The Positive Vision of Repentance

Doubtless, among my more conservative readers many reservations must immediately spring to mind in reaction to such methods employed by Orthodoxy in Dialogue.

(This essay is a continuation from “Orthodox Thinkers,” found here)

However, it would benefit no one to simply impugn Bulkhakov’s request for the thinker-theologian to “respond to contemporary problems” (Tradition Alive, 80). One must live under a particularly big rock to believe that there are no contemporary problems to which to respond and one must be the most unfeeling of pastors not to possess some desire to respond to these.

An appeal to the writings and teachings of the Church Fathers to these contemporary quandaries is problematic at best. We must be honest in accepting the fact that we no longer live in 4th century Byzantium if we are to ask our Protestant-Fundamentalist friends to surrender their tenacious grip on sola Scriptura. We must also be honest in identifying a universal application of “Patristic teachings” as undermining the very nature of the Church’s pastoral approach. Fr. Lawrence Farley, in a recent article, writes, “Pastors do not deal with struggling persons in the abstract, but individuals in particular. A pastor does not deal with “homosexuals”, but with Steve or Henry; he does not deal with “lesbians”, but with Jane or Sally” (“Advice to the Confused, No Other Foundation, Aug. 29, 2019). Our generation is not unique in the number of its quandaries and questions. What is unique are the people who come to us, as father-confessors, with these “contemporary problems.”

Elder Ephraim noted recently, in the introduction to George Mantzaridis’ Innovation and Tradition, that there is, in truth, only “one new thing under the sun” (cf. Eccl. 1:9), the incarnation of Jesus Christ. By virtue of the incarnation, behold, all things are new (cf. Rev. 21:5) and thus, by extension, true theology is, in essence, innovative; it is innovative, not in the sense that it reflects and responds to societal changes, but rather because it speaks in a completely new language. Not shackled by time, it expresses Eternity in waves of ever-increasing glory. True theology answers contemporary questions, not by adjusting its equation to fit the current political narrative, but by providing a completely new set of variables: death has been defeated, Eternal Life has sprung forth. Thus, the real dilemma lies not in deciding whether or not theology can be reshaped to fit contemporary molds but rather how we can be remolded in the shape of true theology. It is not a question of whether or not to address contemporary questions but how? Is there an alternative to be found to the thinker-theologian model so prominent among modern Orthodox scholarship?

Elder Sophrony likens the work of the thinker-theologian to an architect; “empirical and metaphysical concepts are the material he uses,”  and he gradually becomes enamored with the “magnificence and symmetry of the edifice” he has built (St. Silouan, 161). Admittingly, some thinkers “come to realize that the laws of human logic are of limited validity” (ibid.). These, rising in their mind to supralogical spheres and entering the domain of antinomy think to overcome discursive reasoning (one thinks of Pavel Florensky). However, Elder Sophrony observes that either path inevitably leads a man to a vision, not of Divine Being, but of himself, and, more gravely, to that luciferic pride which would ask, “am I not God?” (cf. ibid., 162). He also observes that the craft of the thinker-theologian “inevitably involve[s] the imagination, to which many are inclined to give the high-flown label, divine inspiration (St. Silouan, 155). He continues, showing by contrast that “the ascetic, devoting himself to active inner silence and pure prayer, resolutely combats this ‘creative’ impulse within himself” (ibid.). In fact, according to the Elder, the path to authentic, theological vision is quite the opposite as that followed by thinker-theologian-architect, even in its most sublime, antinomic form.

In a truly monumental chapter in his work on St. Silouan, Elder Sophrony presents the goal of the spiritual life in a short definition: “preserving the heart from every outside, irrelevant thought by concentrating the inner attention, by eliminating every alien influence, to stand before God in pure prayer” (ibid., 137). He who, by means of the fire of repentance, is inspired to wage single combat against intrusive thoughts is deaf to all discussion, speculation, intrigue and curiosity.  Reading no books, he asks no questions. His mind, so deeply engrossed in prayer, sometimes senses alien thoughts or spirits but his attention is not disturbed, “the intrusive thought departs without having been received, so that afterwards the one who was praying cannot say who, why or what had approached” (ibid., 136). Thus, it should require little mental effort to realize that the image-thought of the Orthodox thinker is completely alien to mode of he who prays purely. Any thoughts of comparison, speculation, or application are immediately rejected in the effort to preserve the mind in the heart, free from all image or thought. Elder Sophrony, once responded to a question of comparative theology, “My mind is somehow not drawn to such questions” (Striving, 259) and in another place, “I have stopped searching” (ibid., 269).

“The monk-ascetic never cogitates,” writes Fr. Sophrony (St. Silouan, 139). On the other hand, the thinker-theologians gives “priority to cogitation, not prayer [. . .] Assimilating without difficulty intellectually even apophatic forms of theology, they content themselves with the intellectuаl delights experienced. Not attributing due significance to their unconquered passions” (ibid.). Herein, lies the imperceptible but impassable barrier to the thinker-theologian, however sincere his intentions and thirst for divine knowledge. Elder Sophrony concludes his pivotal discourse on intrusive thoughts with a sober warning, “The mind that has never known purity [i.e. free from images and intrusive thoughts], that has never contemplated Divine Light, however cultivated in its intellectual experience, is inevitably subject to the imagination and in its attempts to know the Divine depends on conjectures, which, alas, only are too often mistaken for genuine revelation and divine visions” (ibid., 142).

A Patristic Gnosticism?

Undoubtedly, such “hard words” will give rise to a certain degree of despair. If the way be so narrow, are there any that can pass? Does not such a “thought-less,” theology preclude all but the most arduous ascetic, one among millions? Is theological study and elucidation pointless unless one has attained pure prayer and the vision of the Uncreated Light? And, by what criteria are we to judge whether a theologian prays purely and how are we to judge the authenticity of his vision? Quite admittedly, among advocates of a hesychastic theology there exists a tendency toward a gnostic elitism. We are in danger of hypocrisy if we trade the canon of academia for the canon of the “enlightened fathers,” engaging in our own theological dialectic as we strive to compile a patristic synthesis from the writings we consider to be the fruit of hesychia. Furthermore, even our understanding of pure prayer may be tainted with a pseudo-gnosticism if we imagine to ourselves a state of ecstasy above and indeed opposed to bodily and sensory motions.

An effective antidote to any tendency to gnostic gerondaism is that most illustrious defender of pure prayer, St. Gregory Palamas. In his Defense of the Holy Hesychasts, he roundly rebukes the philosopher, Barlaam, for impugning the body’s participation in divine illumination. Barlaam, it seems, taught an abstract theological method, insisting that the philosopher must reject all bodily, sensory functions in the ecstasy of a negative vision (B19 in The Triads, 36). St. Gregory contests that this “ascent by negation is in fact only an apprehension of how all are distinct from God [. . .] not being itself that fulfillment” (ibid.). Shattering any mental picture of mystic elders sitting silently in secluded caves, beholding noetic visions and penning sublime instructions to their disciples, St. Gregory exhibits the example of Moses: “while remaining silent, did he strike the sea with his staff.” He asks, “Had he not in his soul the constant memory of God [. . .], yet, at the same time, he was engaging in these activities through the body in a sensible manner.”

A story from the life of St. Silouan serves as a corrective to any who may be tempted to resign the state of pure prayer to those afforded the luxury of cloistered inactivity. A certain monk, Spiridon, was once lamenting, “One prays and prays, but when the time comes and you have to pay attention to your work, prayers gets interrupted. I would have to go and prune the olive-trees and while looking round at the branches and wondering how best to thin them out—that was the end of prayer.” At which St. Silouan quietly replied, “It is not like that with us.” He said this, not idly, as he was steward for two hundred-some workman. Fr. Sophrony once asked him, “Doesn’t  being steward and having to live among so many people make inner silence difficult?” (St Silouan, 63). St. Silouan replied, “What does inner silence mean? It means ceaseless prayer, with the mind dwelling in God. [St.] John of Kronstadt was always surrounded by the people, yet he was more with God than many solitaries.” St. Gregory Palamas, likewise, allows that those not in monasteries, by forcing themselves to use the things of this world in conformity to the commandments of God, brings one’s changeable state into one of dispassion (Triads, 55). This is not to reduce the effort to obtain Pure Prayer to a simple “mindfulness” of God in the mundane activities of life, but only to qualify our perception of its acquisition. It is not the outcome of any “spiritual program” nor the result of any external circumstances. pure prayer, the wellspring of authentic theological vision, is the natural fruit of one thing: repentance and the consequent struggle to keep the commandments.

Repentance as Theological Event

Among those laying siege to the theological academy, the words experiential and existential appear in such quantity that the air becomes thick with their use. The ease by which the barrage in rebuffed  gives rise to a suspicion that those launching these words are ignorant of their meaning, lacking the very experience that they hurl against their opponent. These welcome such phrases as, “it is one thing to know about God, it is another thing to know Him,” forgetting the prolonged agony Silouan bore in return for this knowledge. Clothed in a cassock, prayer rope in one hand, a seminary diploma in the other, it is easy to speak of theoria, theosis, and existential theology. Yet, we easily forget that the one who prays purely is taught this science by continual tears, mindfulness of death, and Godforsakenness. One thought consumes the true theologian, “all will be saved and I alone shall perish!” If repentance is the teacher of pure prayer and the handmaid of theology, then it would be profitable for us to comprehend its meaning.

Perhaps, the most vivid (and certainly the most shocking) description of repentance is found in St. John’s Ladder of Divine Ascent. In his fifth step (on repentance), he speaks of the monastic “prison” and of the “prisoners” who cried out “in the hell of repentance,” “Has our cry reached the ears of the Lord (Ladder, 101)?” Elder Sophrony remarked once that these were no ordinary monks, involuntarily sentenced to the “prison” for some offense or another; rather, these were monastics of an extraordinary calibre, who had witnessed God’s grace even to the point of beholding the Uncreated Light and had—either by God’s providence or by human pride—lost everything. They were unconsolable, weeping greater than those who weep for their dead. St. John records,

I saw there some who seemed from their demeanour and their thoughts to be out of their mind. In their great disconsolateness, they had become like dumb men in complete darkness, and were insensible to the whole of life. Their minds had already sunk to the very depths of humility, and had burnt up the tears in their eyes with the fire of their melancholy” (Ladder, 99).

Others, St. John continues, “were quite indistinguishable from corpses, their breasts livid from blows as they frequently beat themselves as they cried, “Where is my purity of prayer? Where is its boldness? Where the sweet tears instead of the bitter? […] All is lost, and has slipped away as if it had never appeared” (ibid, 104).

Lest we find these descriptions exaggerated (as St. John himself fears his reader might), one has only to recall the lives of many saints (in reality, all) to be reminded that that the “prison” is by no means an exception. Recall the life of St. Anthony, who was nightly beaten bloody by demons, or of St. Mary of Egypt who would lie face to the ground for days until the passion of fornication would weaken. Recall St. Seraphim of Sarov, who being abandoned by the grace he had received while serving as a deacon, stood on a rock for one thousand days and nights. In none of these examples did the saint set out to achieve some pious exploit. Instead, the fire of repentance so burned within the heart of the saint as to make all “plans” evaporate, there was no program, no ambition, no thought other than, “my God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

Elder Sophrony presents this shocking image in the describing his own path through the hell of repentance:

O the terrors of that blessed period! No one could have the stamina voluntarily to subject himself to such an ordeal. It makes me think of the cosmonaut who pleaded frantically with those below to save him from death in space. The radio registered the groans but there was no way of going to his aid (We shall see Him as He is, 13)

Hurtling along an unknown trajectory and contemplating death not only in the body but for all eternity, Elder Sophrony writes, “the world lost its consistency, time its duration. I grew weary, not understanding what was happening within me [… but] it was precisely this unawareness that made it possible for me to carry for long years God’s rich gift to me—the grace of keeping death ever in mind” (ibid., 13,14). It is precisely this unawareness, this lack of ambition, this suspension above an unknown abyss that gives birth to Pure Prayer. St. Silouan writes, “The truly repentant man readily bears every affliction—hunger, and nakedness, cold and heat, sickness and poverty, humiliation and exile, injustice and slander—for his soul is turned with longing toward God, and he has no care for earthly things but prays to God with a pure mind” (St. Silouan, 349).

Elder Sophrony, while still a young deacon, carried out a long and arduous correspondence with a recent convert from Catholicism to the Orthodox Church, an Englishman of the name of David Balfour. This correspondence has been recently published with the title, Striving for Knowledge of God, apt due to Balfour’s incessant (and we may add, “modern”) inquisitiveness related to how one may know the Truth. Within this correspondence, Fr. Sophrony endeavors repeatedly to steer Balfour away from the shoals of doctrinal analysis and toward the straits of repentance. He writes encouragingly, “If you stand before the throne of God crushed to the last degree by the weight of [your] tribulations, adding to them your own inner-broken-heartedness and repentance, without any self-pity, then without fail divine Light will shine upon you” (Striving, 40). Fr. Sophrony doubtless had in mind not only his own experience but that of his elder. Silouan, who, while still a young novice, had reached the lowest depths of repentance, saying within his heart, “God cannot be moved by entreaty” when, at that very same moment, he saw the Living Christ. It was this vision that was to be, for Silouan, an invaluable treasure and the well spring of his subsequent theology.

Later in Fr. Sophrony’s letters, he provides Balfour with a warning that all seeking after “theological applications” would be benefited by hearing. He writes, 

“Do not desire visions (and contemplative revelations) even at the time of visions. There is only one contemplation and vision to which we must aspire with all our strength: the vision of our sin. We need nothing more than this for salvation. […] Only one thing is necessary: sweet repentance” (Striving, 191).

Why is this so? Why this infatuation with sin and unworthiness? Is this not masochistic? Does not our Lord tell us to “Rejoice, and be glad” (Matt. 5:12)? Those who entertain such doubts cannot have faced that most bitter enemy of true knowledge, peace and joy: pride. St. Silouan, who himself “lost everything” due to a prideful thought and regained his “lost pearl” only after fifteen years of titanic struggle, witnesses, “Pride is at the root of unbelief. The proud man would acquire knowledge of things through his mind and his studying, but it is not given to him to know God, in that the Lord reveals Himself only to the lowly of heart” (St. Silouan, 354, 355). Elder Sophrony explains, 

When you begin to humble yourself down to the ground, God raises you up to heaven. When you count yourself worthy of hell—all the more sincerely, from the depths of your soul—the hand of God leads you to contemplation of endless, immaterial, supra-sensory, supra-rational, inconceivable, heavenly blessings” (Striving, 192).

It is for this reason that we can speak of repentance as being a theological event. It is also for this reason that we must find it absurd that anyone would set out to form an Orthodox view of ethics or sexuality (etc.) without first acquiring in him or herself, through decades of struggle, the fruit of repentance: detachment, obedience, the remembrance of death, tears, and so forth. The Church Fathers are unanimous: unless one has been released from the slavery of the passions, he cannot perceive or think clearly but rather stumbles in the dark, receiving and inflicting harm. Moreover, how can an Orthodox thinker avoid that most subtle enemy of true knowledge, pride, without having first learned to “keep his mind in Hell?” Would it not be far less perilous to abandon all efforts to form an “Orthodox response to environmental concerns,” or an “Orthodox view of same-sex marriages” and present the world with a life transfigured by repentance?

St. Isaac the Syrian, for whom the word for monk and the one who repents was synonymous, writes the following, beautiful words about the monastic life:

The monk ought to be in his appearance and all his actions an exemplar of profit to those who see him, so that by reason of his many virtues which shine forth like sunbeams, the enemies of truth, when they look upon him, will involuntarily confess that the hope of salvation which Christians have is firm and unshakable” (The Ascetical Homilies, 196).

Just think, to look upon a man, cleansed by repentance is enough to convince the world of the surety of the Resurrection. We are wasting our time as we devote volume after volume to “proving” the veracity of Christianity. Rather, we should one and all run to repentance. And this returns us, at last, to that hotbed of repentance: confession.

>Next: Confession as a Theological Event: Some practical considerations

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