A Word from the Holy Fathers:
In this season of the Great Fast, it is good for us to seek out those Fathers whose writings stir the heart to true and genuine repentance, which is the very focus of our work and mission during this preparation for Holy Pascha. In this light, I would like to offer in this broadcast two passages on genuine repentance: one of St. John of Karpathos, writing in perhaps the seventh century, and the other from St. Ambrose of Milan, writing from Christian Africa in the fourth. Each Father, I think, offers us a useful insight into the nature of real repentance as well as practical guidance on how we can work to bring it about in our own lives.
Firstly, then, a passage from his collection of texts to the monks in India by St. John of Karpathos.
My brethren, do all that is in your power not to fall, for the strong athlete should not fall, but, if you do fall, get up again at once, and continue the contest. Even if you fall a thousand times, because of the withdrawal of God’s grace, rise up again at each time, and keep on doing so until the day of your death. For it is written: “If a righteous man falls seven times,” that is, repeatedly throughout his life, “seven times shall he rise again.”
So long as you hold fast with tears and prayer to the weapon of the monastic habit, you will be counted among those who stand upright, even though you fall again and again. So long as you remain a monk, you will be like a brave soldier who faces the blows of his enemy, and God will commend you, because even when struck you refuse to surrender or to run away. But if you give up the monastic life, running away like a coward and a deserter, the enemy will strike you then in the back, and you will lose your freedom of communion with God.
Again, this is from St. John of Karpathos, in his letter to the monks of India.
This is a profoundly useful passage, not just for its originally intended audience, but for all of us in the Church today. Very little is known about the figure of St. John of Karpathos apart from the presumption, reasonable enough, that, as his name would suggest, he came from the little island of Karpathos near Crete. It is assumed that his dates are roughly concurrent to those of the much more well-known St. Maximus the Confessor in the seventh century, and it is thought that perhaps our St. John was bishop in his region. We know that he was certainly a monk, and one familiar with the coenobitic or communal way of monastic life.
It is this context, indeed, that gives shape to his words which we’ve just read. Clearly, he is writing to a monastic audience, perhaps monks living in what is now called Ethiopia, encouraging in this passage a frail monastic in the perseverance of his way of life. Yet it is not simply to monks that his words apply. In some sense, the living repentance that characterizes the monastic way is the true life of every Christian person, but this is particularly so during Great Lent. Here we all take on the special habit of a life dedicated to active repentance, and we seek a life of transformation through it.
St. John’s words in this passage are famous. They are often known, even by people who have never heard of the saint himself. “Do all in your power not to fall, for a strong athlete should not fall.” It is a temptation of the modern world to excuse sin, as if it were natural or normal, but the saint reminds us that sin is always unnatural, always a thing that ought not to be done. A good athlete, he says, should not fall. Our weakness is never an excuse for our sin, and we are never to use it as such, even though it may help us to understand it and to see it for what it is. So St. John reminds us that we are to do all that we can to ensure that we don’t fall.
Yet we are weak, and fall we shall, and it is here that his guidance becomes immensely practical. When you fall, he says, get back up again. The proper response to sin is repentance. When we fall, when we sin, we are not to belabor our fallenness by remaining in that sorry state. We are to rise up from our abasement and make a new beginning. St. John goes further and notes that we must get up again at once and continue the contest. The time for repentance is always now. Its place is always here, and if we tend to be disillusioned by the stark repetitiveness of our sin, by the fact that we keep falling, again and again, he puts each fall and our response to each fall into a proper context of a whole life committed to continual repentance.
Even if you fall a thousand times, he says, rise up again each time and keep on doing so until the day of your death. These are perhaps hard words to receive. The world is prone to tell us that too much laboring after tasks at which we fail is a sign of poor judgment, a failed wisdom. Were we meant to do a thing, we would, perhaps not on the first go, but certainly after a few, accomplish it. To keep bashing one’s head against a wall is a sign of poor judgment in society’s values. Yet in our struggle with sin, we face a lifetime of falls, a lifetime of transgressions, for we are weak and frail creatures, and in response to our condition, St. John counsels a constant, unending repentance from this moment until the day of our death, a getting-up in response to every fall, no matter how often they come.
In this context, St. John speaks in specifically monastic terms. Reading again from the passage: So long as you hold fast with tears and prayer to the weapons of the monastic habit, you will be counted among those who stand upright, though you fall again and again. Here he is speaking to monks and to those of a particular calling. Yet again his words apply to us all. While the schema of the monk is a specific vocation, a specific type of struggle, the vocation of repentance, which is a part of that life, is a universal calling. None is more, none is less called to this task than any other. God gives us different tools to accomplish its ends. The monastery for some, the family for others. Withdrawal from society for one, transformation of society from within it for another. But the life of continual, true repentance is the only real life for any and for every Christian person.
Similarly, St. John’s stern warning to the monk at the end of this saying has value for all. If you give up the monastic life, he said, running away like a coward or a deserter, the enemy will strike you in the back, and you will lose your freedom of communion with God. Here St. John is speaking to the particular temptation of monastic life: to depart the monastery in frustration or disillusion. This is an ancient temptation of the monk or the nun, and counsel for its defeat forms part of the ongoing cycle of monastic literature from the very beginning.
It is a common understanding of the Fathers that a new entrant into the monastic life is beset by many temptations, amongst the most powerful of which is the temptation to use one’s own sinfulness as an excuse to depart the high calling of this life. St. John is speaking directly to this particular monastic temptation, giving counsel to hold fast to the new life of monastic renunciation despite the difficulties, the shortcomings encountered in one’s own sin.
Nonetheless, his warning is not, I think, applicable only to the monk or the nun, but applies beyond the monastic mantle. Each of us, whatever our lot and whatever our calling, faces the temptation of allowing our sin to become an excuse to stop struggling. How can I possibly carry on a struggle against transgression, we sometimes ask, when I so obviously fail at every step? And so, we are tempted to use our shortcomings, our falls, as an excuse to become more tolerant with ourselves, less dedicated to real ascetical struggle.
But, St. John writes, if you give up this life, running away, the enemy will strike you in the back. This is practical guidance for every Christian. The devil awaits precisely such moments of decision in our lives, when the reality of our falling-down tempts us with the choice simply to not get back up, to lie there in our despondency. This leads me to a second passage, a quotation from the second book on a tract on repentance, by St. Ambrose of Milan. Speaking in a vein not unsimilar to that of St. John, St. Ambrose writes as follows.
Nothing causes such exceeding grief as when anyone, living under the captivity of sin, calls to mind only from where he has fallen, because he has turned aside to carnal and earthly things instead of directing his mind in the beautiful ways of the knowledge of God. So you find Adam concealing himself when he knew that God was present, and wishing to be hidden when called by God with that voice which wounded the soul of him. Why are you concealed yourself? Why do you avoid him whom once you so longed to see? A guilty conscience is so burdensome that it punishes itself without a judge, and wishes for covering, and yet is bare before God.
So St. Ambrose of Milan, from Book Two of his Concerning Repentance.
In this passage, St. Ambrose offers a valuable, practical insight. In these moments where we use our sin as an excuse to avoid further efforts at repentance, at change, we are ultimately bringing further grief upon ourself. We elect to focus on our sin, on that from which we have fallen, without the necessary dimension of looking from this toward God who redeems us. In this we repeat Adam’s act, who, when he had sinned before God in Eden, rather than turning to God in repentance, ran and hid himself in the trees. God sought him out, sought his repentance, but Adam focused only on his transgression, forgetting God’s mercy.
What, then, is our reaction, when we become aware of our transgression? Do we, too, run and hide from God, who always and ever seeks our repentance? Do we try to conceal ourselves from the ascetical life of change and growth? If we do so, St. Ambrose reminds that we condemn ourselves to an even harsher judgment. Our own conscience becomes a judge that responds to sin only with despair. God, however, is a judge who responds to sin in chastising love. There is chastising, for our sin conditions us into a brokenness of life out of which we must grow, sometimes through painful promptings. But God’s chastisement always leads towards repentance, towards a newness of life.
When we fall, do we wish to be judged by man—by ourselves—or by God? The temptation might be to say “by man—by myself,” but the Fathers remind us that only one judgment is life-giving, and that is the Lord’s. Only this judgment calls us to repentance and leads us to a sanctified life. Let us, then, when we fall, rise up. Each fall is a failing, but it is an opportunity for repentance. Let us not give room to the devil to bite us on the back as we lay, unrepentant before our sin. Rather, let us hear the voice of God, calling to us as he called to Adam: “Where are you, my child?” And, hearing that divine voice, let us stand up to meet him, with repentant hearts, ever making a new beginning in the life to which we are called.
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, St. John of Karpathos and St. Ambrose of Milan, and of all the saints, have mercy on us, O God, and save us. Amen.