Great Lent: The Season of Repentance
Repentance marks the starting point of our journey as believers. “Jesus began to preach, saying: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). The Greek term metanoia signifies primarily a “change of mind.” In approaching God, we are to change our mind, stripping ourselves of all our habitual ways of thinking. We need to reverse our interior perspective, to stand the pyramid on its head.
Correctly understood, repentance is not negative, but positive. It means, not self-pity or even remorse, but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life on the Trinity. It is to look, not backward with regret, but forward with hope; not downwards at our own shortcomings, but upwards at God’s love. It is to see, not merely what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. To repent is to open our eyes to the light. In this sense, repentance is not just a single act, an initial step, but a continuing state, an attitude of heart and will that needs to be ceaselessly renewed up to the end of our lives. In the words of St. Isaiah of Sketis, “God requires us to go on repenting until our last breath.” “This life has been given you for repentance,” says St. Isaac the Syrian. “Do not waste it on other things.”
To repent is to wake up. Repentance, change of mind, leads to watchfulness. The Greek term used here, nepsis, means literally sobriety and wakefulness – the opposite of a state of drugged or alcoholic stupor. And so in the context of the spiritual life it signifies attentiveness, vigilance, recollection. When the prodigal son of Jesus’ parable repented, it is said that “he came to himself” (Luke 15:17). A person who is “watchful” is one who has come to himself, who does not daydream, drifting aimlessly under the influence of passing impulses, but who possesses a sense of direction and purpose.
Watchfulness means, among other things, to be present where we are – at this specific point in space, at this particular moment in time. All too often, we are scattered and dispersed. We are living, not alertly in the present, but with nostalgia for the past or with misgiving and wishful thinking for the future. While we are indeed required responsibly to plan for the future, anxiety over remote possibilities that lie altogether beyond our immediate control is sheer waste of our spiritual energies. “Do not be anxious about tomorrow,” says the Lord. “Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34).
The watchful person, therefore, is gathered into the here and now. He is the one who seizes the kairos, the decisive moment of opportunity, the one who understands this “sacrament of the present moment” and lives within it.
Growing in watchfulness and self-knowledge, the traveler upon the Christian Way begins to acquire the gift of discrimination or discernment. This acts as a spiritual sense of taste. Just as the physical sense of taste, if healthy, tells us at once whether food is mouldy or wholesome, so the spiritual taste, if developed through ascetic effort and prayer, enables us to distinguish between the varying thoughts and impulses within us.
Discernment is the ability to distinguish between what is evil and what is good, between the superfluous and meaningful, between the fantasies inspired by the devil and the images marked upon our imagination by heavenly archtypes.
Through discernment, we begin to take more careful note of what is happening within us and so learn to guard the heart. “Guard your heart with all diligence” (Proverbs 4:23). When the heart is mentioned, it is to be understood in the full, biblical sense: the heart signifies not simply the physical organ in the chest, nor simply the emotions and affections, but the spiritual center of our being, the human person as made in God’s image – the deepest and truest self, the inner shrine to be entered only through sacrifice.
An essential aspect of guarding the heart is warfare against the passions. By ‘passion’ here is meant not just sexual lust, but any disordered appetite or longing that violently takes possession of the soul: anger, jealousy, gluttony, avarice, lust for power, pride, and the rest. Many of the Fathers treat the passions as something intrinsically evil, that is to say, as inward diseases alien to man’s true nature. Some of them, however, adopt a more positive standpoint, regarding the passions as dynamic impulses originally placed in man by God, and so fundamentally good, although at present distorted by sin. On this second and more subtle view, our aim is not to eliminate the passions but to redirect their energy. Uncontrolled rage must be turned into righteous indignation, spiteful jealousy into zeal for the truth, sexual lust into an eros that is pure in its fervour. The passions, then are to be purified, not killed; to be educated, not eradicated; to be used positively, not negatively. To ourselves and to others we say, not ‘Suppress’, but ‘Transfigure.’
This effort to purify the passions needs to be carried out on the level of both soul and body. On the level of the soul they are purified through prayer, through the regular use of the sacraments of Confession and communion, through daily reading of Scripture, through feeding our mind with the thought of what is good, through practical acts of loving service to others. On the level of the body they are purified above all through fasting and abstinence, and through frequent prostrations during the time of prayer. Knowing that man is not an angle but a unity of body and soul, the Orthodox Church insists upon the spiritual value of bodily fasting. We do not fast because there is anything in itself unclean about the act of eating and drinking. Food and drink are on the contrary God’s gift, from which we are to partake with enjoyment and gratitude. We fast, not because we despise the divine gift, but so as to make ourselves aware that it is indeed a gift – so as to purify our eating and drinking, and to make them, no longer a concession to greed, but a sacrament and means of communion with the Giver. Understood in this way, ascetic fasting is directed, not against the body, but against the flesh. Its aim is not destructively to weaken the body, but creatively to render the body more spiritual.
Purification of the passions leads eventually, by God’s grace, to what Evagrius terms apatheia or ‘dispassion’. By this he means, not a negative condition of indifference or insensitivity in which we no longer feel temptation, but a positive state of reintegration and spiritual freedom in which we no longer yield to temptation. Perhaps apatheia can best be translated ‘purity of heart’. It signified advancing from instability to stability, from duplicity to simplicity or singleness of heart, from the immaturity of fear and suspicion to the maturity of innocence and trust. For Evagrius dispassion and love are integrally connected, as the two sides of a coin. If you lust, you cannot love. Dispassion means that we are no longer dominated by selfishness and uncontrolled desire, and so we become capable of true love.
The ‘dispassioned’ person, so far from being apathetic, is the one whose heart burns with love for God, for other humans, for every living creature, for all that God has made. As St. Isaac the Syrian writes: when a man with such a heart as this thinks of the creatures and looks at them, his eyes are filled with tears because of the overwhelming compassion that presses upon his heart. The heart of such a man grows tender, and he cannot endure to hear of or look upon any injury, even the smallest suffering, inflicted upon anything in creation. Therefore he never ceases to pray with tears even for the dumb animals, for the enemies of truth, and for all who do harm to it, asking that they may be guarded and receive God’s mercy. And for the reptiles also he prays with a great compassion, which rises up endlessly in his heart, after the example of God.