Thursday, June 6, 2013

"Repentance and Confession in Orthodoxy"

And yes:  Confession is "in decline," apparently, in Orthodoxy as well:, according to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
Confession is in decline and repentance is misappre­hended. The decline and the misapprehension cannot be easily qualified, but they are unmistakable at least inasmuch as they are considered to be no more than incidental prac­tices in the life of the Church today. The "traditional" way of thinking of sin and forgiveness has collapsed among a growing number of Christians. Nothing less than a theo­logical and pastoral renewal is necessary in order to redis­cover the living meaning of repentance and confession.

The degeneration is often attributed to secularization. Yet secularization should not be seen, in a scapegoat fashion, as merely an external enemy. It acts from within the Church. Even those actively involved in church life suffer from for­malism caused by the established patterns of religious prac­tice. There is a need to appeal to the deepening of repen­tance and confession as spiritual realities rather than their imposition as obligatory customs. It is only in a realization of the nature of sacramental life that repentance acquires its significance as a way of renewal and reconciliation in Christ.

Repentance is indeed an act of reconciliation, of reintegra­tion into the Body of Christ, which has been torn asunder by sin. For "if one member suffers, all suffer together" (1 Corinthians 12.26). "Therefore, confess your sins to one another ... that you may be healed" (James 5.16). The whole Church expresses a search for repentance in the repeated words of the Psalmist, commonly known as the "miserere" (Psalms 50). It is through the faith of the community that the individual is readmitted and forgiven. "When Jesus saw their faith he said, 'man, your sins are forgiven' " (Luke 5.20; cf. Matthew 9.2 and Mark 2.5). "Justification" in the New Testament does not mean a transaction - a kind of deal; and repentance defies mechanical definition. It is a continual enactment of freedom, a movement forward, deriving from renewed choice and leading to restoration. The aim of the Christian is not even justification but a re-entry by sinner and saint alike into communion in which God and man meet once again and personal experience of divine life becomes possible. Both prodigal and saint are "repenting sinners."

Repentance is not to be confused with mere remorse, with a self-regarding feeling of being sorry for a wrong done. It is not a state but a stage, a beginning. Rather, it is an invitation to new life, an opening up of new horizons, the gaining of a new vision. Christianity testifies that the past can be undone. It knows the mystery of obliterating or rather renewing memory, of forgiveness and regenera­tion, eschewing the fixed division between the "good" and the "wicked," the pious and the rebellious, the believers and the unbelievers. Indeed, "the last" can be "the first," the sin­ner can reach out to holiness. Passions are conquered by stronger passions; love is overcome by more abundant love. One repents not because one is virtuous, but because human nature can change, because what is impossible for man is possible for God. The motive for repentance is at all times humility, unself-sufficiency - not a means of justification for oneself, or of realizing some abstract idea of goodness, or of receiving a reward in some future life. Just as the strength of God is revealed in the extreme vulnerability of His Son on the Cross, so also the greatest strength of man is to embrace his weakness: "for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I render glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Corinthians 12.9). To be flawed is the illogical, perhaps supernatural characteristic of humanity in which one en­counters God.

The Greek term for repentance, metanoia, denotes a change of mind, a reorientation, a fundamental transforma­tion of outlook, of man's vision of the world and of himself, and a new way of loving others and God. In the words of a second-century text, The Shepherd of Hermas, it implies "great understanding,"1 discernment. It involves, that is, not mere regret of past evil but a recognition by man of a dar­kened vision of his own condition, in which sin, by sepa­rating him from God, has reduced him to a divided, auto­nomous existence, depriving him of both his natural glory and freedom. "Repentance," says Basil the Great, "is salva­tion, but lack of understanding is the death of repentance." [2]

It is clear that what is at stake here is not particular acts of contrition, but an attitude, a state of mind. "For this life," states John Chrysostom, "is in truth wholly devoted to repen­tance, penthos and wailing. This is why it is necessary to re­pent, not merely for one or two days, but throughout one's whole life."[3]

Any division within oneself or distinction between the "time to repent" and the "rest of one's time" is, in the lan­guage of the Church, attributed to the demons. The role of these demons is extortionate, offensive - "diavallo," the root of the word "devil," means to tear asunder.[4] We cannot be deprived of true repentance or diverted from its path by the deception of demons. Yet the demons can work through virtue, working to produce a kind of spurious repentance. By nature we are destined to advance and ascend spiri­tually, but the demons divert the course by simulating ad­vance in the form of a fitful movement, a wobbling from side to side, like crabs. One can test the quality of repen­tance by ascertaining whether it is fleeting or fluttering. In­constancy and inconsistency are a danger signal; lastingness is auspicious. One is being tempted by the demons when one is caused "at times to laugh, and at other times to weep."[5]
More at the link.


Caelius said...

I very much like the part where we are supposed to repent to acknowledge our "unself-suffiency."

bls said...

What's really interesting to me is to see all the quotes from the early era.

This is a good article, I think. What I like about the Orthodox approach is that it has a lot to say about things that I think most people don't even think of as "sinful" now.

For example (from this list): "idle talking, judging others, stubbornness, pride, hard-heartedness, envy, anger, slander, inattention, negligence concerning my salvation, carelessness, indifference, impertinence, irritability, despondency, rendering evil for evil, bitterness, disobedience, complaining, self-justification, contradicting others, self-will, being reproachful, gossiping, lying, light-mindedness, tempting others, self-love, ambition, gourmandizing, eating and drinking to excess, vanity, laziness, entertaining unclean thoughts, acquisitiveness, impure glances, absence from divine services because of laziness and carelessness, absent-mindedness at prayer both in church and at home."


It's interesting, isn't it, that sexual issues make up such a tiny proportion of this list? I think we've gone off on some totally weird tangent at this point....

Caelius said...

Yeah, if you define sins as "things I don't want to do but do anyway," you get a list that looks very much like that one.