Orthodox America

  While it is still day . . . Thoughts for Repenting Christians

By Reader Joseph Miller

At the beginning of Great Lent, the Church provides Forgiveness Sunday for our spiritual welfare.  Especially on this Sunday, we formally forgive and ask forgiveness all around. Much too often, we simply think of it as Cheesefare Sunday when we eat pancakes with sour cream, "like Babushka used to make," and perhaps herrings and a little caviar.

Now let us be as serious as we shall perforce be when we face Almighty God on the day of our judgment.  Forgiveness Sunday may well be the time when we achieve Salvation, when we have the humility to repent so that we may be forgiven. There is, after all, no forgiveness from God or man if there is no repentance, and there is no repentance without humility, and humility can be learned only through unending, unqualified obedience to everything Our Saviour asks.  Everything without exception.  The most rigorous podvig we can think of will be useless and of no effect if we do not achieve repentance.

Why is it so difficult for us to remember that one day we shall face God as Judge, that everything we know and experience in this life will end totally? Heaven and earth will pass away, but My Word will not pass away, said Our Saviour.  This will really happen. It is not a myth, not something that might happen.  It will come about.  Perhaps when we least expect it. There was C---, who sat down on Sunday afternoon in July to watch TV, having attended Liturgy in the morning, and sitting there in his recliner he departed this earth, his last sight of this earth being the ball game he was watching.  It's true, his health wasn't especially good and he had been looking a little pale lately, and he was seventy years old.  But neither he nor anyone else expected him to die that Sunday afternoon. There was P---, a hard-working man and zealous supporter of his parish. One Saturday morning he mowed the yard and trimmed the bushes; in the afternoon he washed the car and took two sacks of stuff to be recycled, fixed a meal for himself and washed the dishes.   He did not make it to Vespers. When his son came home from his work shift at three in the morning, he discovered that P--- had long since departed.  He had no known health problems, and was just over sixty years old.

The twenty-five-year-old goddaughter of a priest went out to ride behind her boyfriend on his motorcycle.  She was not wearing a helmet when she fell off and hit her head on the curb.  It was an enormous shock to everyone who knew her, of course, and they talked about it for years. Whether they learned the obvious lesson is unknown.

And there was B---, just four years old.  He developed a serious infection which rapidly escalated and carried him into the arms of Our Loving Saviour. In these times when science has learned so much, little children just don't die of infections.  So much for science.

We cling to the romantic notion that only pagans and heterodox die suddenly and without warning.  That idea is a subtle trick of the Evil One. These people were all Orthodox, members in good standing.  Fortunate are those who depart this life lying in a warm bed, surrounded by a pious and loving family, with a priest to administer Unction and lay the Gospel on the face of the departed.  But it is foolish to count on it.

A young friend graduated from a prestigious university in 1984, went to medical school and then completed a residency in anesthesiology and pain management, and was just ready to take a regular position in that speciality in a local hospital. He went to work on a Tuesday morning, walked into a work room, sat down, and died.  He was thirty-two years old, and one of the kindest, gentlest, sweetest people you could hope to meet. Was he Russian, or was he an American?  It is irrelevant.

Every one of these people departed without any chance at all of waiting for Forgiveness Sunday, or of even asking forgiveness of everyone or anyone. How shall we protect ourselves from such an event? There is only one answer: we must live with repentance in our hearts, minute by minute, repentance as constant as the stars, as constant as the Love of God. We must do as the Athonite fathers have said: "From this day from this hour, from this minute, let us love God above all things."

An essay on Confession appeared in Orthodox America not too long ago, written by a priest whose first Confession concerned a man dying of cancer. The man struggled to remember so he could confess every sin he could think of.  The true and saving fear and urgent need for repentance moved him to search for and smooth out every wrinkle in his conscience, before he would be required to account for himself before the "dread judgment seat of God." Before we can repent, we must have some kind of record of our sins. This record must be in memory, and must be accumulated from each day's experience by the examination of conscience.  Once a day is a bare minimum, but many times a day would be more profitable, until repentance will become practically a habit and occur almost simultaneously with the temptation or sin.  If we remember our sinfulness and weakness even from the beginning of each day, true repentance will grow in our hearts unto Salvation. The Lord blesses the merciful. Have you been merciful?  The Lord blesses peacemakers.  Have you been a peacemaker?  The Lord instructs us to treat others as we would be treated, not just the casual acquaintance or the stranger on the street, but our spouses and our children and the people we work with daily, and our fellow parishioners.  The Lord does not bless us to treat those people well who treat us well, but He blesses us to treat well those people who treat us badly, who may abuse us or torment us in some way, who may even have righteous dominion over us. Bless those who curse you, He says. How have you done?  Are you able to repent of failing to bless those who curse you?

The Lord tells us to give to His service ten percent of our goods, our energy, the work of our hands. The Lord teaches us that this should be the first and best ten percent.  How have you done, in this respect?  May God have mercy on those who have been stingy, calculating the cost of everything in the parish like a true pharisee, and penny-pinching with God's church and those who serve the Church, miserly instead of loving and merciful. Judge yourself, be aware of your sins and sinfulness, here, while you have opportunity to repent, to change yourself and your ways, and become acceptable to enter the Kingdom, into which nothing imperfect shall enter.

At a recent mini-conference in an English-language parish of the Russian Church Abroad, someone asked Archbishop Alypy, "Vladika, how can I know when I have truly repented?"  The archbishop replied, "When you stop sinning."

People, even Christian people, often expect a single act of repentance, or regret, to suffice.  It does not. The temptation to lust remained with Saint Mary of Egypt almost to the end of her earthly life, for many years after she went to the desert.  It's not that different for most of the rest of us.  That explains why she remained in the desert.  She was repenting exactly as Archbishop Alypy said.  (Even though Saint Mary and Archbishop Alypy are separated by fourteen hundred years, they had the same Teacher.) Did we say regret?  Much too often, we just wish we hadn't done something, like saying, "Gee, I'm sure sorry about that," and then go right on with our lives. That's regret, not repentance.  Kind of like stubbing one's toe on the rocking chair and saying, "Wow, I wish I hadn't done that."  If that is the limit of our repentance, we can be almost certain of doing the same sin again and again, further weakening any chance of entering Paradise. Repentance means one has changed one's life, one's outlook on life and particularly on oneself. Repentance must become a lifelong habit, a fear of separating oneself from God, so overpowering that doing the sin again becomes impossible, simply impossible.  The absolutely most terrifying, most agonizing experience in this life is to contemplate the loss of the love of God, leading to Eternity separated from Love and being eternally devoured by the "worm that never dies." The very soul shrieks with terror at this possibility.  Which delight in this life remaineth no party to grief?  What glory hath stood unchanging on the earth?

An acquaintance was suddenly faced with a serious operation, not life-threatening in itself, and after the initial shock went away he was quite ready, even anxious to get it over with. But in the night he awoke in a state of consuming terror, like the "terror of Death" which David the Psalmist experienced. This acquaintance said he saw before him the gates of Paradise with the Light of Tabor streaming through, and he saw at the same time that the way was barred to him, ineluctably locked against him and that he would spend Eternity shut out from light and life and love.  This scene remained in front of him for some moments, holding his mind like a vise, until the thought entered his mind that he could still repent, and that repentance not only of his sins but of every earthly attachment was the key to the lock of the gate before him. With the thought of repentance, he saw the way become open for him to enter Paradise.  The prayer of the Good Thief came to him, and reminded him that this man who was crucified with Christ, in the last hour of his earthly life, repented of all his wickedness and that day was taken into Paradise because of his repentance.

He had Christ's promise for it, the sound of the Saviour's voice still in his ears, when his body gave up its spirit.  Every earthly attachment? Since that time, this acquaintance has lived with a much different mind, not at ease with his former way of life.

A final thought.  We fall into sin because we are proud, we think we can control ourselves, we trust in our own strength and do not ask Almighty God to help us. We will always sin, not only in lust but any other way, as long as we try to go it alone, to avoid sin by our own strength.  Like the little children whom Our Saviour favors, let all of us always and forever ask simply and with trust for this protection from Our Almighty and Loving God.