Monday, March 12, 2007

permanent repentance

Orthodox praxis is often described as a "lifestyle of repentance." This description is borne out in the repeated cry of kyrie eleison ("Lord have mercy!") and its longer cousin, the Jesus prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!"), the frequent fasting, prostrations, etc. To Protestant sensibilities, all this repentance can evoke memories of the Catholic monk Martin Luther, wearing out his confessor with long lists of sins, finding no rest until he realized that justification comes by faith alone. How, one might wonder, can I constantly repent without wallowing in discouragement over my own sinfulness? How can this be the life Christ called me to?

I've been chipping away at Fr. Dumitru Staniloae's Orthodox Spirituality, and in the section on repentance he writes:
But this repentance . . . shouldn't be confused with a discouraging dissatisfaction, which can paralyze all our enthusiasm. It must not be a doubt in our greater possibilities, but a recognition of the insufficiencies of our achievements up to now. If it is discouragement, it itself is a sin, one of the greatest. Our repentant conscience doesn't continually pronounce a critical judgment on our past actions because of the sentiment that nothing truly good can be accomplished. Instead it judges with the deep conviction that it can also do better, based on the experience of a mystical power much greater than its own nature, which can always be made stronger by the divine. It judges with the feeling that in what we have done and in the way in which we have behaved we have realized only in an insufficient measure and in a colorless way what we could have done. Repentance expresses the thought: "It can be better." Discouragement on the other hand says: "This is all I can do. I can't do better." Strictly speaking discouragement is opposed to repentance, because where something better can't be expected, regret has no place. This is a fatalistic sentiment, a skeptical resignation. Repentance is borne by a faith in something better.
I like that. To say that even our virtues require repentance, because they could have been more frequent or consistent, or come sooner, is an expression of profound hope, because by God's grace we can always do better. It's hopeful as well, because even the greatest of saints can end life with a cry of repentance. Clearly, our eternal fate, our standing before God, our relationship with Christ--whatever you want to call it--is not dependent on personal perfection. If it were, none of us would be saved. But neither do we sit back and say God's grace must mean our sins are irrelevant. We live every moment in repentance, because that is the only proper attitude before a holy and perfect God.

1 comment:

Lucian said...

The answer is in Luther's first Thesis: "Since Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said 'Do repentace, etc.', He willed that the entire life of His faithful upon earth should be a continuos, permanent repentance".

Luther wanted genuine repentance, ... not indulgence-trade [compare this with the Protestant business-vocabulary, about salvation as a "done deal", etc.] ... there were even indulgences for *future* sins, sins yet to be comitted! -- compare this with the Evangelical "once saved, always saved" theology: some of them even say that the line in the Lord's Prayer "and forgive our sins even as we forgive or sinners" shouldn't be said anymore by someone who got 'saved'.