, by recognizing this abomination, we may more easily amend. “Tell,” it is said, “all thine iniquities,” and do not be silent about them, “that thou mayst be justified.”
“… the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.‘” (Matthew 4:16-17)
The first sermon that Jesus preached according to St. Matthew was a one line, straight forward message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.‘ That message, a call to repentance has been central to the Christian message ever since. At every Orthodox liturgy we pray that “we might spend the remaining time of our life in peace and in repentance.”
All of us who are members of the Orthodox Church have personally embraced that message and have agreed that repentance is essential to cure what ails us as human beings. Every year we attend the “School of Repentance” – Great Lent – in order to respond to the call of Jesus Christ. We are the ones who have said “I need to repent” – Christ’s Gospel message have resonated with us. In the first week of Great Lent we pray the Canon of Repentance of St. Andrew of Crete: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.” We each acknowledge our personal need for God’s mercy and the forgiveness that Christ offers to repentant sinners. St. Andrew’s Canon is not a dreary dirge but rather brings us face to face with Christ’s call to repentance. It is meant to change our heart of stone into one of flesh, which feels the pain of sin and it’s result – our separation from God. The Canon is meant to awaken in us that pain of separation so that we seek God with all our heart.
Repentance in Orthodox spirituality is normative to our daily spiritual life – instead of blaming everyone else for the world’s sorrows and problems, we acknowledge our own personal contribution to the problems and sorrows of the world. We come to church not to blame violent shooters and sexual predators, but to repent not only of our personal sins but also of anything we do which enables such sin to continue in the world.
We can consider the words from one of the Lenten hymns for the first week of Lent:
Let us keep the fast not only by refraining from food,
But by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions;
That we how are enslaved to the tyranny of the flesh
May become worthy to partake of the Lamb, the Son of God.
Strangers to bodily passions . . . enslaved to the tyranny of the flesh – sounds like monastic exaggeration or extremism. Yet, for all of us “living in the world” we can readily understand these words in our daily experience. How often do we make choices purely because it is easy, comfortable, convenient or pleasurable? When choices made based on any of those become our pattern of behavior, we have become slaves to them. We avoid choosing what is good or right or godly preferring to follow that path of least resistance – what is pleasurable, convenient, comfortable or easy. We don’t want to have to fast, or practice self denial, or attend a weekday service, or give more to charity or to have to apologize to others or forgive them. Thus ease and convenience and comfort tyrannize us – as we don’t want to have to deal with what is difficult or important and so allow our lives to be controlled by the tyranny of the flesh = that which is easy, convenient, pleasurable and comfortable. Instead of doing the next right, good or godly thing, we opt for ease and convenience and let that govern our daily lives.
Lent is the chance to regain control of our choices. To recognize how ease and convenience are really tyranny of the flesh. Repentance means changing one’s mind and heart, allowing it to be healed of the tyranny of the flesh and the passions, so that we in fact strive for what is godly.
St. John of Kronstadt comments on the sacrament of Confession:
“Bear the sufferings and painful smarts of the operation so that you may regain your health afterwards. It means that at confession you must declare all your shameful deeds to your confessor, without concealment, though to do so may be painful, shameful, ignominious, and humiliating. Otherwise the wound will remain unhealed, will ache and be painful, will undermine your spiritual health, and remain as a leaven for other spiritual infirmities, or sinful habits and passions. A priest is a spiritual physician. Show him your wounds, without being ashamed, sincerely, openly, with son-like trust and confidence; for the confessor is your spiritual father, who should love you more than your own father and mother; for Christ’s love is higher than any carnal, natural love. He must give an answer to God for you. Why has our life become so impure, so full of passions and sinful habits? Because a great many conceal their spiritual wounds and sores, owing to which they ache and become inflamed; and it is impossible to apply any remedy to them.” (My Life in Christ, p. 170)