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An Orthodox Handbook

by Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos


Chapter 19 - Repentance in our lives

1. Repentance as a permanent state in the life of the faithful

We mentioned that the Church is assembled and revealed through the event of the divine Eucharist and our participation in it.  The divine Eucharist is the mystery that transforms a community - such as the parish - into a Church (1 Cor.10:16-17).  We also mentioned that upon Baptism, man enters a spiritual arena and is called upon to fight against the powers of darkness that assault him externally through his senses, thus giving birth to passions.

In order for him to remain a victor in that fight against his passions and his egotistical tendencies, he must be continuously alert. Every single thing that alienates man from God's love and leads him to egotistical displays which are an offence to God's love and to his brethren must be cast out by the wrestling Christian.  This perpetual struggle to completely set his own self aside, to regard himself as forever indebted to God's and his brethren's love and his struggle to respond to that love, leads that man to a perpetual repentance and it opens the way to God's grace.  That is why John the Baptist's sermon on repentance was the opening of the path by which "He who cometh after me" (Matth.3:11) had said "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is nigh" (Matth.3:2)   It was for the same reason that the Lord had also begun His sermon with the words: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15).  Repentance is not a passing matter in the life of the faithful; it becomes a permanent state, which has no end in this lifetime.

Saint Isaac the Syrian says that repentance "is necessary for all those who desire salvation, both for sinners and for the righteous.  Perfection knows no limits, so that even the perfection of the perfected is imperfect. That is why repentance remains incomplete, up until the moment of death - both in regard to its duration and its works."

We observe this perpetual state of repentance in the lives of the Saints of our Church. No-one has been able to discern in them the slightest trace of a pharisaic self-satisfaction with regard to personal sanctity and personal virtue; they always lived in a state of vigilant readiness and profound repentance.

It has been written about Saint Anthony that when he arrived at a very old age, he said to his pupils:

«It is now time for me to depart also, for I am nearly 105 years old.... They, when they heard these words, began to weep, to embrace the Elder, and to kiss him repeatedly.  But he, as though fleeing from a foreign city for the purpose of going back to his homeland, chatted with them very cheerfully and counseled them to not neglect their labours and not abandon their ascesis, but to live every day like they are about to die.  I am going to follow the path of the Fathers, he said to them. I can see the Lord calling to me.  You must all stay alert and do not forfeit your many years of ascesis; but rather, fight to preserve your zeal, as though you are beginning just now, for the first time.  Know the demons that are a threat to you.  Know how savage they are, but also how weak they are in power.  Do not fear them; instead, you should breathe Christ even more and believe in Him. Live in such a manner, as though you expect to die every day...».

Thus, for one to live in such a manner - as though he is about to die at any moment - that is the way of life of repentance.

2. The mystery of confession

When we speak of repentance, we often use this term in a more confined sense in order to denote the Holy Sacrament of Confession.

When - after Baptism - man succumbs to the attacks of the devil and in a specific manner, with thoughts or even with actions, offends God's love and the love of the Church, the love towards the remaining members of Christ, then this praxis of his constitutes a wound that wreaks damage to the entire corpus of the Church.

It is for this reason that the Church takes appropriate measures and caters to the immediate cure, or, if this is not possible, then to the exemption of that member from Holy Communion, until that member has recovered and changes course.  To this end, the Church provides the sacred mystery of Confession. “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven." (Matth.18:18; 16:19).

"So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20,21-23).

It is not the priest who actually forgives; it is Christ, together with the priest and the remaining members of His Body - that is, the entire Church - who once again receives the ailing member into Her bosom and restores it fully with its participation in the Divine Eucharist.

«May the Lord forgive you, through me the sinner, of all of your..... Go in peace, without having any further care regarding the trespasses which you have confessed to me....», says one of the blessings of sacred Confession that is read by the Confessor.

And as the Apostle John also underlines:

"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. (1 John 1:9)My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world." (1 John 2:2).

Furthermore, it is obvious that this "confession of sins" must take place in the presence of those who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit to forgive sins in the name of Christ, in accordance with the instruction of Christ Himself. (John 20:21-23)


3. The proper manner of confession

How should the faithful approach Confession?  The answer to this question is provided by Saint John of the Ladder:

"Reveal your wound to the spiritual physician. Say to him and do not be ashamed: 'the trauma is mine, father - this wound is my own. It happened on account of my own indolence and no-one else is the cause - not a person, not a demon, not the flesh, nor anything else - just my own negligence.'  During confession, become like a convicted person, both in your appearance and in your thoughts. Lower your head to the ground in shame; dampen if you can with fervent tears the feet of the physician, as though they are the feet of Christ..."

These words by Saint John of the Ladder bring to mind the Prophet Joel:

"...rend your hearts and not your clothing. And return to the Lord, your God, for He is merciful and compassionate, patient and very beneficent..."  (Joel 2:13)  Don't tear apart your garments but rather your hearts, with the pain of repentance and the awareness of guilt; return to the Lord, because He is merciful and compassionate....

"We have sinned; we have been impious; we have done wrong, O Lord our God, against all of your requirements." (Baruch 2:12).

"And we have all become like unclean people; all our righteousness is like the rag of a (menstruating) woman who sits apart." (Isaiah 64:5; cmp. Daniel 9:5; Proverbs 20:9).

True confession grants the repentant person the absolution of sins and restores him - as mentioned earlier - in the Church.

Man however re-enters the spiritual arena and is called upon to struggle continuously in order to defeat his passions (which had been reinforced even more through his sinning and are now exerting even more power over him).  Only if "the lawless turns back from all his lawless acts that he committed and keeps all my commandments and does justice and mercy, he shall live by life; he shall not die."  (Ezekiel 18:21)

"By my will do I actually will the death of the lawless one, says the Lord, rather than for him to turn back from his wicked way and live? After the righteous one turns back from his righteousness and commits injustice like all the lawless acts that the lawless commits, none of his righteous acts that he performed shall be remembered, for his transgression by which he transgressed and in his sins that he committed in these he shall die. And you said, “The way of the Lord does not go straight.” Hear now, O house of Israel; does my way not go straight? Is it not your way that does not go straight? When the righteous turns back from his righteousness and should he commit transgression and die, by the transgression that he committed—by it he shall die. And when a lawless one turns back from his lawlessness that he committed and should he perform judgment and righteousness, he has preserved his soul and has turned back from all his impieties that he committed; he shall live by life; he shall not die. And they say—the house of Israel—”The way of the Lord is not straight.” Is my way not straight, O house of Israel? Is it not your way that is not straight? I will judge you, each one, according to his way, O house of Israel, says the Lord. Turn about, and turn back from all your impieties, and they shall not be for you as a punishment for injustice. Throw away from yourselves all your impieties that you committed against me and make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. And why are you dying, O house of Israel? For I do not will the death of the dying, says the Lord."  (Ezekiel 18:23-32)

"Now you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus you spoke, saying, “Our errors and lawless acts are with us, and in them we waste away.And how will we live?” Say to them, I live, says the Lord; I do not wish the death of the impious, rather that the impious turn back from his way and he live. Turn back from your way by turning back, and why are you dying, O house of Israel? Say to the sons of your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him in whatever day he err, and the lawlessness of the impious shall not harm him on whatever day he turn back from his lawlessness, and the righteous shall not be able to be saved. When I say to the righteous, “He trusts in his righteousness,” and should he commit lawlessness, none of his righteous acts shall be recalled in his injustice that he has committed; in it he shall die. And when I say to the impious, “Bydeath you shall be put to death, and you shall turn back from your sin,” and should he perform judgment and righteousness and restore a pledge and give back robbery, walk in the ordinances of life so as not to do what is wrong, by life he shall live, and he shall not die; none of his sins that he has committed shall be recalled, for he has performed judgment and righteousness; in them he shall live. And the sons of your people shall say, “The way of the Lord is not right,” and this way of theirs is not right. When a righteous one has turned back from his righteousness and should he commit acts of lawlessness, he shall also die in them. And when the sinner turns back from his lawlessness and performs judgment and righteousness, in them he shall live. And this is what you said, “The way of the Lord is not right”; I will judge each of you by his ways, O house of Israel."  (Ezekiel 33:10-20).

Thus, for the faithful to be supported in his struggle against his passions and cure them completely, the spiritual father sometimes imposes penances - whichever ones he considers necessary - depending on each case.  These penances are not punishments; they are the medicine that is regarded as necessary for confronting the danger that has originated from the passions.


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Article published in English on: 22-7-2013.

Last update: 22-7-2013.