Amidst all your worldly pleasures, man, the greatest misfortune hangs over you. You are a sinner; you are God’s enemy; you are in great danger of losing eternal life, particularly if you live negligently, if you do not bring forth works meet for repentance. The wrath of God hangs over you, particularly if you do not appease by your prayers, penitence, and amendment, the God whom you have offended. This is no time for pleasures, but rather for tears; your pleasures should be rare, and principally such are afforded spiritually in the feasts of the Church.
These words of Saint John of Kronstadt ought to reverberate in every Church, and all the more profoundly in the hearts and souls of Christians during this season of repentance, Great and Holy Lent. The bride of Christ, that is, the Church, sets these forty days aside to refocus us on what is truly important in each of our lives – a relationship with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.
If we live with a spirit of repentance during these holy days, repentance becomes foundational to our persons. St. Mark the Monk, a fifth century ascetic of Asia Minor explains,
Since our Lord Jesus Christ, the power and wisdom of God, himself as God knows and foresees the salvation of everyone, he set down the law of freedom by means of a variety of ordinances and ordained one goal appropriate for everyone when he said, “Repent [Mt 4.7]. Because of this, it is possible for us to know that all the various laws have as their goal one end: repentance. He summed this up when he commanded the apostles, “Say to them, ‘Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven has come near’” [Mt 10.7. 4.17]
Before advancing further into this lesson, what exactly is repentance? Constantine Scouteris in his introduction to the practical teaching on the Christian life by Abba Doretheos of Gaza provides a simple, yet beautiful definition:
Repentance…is the rejection of sin and the return to God, [It] comprises the whole Christian attitude. Repentance denotes a stance on life, it is not a moral command that someone should follow; it is a radical change of mind, a free existential choice where a person returns to his father, like the wastrel in the Gospel parable, “who was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found (Lk 15. 11-32).
Saint John of Kronstadt offers a similar definition: “To repent means to feel in our hearts the falsehood, the madness, the wickedness of our sins; it means to acknowledge that we have offended, by them, our Creator, our Lord, our Father, our Benefactor, who is infinitely holy, and infinitely abhors sin; it means to desire with the whole soul to amend and to atone for our sins.”
Scouteris explains why repentance is so important to Christians. “The measure by which each believer in the Church is judged is not the virtues or vices that he happens to have, but his responsible decision to change his life by honest repentance and to turn his who existence to the life of God. By repentance a person responds to the invitation of Christ, Who started his preaching calling all to repentance.” More concisely, Bishop Nikolai says, “…sincere repentance on the part of the sinner, even at the eleventh hour, saves the soul of the penitent.”
If we are to repent, we must then have an awareness of our sin, not to mention the frequency of our missing the mark. Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica reminds the faithful:
All of us sin constantly. We slip and fall. In reality, we fall into traps set by demons. The Holy Fathers and the saints always tell us, “It is important to get up immediately after a fall and to keep on walking toward God.” Even if we fall a hundred times a day, it does not matter; we must get up and go on walking toward God without looking back. What has happened has happened – it is in the past. Just keep on going, all the while asking for help from God.
Similarly, when a fellow Christian sadly falls into sin, yet finds the wisdom, humility, and strength to repent, we should rejoice with them and for them, encouraging them along the path of salvation. Too often, however, we become the very stumbling blocks, the very demons, that lead them back to sin, since we don’t allow them to move past their shortcomings in our eyes. “By the repentance, by tears, prayers and good works, “writes Bishop Nikolai, “the most filthy soul can be utterly cleansed and changed. Therefore, be careful not to rejoice in remembering the sin of a repentant sinner, but give thanks to God and marvel that light has been brought from darkness.”
To ensure that this light continues to shine and to gain a sense of peace with and in God, we must continually repent. Saint Theophane the Recluse therefore teaches:
It is impossible to live at peace with God without continual repentance. The Apostle John lays down the following condition for peace with God: ‘If our heart condemns us not’ (1 John 3: 21). If you have nothing on your conscience, you can have boldness of access to God with a feeling of peace, but if you have something, then the peace will be disturbed. To have something on our conscience – this is due to the awareness of sin. But according to the same Apostle we are never without sin: and he feels this so strongly that he calls anyone who imagines otherwise a liar. Consequently, there is never a single moment when we have nothing on our conscience, either voluntary or involuntary, and therefore there is never a single moment when our peace with God is assured. It follows from this that it is absolutely essential to cleanse our conscience in order to be at peace with God. The conscience is cleansed by repentance: consequently it is necessary to repent unceasingly.
I close with a prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian:
Cast not aside my supplication, O Good Lord! Unworthy lips cry out to You, together with an impure heart and a soul defined by sins.
Hearken unto me, O Lord, according to Your goodness. Confirm my heart in fear of You. Set my feet on the rock of repentance. May Your goodness, O Lord, vanquish my sinfulness. May the light of Your grace overcome the darkness that is in me.
You, O Lord, Who did open the eyes of the blind man, open the darkened eyes of my heart. You Who did cleanse lepers with Your word, cleanse the stains of my soul. May Your grace, O Lord, be a fire in me, consuming my impure thoughts.
You alone are good. You are the Light that surpasses all light. You are the Joy that surpasses all joy. You are the Peace that surpasses all peace. You are the true Life. You are the Salvation that endures unto the ages.
I, who am deserving of every punishment, who merit every kind of torture, fall down before You, O Good One, with my supplication. I beseech You, O Redeemer, let not the adversary size me in the end.
But do You, O good and merciful Lord, raise up my members paralyzed by sin; enliven my soul slain by iniquity, enlighten my heart clouded by wicked lust, deliver me from every evil deed; implant in me Your perfect love, O Lord Jesus Christ, Savior of the world; and write the name of Your servant in the book of life; grant me a good end, that, having secured victory over the devil, I might bow down unashamed with all the righteous before the throne of Your Kingdom.