Repentance, Confession, and Fasting (Part 2)
Repentance is impossible without encountering God. Therefore God goes out to meet man. If repentance were simply an examination, rethinking, the rearrangement of one’s powers, it would be a reordering, but not an essential change. The sick man, as St Cyril of Alexandria says, cannot heal himself, but needs a healer – God. What is the illness? The deterioration of love. Love should not be one-sided. Love should be at least two-sided. For the fullness of love, strictly speaking, one needs three: God, neighbor, and I. I, God, and neighbor. Neighbor, God, and I. This is perichorisis, interpenetrating love, circularly revolving love. This is eternal life. In repentance man feels that he is sick, and searches for God. Therefore repentance always has a regenerative strength. Repentance is not simply feeling sorry for oneself, or depression, or an inferiority complex, but always the consciousness and feeling that communion has been broken, and right away the search and even beginning of the restoration of this communion. The prodigal son came to himself and said; “Look what a condition I am in. But I have a father, and I will go to my father!” If he had simply recognized himself as a sinner, this would not yet have been Christian repentance. But he went to his father! From Holy Scripture one can assume that the father had already gone out to meet him, that the father took the first step, and that this served as an incitement for the son to return. One need not analyze, of course, which was first and which was second: the meeting was mutual. Both God and man, in repentance, enter into the activity of love. Love seeks communion. Repentance is sorrow over lost love.
Only when man begins to repent does he feel his need. It would seem that first man should feel that he needs repentance, that it is salvation for him. In fact, paradoxically, it is only when man experiences repentance that he feels the need for it. This demonstrates that the unconscious heart is deeper than the conscious mind, that God gives to those who desire. Christ said: “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” St Gregory the Theologian asks: who can receive it? He answers: anyone who wants to. Of course, the will is not simply a conscious decision, but much deeper. Dostoevsky also felt this, and Orthodox asceticism knows that the will is much deeper than the human mind, that it is rooted in the core of man, which is called the heart or spirit. It is like in Psalm 50: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” This is parallelism: a clean heart – a right spirit; create – renew; in me – within me, that is, it only reaffirms in different words that which had already been said in the first part. The heart or spirit is the essence of man, the depths of the divinely-imaged personality of man. One can even say that love and freedom are contained in the very center, in the core of man. The love of God called man out of non-being. God’s summons was realized, and received an answer. But this answer was personal! That is, man was the answer to God’s summons.
St Basil the Great said (and this was included the service to the Holy Angels) that all the angelic powers strive in love irrepressibly towards Christ. Even though they are angels, even though they are great spiritual beings, almost gods, they too are empty without Christ. Dostoevsky put into the mouth of Versilov in The Adolescent the image that mankind has implemented social justice, love, solidarity, altruism, but had expelled from the earth the great idea of God and immortality. When Christ appeared in His Second Coming, then everyone suddenly felt – they are all happy, having realized the kingdom on earth, “heaven on earth” – they felt that they had emptiness in their souls, the emptiness of the absence of God. That means that there was no love. Dostoevsky was right to say that love for man is impossible without love for God.
The two commandments of love are connected. Love of God, fully, with one’s being, and love for one’s neighbor, fully, as oneself. They cannot exist without one another, and only together do they create the Christian cross: vertical and horizontal. If you take one away, then you will not have a cross, and there will be no Christianity. Love for God is not enough, and love for one’s neighbor is not enough.
Repentance immediately excites both love for God and love of neighbor.
Theophan the Recluse, in The Path to Salvation, says (and this is the experience of all the Fathers) that when someone wakes up to repentance he immediately feels that he loves his neighbor. He does not feel proud, does not feel big. Everyone wants salvation. This is the mark of true Christian life. So repentance opens for us, who are in an abnormal condition, in sin, in an alienated condition, the path that leads to a normal condition, leads to God and to correction before God. It reveals the full truth about the human condition. Repentance immediately leads to Confession. Confession is the disclosure of the true person. Even we Orthodox Christians sometimes think of repentance as a certain human “obligation,” that we “need to fulfill.” No, this is too low an understanding of Confession. Confession is like something an old Russian lady, who was taking care of her young grandson, told me. For some prank she paddled his hand; he went into the corner and cried with hurt feelings. She paid him no further attention, and went on working. Finally the grandson came to her: “Babushka, I was beat here, and it hurts here!” This appeal moved Babushka, and she began to cry herself. The childish approach had conquered the Babushka’s approach.
He opened up to her. So, too, Confession-repentance is a disclosing of oneself before God. Like those words from the Psalm, which went into the irmos, “My prayer will I pour out to the Lord” … it is as if you have a pitcher of dirty water and you just pour it out in front of God… “And I will tell Him my affliction, for filled with evils is my soul, and my life unto hades hath drawn near.” He feels as if he had fallen to the depth of hades, like Jonah in the whale, and now he offers himself to God.
In true repentance everything is open, and sin is easily visible. One hermit, living on Athos on the rocks, where there was no one, went down to a monastery for Confession, and when the spiritual father asked what he would like to confess, he answered: “I have a big sin on my soul. I keep dried bread in a jug, and a mouse comes and eats it. I am very angry at it.” He was silent, then added: “This mouse really brings me harm, but my anger at it is greater than the harm it does me.”
Confession, as a continuation of repentance, is a true self-revelation of man. Yes, we are sinful, and therefore we disclose our wounds, sicknesses, and sins. Man sees himself in a desperate, inescapable situation. He truly looks not only at himself, as St Anthony the Greek said: put your sin before you and look at God on the other side of sin. Through sins look at God! Then sin will not bear the competition of meeting God. God conquers all: what is sin? Nothing! It is nonsense in the sight of God. But this is before God! By itself it is for me an abyss, evil, hell. As the Psalmist David says: “Out of the depths have I cried until Thee – raise my life from the pit!” Our soul thirsts for God, like a deer in the desert craves running water.
It is as St Augustine felt: nowhere does the heart of man rest, except in God. It is like when something happens to a child, he runs and searches for his mother, and no one else, and does not want anyone but his mother, and as soon as he falls into his mother’s embrace he calms down.
Therefore the Gospel is namely a book of basic relationships: we hear about children, about a father, about a son, about a house, about a family. The Gospel is not theory, not philosophy, but an expression of existential relationships: we amongst ourselves, and us with God.
And so Confession is the disclosure of the truth about oneself. One does not need to slander oneself, that is, to abuse oneself as being more sinful than one really is, but one also should not conceal anything. If we conceal, then we demonstrate that we do not have sincere love for God. The Bible is a record of living experience, taken from reality. Much is shown in the Bible, there are many sins, and apostasy, and fighting against God, but there is one thing you will not find – and that is insincerity. In it there is no area in life in which God is not present. You should know, Fr Justin said, what the holy prophets knew, that there is much evil in man and that the world is lost in sin, but that there is salvation for just such a world and for just such people. This is our joy! There is the possibility of salvation, and there is a real Savior.
Fr Justin showed this with an example (he loved the Prophet Elias and John the Baptist very much!). In his words, the Forerunner was the must unhappy man in the world. While still as a child he left with his mother to the desert, and when his mother died, he stayed there, and God protected him with Angels. So he lived in a pure desert, with a pure sky, pure stones, pure rain, and did not know sin, and lived as an Angel of God on earth. When he turned thirty, God said to him: go to the Jordan and baptize people. Then people came to him and began to confess… they poured sins on the Forerunner, which became a hill… a mountain… And the Forerunner could not bear these sins. You know what sins people have and carry around with them! The Forerunner begins to despair: “Lord, this is man that Thou hast created? This is the fruit of Thy hand?” The Forerunner began to wallow. Masses came to confess – how many more sins have to be piled up? When the Forerunner could almost no longer stand it, suddenly God spoke to him: “Behold the Lamb of God, He alone, among these sinners, bears all their sins and the sins of all the world.” The most miserable man becomes the happiest. Glory to Thee, O Lord! It means there is salvation from these sins and from all sins.
There is a Savior! Fr Justin was expressing, of course, from his own experience, what sort of repentance the Forerunner endured. Indeed, I will say from my own small experience of being around Fr Justin that he was a man who lived like the Forerunner: pure, a great ascetic. He was compassionate, like Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), compassionate with sinners, compassionate with everyone, with creation, and God gave him the great gift of tears for this compassion. This is not something alien to us. Human tears are always precious to each of us. Being around a man who is truly repenting, one can feel that we, too, need repentance, that tears are natural water, precious, like blood; it is a new Christian blood, a new Baptism, as the Fathers say. Through tears we renew the Baptismal water, making it warm and full of grace.
And to such repentance is united fasting.
St John of Kronstadt, in My Life in Christ, says that when someone hates, his look can prevent another person from even moving. Through sin not only does a man himself suffer, but everyone around him also suffers, including nature, and when he begins to repent and fast, this too is reflected in everything around him.
Permit this digression: if contemporary humanity fasted more there would not be such a great ecological problem. Man’s relation to nature is not at all one of fasting or of asceticism. It is brutal, violent. Man is either an exploiter or an occupier. Marx taught that one simply had to pounce on nature and use it, master the laws, and reproduce. This will be “history” and so on. Such a relationship is anything but human or humane.
The ascetic Holy Fathers said that we are not body-killers, but passion-killers. Fasting is not a war against the flesh as created by God. Christ is flesh, and His Communion is also flesh. The fight must be against the perversion of the flesh. Each one of us can recognize and feel that if he does not rule himself, his own body, then he will become a slave of food, or drink, or other pleasures. Things begin to rule man, rather than man ruling things.
The fall of Adam was that he did not want to restrain himself: when he ate the fruit, he received nothing new. The commandment was not to prohibit him from eating the fruit because there was something dangerous in it, but so that he would lean to discipline himself, that he would put him on the path of podvig. This was a podvig of freedom and a podvig of love. No one except man is called to do this, and that is why he is called to do this. To participate in the freedom and love of God, man must be an ascetic.
For example, an athlete, a football player, must be an ascetic. He cannot drink and eat and do whatever he wants, and still be a good athlete. He cannot. That is as clear as day, as the sun.
A Christian must tame his body even more, so that it would serve (in Greek, liturgisalo), that is, so that it would be in “liturgy.” And “liturgy” means: a full, normal, common function, a common activity. When we speak of the holy Liturgy, this is the service of man to God, but the general sense of this word is the normal functioning of everything that has been given to man.
Therefore a Christian who repents must also make use of fasting. One needs to fast for this reason, and not simply in order to perform a duty or, as certain people think, to earn a reward or crown from God. No sacrifice that awaits an award is a sacrifice, but is simply work in expectation of payment. Mercenaries can think in this way, but not sons. Christ, when He went to the sacrifice for us, did not seek from God the Father a reward for this, but went out of love. As Metropolitan Philaret [Drozdov] said: out of love for God the Father the Son was crucified; out of the Son of God’s love for us He was crucified; and out of love of the Holy Spirit He conquered death by His crucifixion. Only love can understand this.
In a family, or in a friendship, when there is love it is very easy to give up a given pleasure for the sake of the other, this is a natural desire to share with others.
This is the proper understanding of fasting.
In addition, fasting helps us correct corrupted human nature, to put it into the correct order that God gave. This is to be fed primarily on the word of God, and only then on bread. Bread, it goes without saying, is necessary. Without bread we cannot live. But bread is in the second place. As Christ answered the devil, who was tempting Him in the wilderness: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” The word of God means communion with God.
I remember one Russian sufferer, a former librarian at our [theological] faculty. He had been imprisoned for four years at Dachau. He found and took in a Serbian orphan, and then found him a wife. But this wife drove the old man out of the house. The old man later died in great poverty. He related that in Dachau one could tell by someone’s face whether he had living communion with God. There was no hypocrisy there. He told me, incidentally, that, in his opinion, Berdaiev never had living contact with God. Of course, Berdaiev was a tragic figure, a sufferer, a martyr in his own way, and one cannot simply reject him. But he was overly pretentious, and he did not know humility, and even ridiculed humility.
One must humble oneself before God, but not out of an “inferiority complex.” Job was patient, long suffering, but he was not “inferior” before God. He was humble, and this humility gave him boldness. “Come down from heaven,” Job said to God, and God came down. We do not need to accept a psychological or social category: humility is not impotence, but namely boldness. For example, I came to Vladyka Mark, I have no money, I could die here, so I hope that Vladyka would feed me and not leave me. This is boldness. In the opposite case I would be not only underestimating myself, but Vladyka as well.
Here is how ancient Christians prayed. One Egyptian monk said: “I have sinned as a man. But Thou, as God, have mercy!” Humility and daring go hand in hand, together.
Everything together, beginning with repentance -– whether repentance presupposes faith, or if it is born in faith – all the same, they go together. Faith in God immediately assumes repentance in my tragedy, in my problem, in my life. I cannot in any way agree to resolve my problem without God. Search, that means, for communion. God revealed through Christ that He wants communion with us. He gave His Son! He loved us before we loved Him. That means that He also seeks communion. This God is indeed the lover of mankind, an active God, a God Who certain Fathers call “prevenient eros.” In order for us to enter His omnipotence, He went out to meet us, and by this He limits Himself to our powers, in order to accept us. This is called “kenosis.” If He were to come straight to us, then… it would be as if the sun scorched us, we would simply disappear. But He diminished Himself out of love, seeking our communion, not out of compulsion, but simply because this is what He wanted. And this immediately grants us dignity. Therefore in our Orthodox Christian Tradition there is a great reason for boldness, for hope in God. Man is sinful, but all the same: God is greater than sin! In Demons Dostoevsky’s Elder Tikhon says to Stavronign: “You have only step to holiness!” Indeed, man can take this one step and meet God. This is never impossible. It is impossible for man, but it is possible for God. God entered this relationship with us and does not want us to resolve our problems without Him. And we have no reason to doubt that, since He sent His Son.
You see what powerful reasons we have for repentance. This is not simply some human moral teaching, that one has to be good, and therefore must repent. No, repentance restores us to the very foundation of Christian faith. God desires our salvation, searches for it, yearns for it, and waits for it. On our side it is only necessary to want it, and then we able – not ourselves, but with God.
Repentance, with all its accompanying Christian virtues, like Confession, humility, boldness, hope, fasting, prayer… repentance is already a foretaste of the resurrection, even the beginning of resurrection. This is the first resurrection of man. The second will be the result, being completed in the time of the Second Coming of Christ.
This experience of repentance does not exist in any religion, in any spiritual experience, or in any mysticism. Even, unfortunately, in western Christianity this feeling, this experience, this event has been nearly lost.
Fr Justin told us that he studied in Oxford from the beginning of 1917 until 1919. An Anglican monk, after two years of friendship, told him: “You are all young and cheerful, like us. But there is one thing that you have that we do not have, and that is repentance. We do not know it…” “The thing is,” Fr Justin said, “that the two of us once got into a real quarrel. Later I could no longer contain myself and went to him to ask forgiveness, throwing myself at his feet, crying, and this man accepted it… He saw repentance.”
The Fathers teach that one should not stir up the passions, one should not even “tread on anyone’s shadow”… but so that this would be genuine repentance, this needs to be done with love, that is, one should not simply be indifferent to the condition of one’s brother. Otherwise this would not be humility or dispassion, but simply a conventional bearing, a “good tone,” that is, hypocrisy, an official determination: one need not interfere in other people’s business, they say. (Although people die in Vietnam, Yugoslavia, or Cuba.) Everything is reduced to external decorum… Like Fr Justin said: culture is often varnish, and inside are maggots. Of course, one should not be aggressive. But God has guided us Orthodox through history in such a way, and we have opened ourselves up to God in such a way, that we can never be without problems. But recognition of the status quo, the recognition of the regime of abnormal normality – this is not Christianity. Repentance is precisely a protest against this abnormal condition. In a family there are sometimes difficulties, and in the parish, in the diocese, in the government, in the world – a Christian cannot be “reconciled” to this. He will certainly fight this. He will begin with himself, because repentance is self-judgment, self-limitation or, as Solzhenitsyn said, or as Tarakovsky said – it is shame, shame in a religious understanding, in the sense that man returns to himself and begins to feel ashamed. In Abyladza’s film “Repentance” it is clear what real human repentance is. A man begins to feel ashamed of his deeds and immediately the decision to change arises. One may say that only in Orthodox countries, in Russia, in Serbia, in Greece, does repentance exist as a theme (and even in literature). Recently Lubardo’s novel “Repentance” appeared in Serbia, about the relationship among Serbs, Muslims, and Catholics in Serbia. In this novel it is only the Serbs that repent. The Serbs not only talk about repentance, but also practice it.
Glory to God, that means that we are sinners. This is not pride, we do not pride ourselves, but we cannot reconcile ourselves with such a situation, not with ourselves, not with others. Fr Justin called this the authentic revolution of the Christian against sin, against evil, against the devil, against death. This is a rebellion of man against his false self, and a rebellion against falseness in other people, and in religion – a rebellion against false gods and a fight for the true God. Repentance searches for an authentic vision of the world, of God, of man; it searches for the right faith.
It shocks me that in Russia today such a mass of young people is returning to God, to Orthodoxy. We do not have this. This is not simply a matter of finding faith in some sort of God, of throwing off atheism and finding some mysticism, but a matter of finding the living God, of entering the authentic life of the Church. I recently read a good article by Vladimir Zelinsky called “The Time of the Church.” It is clear how someone has found God, found Christ, found the Church. If someone simply repented somehow and wanted to live, and it did not matter what Church he belonged to, then I would doubt the authenticity of even his initial repentance. This is a sort of metamelomai, but not metanoia. This is not a true restoration of life. For this reason the Fathers so zealously stood up for faith.
But one must not forget that love is the first dogma of our faith. Love is an authentic cross, but do not be afraid of love if it leads to the cross. Never forget that when love is on the cross it still remains love. If Christ had not said “Father, forgive them!” then He would not have been Christ, believe me. He would have been a hero, an ideal man, but not the true Christ the Savior. In Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” Christ even kisses the inquisitor. This is not sentimentalism, not romanticism; this is authentic love, which does not fear. Therefore we Orthodox always feels that our strength and our invincibility are not in us ourselves, but in the reality of that that which we search and desire, and in that in which we believe and that for which we live.
In repentance one must remember that God is on the other side of our good and of our evil. We should not identify ourselves either with our evil or with our good deeds. We should not think that we can guarantee that we will be on the path of doing good. One should hope only in God. But one should also believe that evil deeds, if I judge and reject them, cannot separate me from my God. Russians have a tendency to exaggerate their sins, and suffocate and drown in them, as in an abyss. This is already a sort of distrust in God. Such an approach, inflating one’s own sins, belittles God. But the opposite approach makes God into a liar. He sent His Son to save us, and we say: “No, that is not necessary, I do not have any sins”…
Christ saves as a free gift! From our side there is no retribution or making up. But one needs to recognize clearly that sin is sin, and that sin is evil, and that sin is a lie, and that sin is the enemy of man. A full repentance in Orthodoxy is courageous, not sentimental. A man goes to war. The Holy Fathers say that man has the gift of rage, of anger, and that this is a gift of God. It is like the gift of being able to eat food. The gift of eating can immediately turn into a passion for food. It is the same with anger, behind which stands movement, a dynamic. The virtues must be on the advance – active, and not passive. But if they are deformed they can become a tyranny for others, turn into aggression.
But one needs to be dynamic! One needs to fight with evil. Orthodox repentance has this “rage.”
I was told that one of the oldest monks in the monastery of Meteora, Fr Varlaam, had a stroke, a brain hemorrhage. This took place during the afternoon rest. He was lying down and suddenly saw that everything around him had turned red. He tried to get up from his bed, but was unable. And suddenly the thought arises from the depths of his soul: “I am dying, and have not Confessed or Communed! Can it be that I, who have been a monk for so many years, will die without Communion?” With great determination he got up, not himself knowing how he found the door. God helped him: the abbot just happened to step out of his cell and see what a state he was in. The monk cried out: “What are you looking at? Communion!” The abbot understood at once… The monk received Communion. Then he lived on. Such is the strength of rage!
Are you dying? So what? Are you going to let that keep you from receiving Communion?
St Demetrius raised up Nestor, a young Christian, and blessed him to kill the gladiator Lyaeos, a terribly cruel villain. The Church sings of this in the troparion to St Demetrius of Thessalonica. This is authentic saving rage. It is the power to get on your feet. When Job complained, and had reason to complain, God did not begin to comfort him, but demanded that he stand on his feet and submit himself. This restored Job.
Only Orthodoxy has preserved the ascetic ethos. We endure falls and patiently do not become embittered, but we do not remain unfeeling towards others. I cannot be unfeeling. And I cannot, as a Christian, allow myself to hate, because hatred is a flight from Christian responsibility.
This happens in parishes. A man thinks that someone hates him, and uses this to create an alibi for himself not to talk to him. But one needs to try to communicate, to make one’s neighbor’s problem one’s own problem. One needs to feel pity not with some sort of pride, but with real compassion.
Christianity is dynamic, not passive. Christianity is not “apathy,” as the ancient Stoics understood it. The point is not to put oneself to death, but to put to death one’s service of evil and sin, and put oneself to work for God. Life is not nirvana. Life is Communion, glory to God, raising up, growing. Therefore repentance is real if it comes about genuinely and actively, if it immediately rouses one, if it immediately makes one feel called.
Let’s compare two saints, St Isaac the Syrian and St Symeon the New Theologian. Isaac the Syrian was much more sullen and sorrowful. But St Symeon the New Theologian was joy, dynamism, he was all joy.
This more sorrowful, more sullen side was sooner expressed in the West, for instance in St Claire. When the grace of God leaves them they get lost in despair. In Orthodoxy – no! Here a man says: “God visited me, gave me His grace, by which He wants to raise me.”
Athos has always left this impression on me from the monks: the Athonites are great ascetics, deprived of many comforts of life, but they always have joyful faces. They are all original, because each one of them lives a vital life.
Repentance brings about a good “ambition” in man. Let us recall the prodigal son: are I not the son of such a father, was I born to live with swine in a distant land? No! I will go to my father…
Repentance, prayer, fasting, Confession – they all go spontaneously. One needs to get oneself to have this freshness of the Christian life, and strive towards it. As the ancient Fathers said, one needs to start each day anew.