Saturday, 20 March 2010

Wisdom, Faith, and Repentance

I was lying in bed, half in prayer and half asleep, when it came to me that there are a number of linked ideas that have worried me for ages.  So I wrote this to get them off my chest a couple of days ago.

Knowledge, as an example, is only of any benefit if it is used for good.  Knowledge about God, is pure hell if it is not accompanied by knowledge of God - this is exactly where Lucifer is right now.  And confession of one's sins is only of benefit, only works it's healing grace, if accompanied by true repentance and  a firm resolve not to repeat the offence.

And in the case of addictive, possibly just habitual, sins there is a great problem.  We confess, and indeed repent, after each offence, but we know that there is no chance of avoiding recidivism without external help.  We can resolve away, but we are incapable of breaking the cycle of sin.  It's all very well for the Fathers, like Abba Sisoes, to say when you fall again, stand up and start again "Until you have been seized either by virtue or by sin.", but from here it looks like a pattern that will be repeated forever, and that offers no hope - indeed we are already seized by sin.  And hope is essential - without hope there is no faith.

So now, how do we approach confession of such sins?  Can we truly stand before Christ the Judge and say that we repent, knowing that we will probably repeat the offence later that very day?  And here it seems to me that we should find the greatest benefit of Sacramental Confession: even though Christ, to whom we confess, never sinned, the priest who stands beside us did, and does, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, his advice and guidance are, perhaps, just that is needed to break the cycle.

No, we probably can't say with honesty that we have confessed every sin of which we are aware, we certainly can't say with honesty that we will not sin again, but we can confess what we can, and receive forgiveness, and maybe more important: inspired advice from our spiritual father.  This will be the external help that we need to break the cycle.  Perhaps not this time round, but one day soon.  And there is the Hope, and Faith.

OK, that's the theory.  But if one (just one of many)  of your big sins is all about how you perceive other people see you, then there is a great hurdle to cross even to get to Sacramental Confession.  Here is this man, your father, who you respect more than anyone living, and you are going to tell him about these dirty filthy things you do habitually. For sure his opinion of you is going to be changed forever, isn't it?  How can you do this to yourself?  Because, and here's the rub: the self will not let you do this to it.  The sin of pride. You can even write about it (sinfully, in the hope that the reader will think you humble) - but actually do it?  No?  Well we'll see, because that is the next step for me.

O Lord, break my spirit, so that I can be saved.

I begin to perceive, dimly, what God meant when he told Saint Silouan the Athonite to "keep his mind in hell, and not despair."

Well, I wrote that earlier this week.  Yesterday I finally plucked up the courage (or rather my guardian saints and angel finally cajoled me) to make my first Orthodox Confession.  As expected, it was not a pleasant experience. But, everything I hoped for, everything promised, has been delivered.

I feel as if my great sins are now behind a sort of veil, I can still see them, but they are just facts, not of any great import any more.  Behind that veil my past life still exists, the high points still shine, the low points still sit in their dark corners, but they are no longer a festering dead weight. Nothing I have ever done has achieved anything like this.

I am still wondering how it happened.  Father said very little, he prayed the prescribed prayers, we stood by the Cross, we looked at Christ hanging there naked, dying, but triumphant.  I said my piece, as I had prepared it, holding nothing back.  I knelt under his stole, Father gave the absolution, while I cried a little.

As a friend wrote to me yesterday, all this comes about through the 'Master of Ceremonies' - the Holy Spirit.  Another friend sent me this prayer from St Simeon the New Theologian:

Forgive me my sins and grant me pardon.

Thou knowest the multitude of my evil-doings,

Thou knowest also my wounds,

And Thou seest my bruises.

But Thou knowest also my faith,

And Thou beholdest my willingness,

And Thou hearest my sighs.

Nothing escapeth Thee, my God,

My Maker, my Redeemer,

Not even a tear-drop,

Nor a fraction of a tear-drop.

I know, O Saviour, that no one

Hath sinned against Thee as I,

Nor hath done the deeds

That I have committed.

But this again I know:

That neither the greatness of transgressions

Nor the multitude of my sins

Can surpass the great patience

Of my God, and His extreme love for men.

But with the oil of compassion

Thou dost purify and enlighten them that fervently repent

And Thou makest them children of light,

And sharers of Thy Divine Nature.