Fr. Stephen Rogers is the priest at St. Ignatius Orthodox Church in Franklin, TN. He gave a series of 9 talks at the parish on Orthodox Spirituality concentrating on Purification, Illumination, and Deification.
Well, I’m encouraged that not too many of you ran off after last week. That’s encouraging.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Last week, in our opening talk, we discussed the purpose of man and our fall from it. We discussed that in being created in the image of God, our purpose is to grow in the likeness of God. We talked a great deal of how the fall from that purpose led to a life ruled by passions, and how overcoming those passions with God’s grace is the means to recover that lost purpose. And we closed by saying that the first step in purification is the renunciation of the world. And we ended with the question: How can we, that live in the world, that have jobs and families and responsibilities, grass to cut, bills to pay—how in the world can we renounce the world? We’re not like St. John Climacus, St. John of The Ladder, who in his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, affirms the voice of the Fathers that renunciation of the world is the first step. So we’ll look at that tonight.
And last week we heard a lot of quotes and some theology. We also heard, from more than one Father, that spiritual growth does not come without effort and sweat. And so, tonight, let the sweating begin!
St. Paul exhorts the Church at Colossae to: “Set your mind on things above, not on things of the earth.” To the Church at Philippi, he urges:
Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are worthy of respect, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are pleasing, whatsoever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and any praise, consider these things.
To the Church at Rome, he exhorts them to: “Not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of their mind.” It’s very clear to all the churches: St. Paul exhorts them to think differently, to change the way they think, to have their minds transformed and reoriented. He calls the faithful to renounce the view of the world that Satan promotes, that the world is a thing in and of itself, and he exhorts us to return to the worldview of Eden, the worldview of our original purpose.
Throughout the ascetical literature of the Church, we encounter the absolute, central role of our minds in the process of purification. We repeatedly come across the concept of watchfulness, in the Greek, nepsis, the practice and discipline of examining our thoughts, of thinking about what we’re thinking, to rein in our thoughts that are so random and out-of-control, and through effort and discipline to redirect them toward God, to renew our minds, as St. Paul urges the Church at Rome. Deuteronomy 15:9 says: “Beware, lest there be any wicked thought in your heart.” Proverbs 4:23: “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it springs the issues of life.” Proverbs 23:7: “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.” St. Peter, in his second epistle, urges us, “Therefore, gird up your minds. Be sober, watch, and pray.”
In both the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the writings of the Fathers: this constant, recurring theme of watchfulness. In that innermost part of us is the heart, that part of us created to commune with God. So beware, lest there is any wicked thought in your heart; for as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.
Now, I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like my mind is like a raccoon, wandering around, looking for a garbage can to get into. [Laughter] And it’s a critter that can be vicious, and it’s a critter that’s hard to control. And if you think house-breaking a dog is hard, or you think potty-training a child is hard, try training your mind to think differently. St. Paul exhorts the Church of Corinth in his second epistle, chapter 10, verse 5, “to cast down imaginations and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.”
At the heart of our purification, then, is this process of watchfulness, of being transformed by a renewed mind, and it is this renewal of this mind, this changing the way we look at the world and the things in the world, is how you and I, as people who live in the world, can renounce it. For us who live day-to-day lives, we are called to change the way we view the world. We’re not talking about the power of positive thinking. We’re not talking about self-improvement through intention. There’s a lot written today about intention. But we’re talking about making our thoughts captive to the will of Christ. And so, how we think and how we see the world, whether we’re conformed to the world or transformed to a renewed mind, is at the heart, for us, in our renunciation of the world as the primary one thing.
St. John of The Ladder speaks of renunciation having three aspects. He speaks of the renunciation of things; he speaks of the renunciation of our will; and he speaks of the renunciation of conceit and pride. So that’s the renunciation of things, the renunciation of our will, and the renunciation of conceit and pride. So again, the question: How can we renounce these things while still living in the world, without running off to the monastery in the middle of the desert where there’s no distractions?
To help us renounce things, as things in and of themselves, that phrase that I’m going to continue to use, in order [for] us to properly renounce the things of the world, while still being in their midst, still using them, still enjoying them, we need to acknowledge their source and their purpose, and we can do that by bringing our thoughts into captivity in the following ways. Number one, we can consciously give thanks for each possession and each person that comes into contact with us in our lives. “In everything give thanks.”
As we dress, as we eat, as we interact with the physical objects of the world, we’re called to give thanks, to acknowledge their source as God and their purpose to glorify God, not to glorify ourselves. We are called as much as we are able to practice the presence of God in all that we do. We bring every thought captive by making every mundane task a prayer. “I thank you, God, that even as I take out the trash, you have removed the garbage from my life.” “I thank you, God, that even as I change this dirty diaper, you have robed me in a new robe of righteousness.” “I thank you, God, that even as I drive down winding Peytonsville Road, terrified, you have set me on the straight path of salvation.”
Brothers and sisters, there is literally no thing nor any encounter with anyone that cannot become a prayer, which leads to the renewal of our mind and a renunciation of the world as a thing in and of itself, a thing of the passions. St. John of Kronstadt, right over here, 20th century, says:
When God is present in all of a man’s thoughts, his desires, his intentions, his words, and his works, then it means the kingdom of God has come to him. Then he sees God in all things. Then the omnipresence of God is most clearly revealed to him.
St. John is saying that this practice of making God present in all things is actually the second step that we’ll get to in several weeks. For the illumined man sees God in all things.
If you’re an average person, you have approximately 60,000 thoughts a day. Of your 60,000, how many are directed toward God? Another interesting statistic is that, of those 60,000 thoughts, 70% of those thoughts are repeats from the day before! So that means 42,000 of your 60,000 thoughts you thought about yesterday. Kind of gives us some insight into the Jesus prayer when you think about that.
The same truth applies for people. We simply don’t pray for people. We should give thanks for them, express gratitude to God for them. Find some aspect of the people who harm or irritate you to express thanks for. “I give thanks that so-and-so… is making me more patient, more thick-skinned,” helping me to realize where my weaknesses are. “In whatsoever you do or say, do as unto the Lord,” St. Paul urges the Church at Colossae. And if we constantly attempt to relate the objects and activities of our life to God, then the Holy Spirit begins to establish within us the gift of discernment. And if we struggle to give thanks to God in all things and sense his presence in all things, then we begin to discern and distinguish between needs and desires. For that which fulfills a need should produce thanksgiving; that which fulfills a desire feeds the passions.
And if we give thanks to God in all things, we tend to take notice [of] the frivolous. We can give thanks to God for that first piece of cake, but it’s really hard to sincerely say, “And thank you for the second, and thank you for the third.” In acknowledging God is the source of all things and giving gratitude to God in all things, the Holy Spirit gives us a sense of discernment in which those things that we tend to view as things in and of themselves take on a different meaning, and we’re much strengthened to resist them. And a very important component of the process of purification is developing the Spirit-led discernment to be able to see the difference between desire and need, and act accordingly.
So as people in the world, as a means to help us renounce the world as a thing in and of itself, a thing that enslaves us to our passions, we’re called to give thanks to God in all things and to see every act in our life as a way of turning to him.
The second thing that we can do to make our thoughts captive to Christ is to maintain a sense of wonder. St. Clement of Alexandria says, “Like everything that is beautiful, the flower gives its pleasure by being seen, and we should glorify the Creator by looking at it and enjoying its beauty.” Christ says, “Unless you become as a little child, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven,” and if it’s one thing a child has, it’s a sense of wonder.
I actually made up a song, years ago, about my middle daughter. And it was born out of watching her walk from our front porch to the bus stop at the end of our driveway, maybe 75 yards. And the whole point of these verses is this daughter was absolutely incapable of walking in a straight line. There was a dandelion to be seen. There was a leaf that had fallen. There was a caterpillar to look at. And every little object that I wanted to label as a distraction, for her was wonderful.
Not too long ago, I had a group of our kids grab me. “Fr Stephen, Fr. Stephen! Come, come, come, come! Look!” We ran around the corner. I thought somebody had fallen into the septic tank or something. It was a bug. “Look at that! Isn’t that cool?” Again, not too long ago, I had one of our little girls, with all the sincerity in the world, present me a leaf as a present.
Many years ago, I was blessing a house. The family is part of St. Elizabeth now, and their son, who’s taller than me now, was about three. And after sitting in the living room, chatting, for a while, it was time to do the house blessing, and Dad said to the little boy, “Tell Fr. Stephen where Jesus is,” meaning: Where is the altar? And the little three-year-old boy looked at me and said, “Well, he’s in the cup,” speaking of the chalice.
Many of you have heard me say that one Lent, on the first lenten service, one of the children ran up to me and said, “Fr. Stephen, Fr. Stephen, why aren’t the bells singing tonight?” Children see things as they really are, and although they might not articulate it, most of the time they see the world as God intends it to be seen. And we need to become more childlike and have that sense of wonder.
A quote from a book entitled A Scientific Approach to Christianity, written by Richard Faid in 1990:
All of creation was made so that we men and women could see and testify to God’s glory in it. All of this, the entire universe, was created for us, for us to see and to observe and to appreciate. This means that all the laws of physics, chemistry, motion, mathematics, thermodynamics, all natural laws were authored by a God who delights in man’s discovery of them, when that discovery is accompanied by an appreciation by the God who created them.
Minucius Felix, a third-century Christian author, basically said the same thing. And quoting him:
Now if you went into a house and saw that everything was splendidly cared for, arranged and appointed, you would think there must be a master in charge of it, and he must be far superior to all those fine possessions. Likewise, in the household of this world, when you discern in heaven and on earth, order, law, providence, you must believe there is a Master, a Father of the universe, and that he actually surpasses in beauty the constellations and separate parts of the whole world.
When we consider the beauty and the diversity and the wonder of God’s world, it is restoring to us what the world was intended to be: an icon that speaks of God’s love and directs us toward him.
Now, I don’t want to go over the top here, but if you think it is, it’s okay with me. You know, the scriptural account of man’s fall involved the apple. We talked about that, and how Satan held out that apple and said, “Look at that. It’s good to look at, it’s a delight to the eyes, and it tastes good. Consume it; make it yours, and all that you need and desire is in this world.” Look at this apple as a thing in and of itself, and it becomes an object of passion.
But let’s look at this apple a different way. A seed was planted in the earth, and from that seed a tree grew. And there is no biologist, there is no scientist in the world that understands and can explain how that seed holds the form of a tree, any more than science can explain how undifferentiated cells within an organism—some know to become a heart, some know to become muscle, some know to become nerve. But in the beginning they’re undifferentiated. How does the seed know to become a tree? Nobody knows!
So from that seed a tree grows, and on that tree this apple grows. And it grows because it’s on a planet that sits 93 million miles away from a star, and radiation in the form of light and heat travels that 93 million miles. And if the planet that tree was on was one percent closer to the sun, it would be too hot for that tree to grow; if the planet were one percent farther away from that star, it would be too cold. A plus or minus error in 93 million miles of one percent. That tree knows how to draw minerals and water, and how to take that radiation and convert it into food.
And, by the way, that rain that falls on that tree? If you take one square mile, which is a relatively small amount of land, and if one inch of rain falls on that one square mile, that rain weighs 143 million pounds. How can the clouds hold an aircraft carrier? That apple grows, and it’s made up of approximately three million cells. And our bodies break down those cells into molecular-sized sugars that are pumped through 60,000 miles of arteries, veins, and capillaries, powered by a heart that beats 35 million times a year. And the whole process is monitored by a brain that receives and sends out more data impulses in a second than all the computers in the world.
I hope you never eat an apple the same way. “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all.” Now you know why I was so excited about popcorn a couple weeks ago. Every year, most of us that are present are brought to tears by the Akathist of “Glory to God for All Things,” written by Protopresbyter Gregory Petrov in a prison camp in 1940, shortly before his death. In a gulag in the winter, dying, Father says:
What sort of praise can I give you? I’ve never heard the song of the cherubim. That’s a joy reserved for the spirits above. But I know the praises nature sings to you. In winter I have beheld how silently in the moonlight the whole earth offers you prayer, clad in its white mantle of snow, sparkling like diamonds. I have seen how the rising sun rejoices in you, how the song of the birds is a chorus of praise to you. I have heard the mysterious mutterings of the forest about you, and the winds singing your praise as they stir the waters. I have understood how the choirs of stars proclaim your glory as they move forever in the depths of infinite space. What is my poor worship? All nature obeys you; I do not. Yet while I live, I see your love. I long to thank you, pray to you, and call upon your name.
In the midst of the harshest conditions the world could produce, this sense of wonder, this sense of seeing God’s creation as an icon of God’s love, I’m convinced illumined and deified this man. We could talk about St. Innocent of Alaska who, by many estimates, kayaked 50,000 miles serving the Aleut Indians. A very pious man, and yet in the midst of his piety was a master craftsman. (Pass these out for me; get some help on this side.) He loved to make beautiful furniture. He loved to take watches apart and put them back together. He saw in the intricacies of making furniture, of making watches—and he loved to make maps—in these things of the world, he saw the wonder of God. And that’s how we’re called to see the world.
What you’re looking at is an icon of St. Luke, a bishop in the Crimean area of Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution and the Communist takeover. St. Luke was both a bishop and he was one of the most prominent surgeons in all of Russia. On more than one occasion they sent him to prison, sent him to the gulags. But because he was such a proficient surgeon, they kept having to bring him back. Look at that icon. And on one side of him is the altar, and on one side of him is the surgical table with his instruments. And there was no differentiation in St. Luke’s mind or heart, that one was of the world and one was of the spirit. He did not perform surgery without God, and he never stopped being a physician even when he was serving Liturgy.
This icon of St. Luke to me speaks of what we’re talking about. St. Luke didn’t abandon the world. He didn’t renounce his job as a physician, as a surgeon, as an educator. But he saw that in the light of giving thanks to God in all things, and there was balance, and not only balance, but there was no differentiation. He saw the world as we’re called to see the world. And, brothers and sisters, if we’ll truly struggle to step back and see the world that way, then the world becomes what it’s intended. It becomes a pathway to God and purification, not an outlet for the passions. Now you may be sitting there, thinking, “Fr. Stephen, so all you’re saying is that I should think more about God? How hard can that be?” Well, my response to this question is: Give it a try. Examine your thoughts. See how often each day you forget about God. See how often the world does become a thing in and of itself to you. See how hard it is to bring your thoughts into captivity. And you’ll see that simply thinking more about God produces a little sweat.
Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos, he describes our thoughts like airplanes. They’re buzzing around in the distance, and if we’ll let go of them, they’ll fly right over us, but if we let them take us captive in our passions, then our minds become an airport, and things are landing and taking off all of the time. Elder Thaddeus, in the book, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, which I know many of you have read… The holy Fathers tell us to let our attention be on the Lord, upon our awakening, to let our thoughts be united to him through the entire day, and to remember him at every moment. The holy Fathers prayed to be delivered from forgetfulness, for we often get carried away by the things of the world, and we forget the Lord. We forget that he is everywhere, and we forget that any job we do or any task we perform is his. We think we’re doing the job for ourselves or for someone else, and because of that we often perform our tasks unwillingly. St. Paul says, “Whatever you do, do unto the Lord.”
Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory said, “True Christianity is the constant remembrance of God.” And at the initiation of Holy Week, that week when, of all weeks, we are constantly bombarded and called with services to focus on God and to remember. What is almost the first thing we hear?
Behold, the Bridegroom cometh at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom shall find awake. But unworthy is he whom he shall find in slothfulness. Beware, then, O my soul, and do not be overcome by sleep, lest thou be given over into death and shut out from the kingdom. But return to soberness, to watchfulness, and cry aloud: Holy, holy, holy art thou, O our God!
Try to turn every possession, every activity, every thought to God. You’ll try and you’ll forget and you’ll remember, and then you will forget again and then you will remember, and it will be a struggle and it will be hard and you will be distracted, but slowly and steadily over time that effort, combined with God’s grace, will bring results, and the scales will tip, and more of your thoughts will be God-centered rather than self-centered. Remember the statistic: 70% of your thoughts are repeats. Engage in the struggle, and the world will begin to change, I promise you, and your purification will be taking place. So we’re called to give thanks in the world and to recognize their source, to recognize the beauty of the world and the wonder of the world as an icon of God in order to renew our minds and to renounce the world as a thing of the passions.
The third thing we can do is to enhance our liturgical participation and awareness, to become more aware and more involved of the Church seasons and feasts and celebrations, to make an effort to bring them into your life, to contemplate their meaning. And, brothers and sisters, liturgical awareness changes time itself, and the very time you live in is purified, and hence you are. And the more we engage ourselves in the liturgical life of the Church, the more we contemplate the services, the more we understand what we are experiencing in those services, then the world and our reaction to it will change forever.
And so, as simple as just thinking more about God sounds, it will be one of the most difficult and challenging exercises that you can engage in, but over time your minds will be purified. And we’ll see that, in the stage of illumination, this whole process becomes spontaneous. So that’s a few ways that we can renounce things. St. John says we also need to renounce our will, and I’m going to mention three aspects, but only in a cursory fashion, because we’re going to deal with these things in detail when we get to the most fun topic of all: obedience.
So how can we renounce our will? One way is to tithe. And, brothers and sisters, you cannot properly possess something unless you know how to give it away. And if you don’t know how to give away a possession, then you will be possessed. And the Scriptures tell us the love of money is the root of all evil, that we cannot serve two masters: we can’t look at the world two separate ways without making ourselves crazy.
Quoting St. Maximus the Confessor again:
People seek money, not for its practical usefulness, but because, with it, they can become slaves to pleasure. There are three reasons for the love of money: pleasure, conceit, and lack of faith. The passionate loves to spend money on their pleasures. The conceited want money to procure fame. The faithless seek money to keep it hidden away out of fear of starvation, old age, and illness.
If we are enslaved to our money, if we are enslaved to our possessions, then we cannot be purified. And one of the quickest ways to battle our will—that will that is just so entrenched in its self-centeredness—is to give something. But we must be careful that even in our giving we do not fuel our passions. St. John Chrysostom says:
It’s not enough to help the poor; we must help them with generosity and without grumbling. And it’s not enough to help them without grumbling; we must help them gladly and with joy. Why do you display bad temper in the practice of almsgiving? If your face reveals a feeling of hostility when you give, you can’t bring comfort to your brother or sister. Nothing causes shame so much as having to receive something from someone else. So by showing great joyfulness, you will succeed in enabling your brother or sister to overcoming their sensitivity. They will understand that in your opinion, receiving a gift is just as beautiful as giving one. By showing bad temper in your giving, on the other hand, far from cheering anyone up, you will be depressing them even more!
Yeah. “Fr. Stephen, can I get a little help?” “Yeah, here. You bum.” [Laughter]
If you give gladly, even if you only give a little, it is a big gift. If you give unwillingly, even if it’s big, you turn it into a small one.
One way to overcome and renounce our will is to give, and to give gladly.
You can probably anticipate this list. The second way we can renounce our will is through fasting. Again, we’re going to discuss fasting at length when we speak about obedience, but right now I want to look at it briefly in the light of our discussion about purification, in light of our discussion of our passions being born out of a false definition of the world, and in that light I offer one passage from the book, Great Lent by Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory.
What is fasting for us Christians? It is our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ himself in which he liberates us from total dependence on food and matter and the world. Fasting can perform a transformation, giving us proof that our dependence on food and matter—the world—is not total. It’s not absolute, but the world united to prayer, grace, and adoration, can itself be spiritual.
He goes on to say that fasting challenges the lie that we depend on the world alone and that on that lie lies all human knowledge, science, and human effort. Fasting challenges our will which wants to control us through what we possess and through the pursuit of that which we do not possess. Fasting battles our sinful urge to consume.
The third thing you can do to renounce your will is to find a ministry. St. Moses of Optina, 18th century:
We know from Holy Scriptures that we’re not just created to eat and to taste what is good, to live a pleasant life. We were created to do good works, by which in this brief life we might obtain eternal blessedness, to which all are called by the grace of God.
We can renounce our will, our self-centeredness, through tithing, through fasting, through service. So St. John of The Ladder tells us that we must renounce things, we must renounce our will, and we must renounce conceit and spiritual pride. How do we do that? Even in the midst of trying to purify ourselves with God’s help, how do we keep from getting conceited that we’re trying? Number one, become familiar with the lives of the saints. They learned how to see the world, not simply as a thing to be possessed, and thereby changed the world.
And I would really encourage you to become familiar with the lives of as many modern saints as you can: St. Silouan, St. Luke that we talked about, men and women who lived in the same circumstances that we do, the same technological world, the same world of leisure and ease that we do. And when we read of St. Luke the Surgeon, when we read of St. Silouan, when we read of St. Innocent of Alaska, it’s really hard to be conceited about any spiritual thing that we do. So we need to become familiar with the lives of the saints and learn to see the world as they did.
The second thing we need to do on a regular basis to renounce our conceit is to contemplate death. Nothing is permanent in this world but our soul and the souls of those we love. “And what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” St. Leo of Optina says, “Remembrance of death teaches us to be attentive to ourselves.” St. Moses of Optina: “In order to awaken us from our negligence, we must bring to mind that we are mortal. Our life passes by very quickly and is very perilous, because the hour of our death is unknown.” And both of these Fathers, these Russian elders of the 18th century, are saying that watchfulness, the transforming of the mind, the nepsis, the vigilance, the changing the way that we look at the world and the renunciation of the world, can come through the remembrance and contemplation of our own death. Pick out your spot on the hill, go visit it on a regular basis, and see how conceited you are. It’s hard to be conceited, sitting on your own future grave. (I’ve got to hurry.)
So once we have sincerely begun this effort to change our view of the world, once we have attempted to renounce the things we desire and put our comfort in, once we attempt to see the world the way it’s intended to be seen, in very short order we come face to face with our sin and our enslavement to our passions. [Car alarm] Did somebody do that to tell me it’s time to quit? [Laughter] As I said earlier, even something so seemingly simple as consistently giving thanks to God, for living in a state of wonder, for giving praise to God—that seems so simple, but give it a try and it’s exposed as warfare. And we see very quickly that we do not want to change. We don’t want to let go. We enjoy our passions. And when we attempt to let go of the world, we discover how tightly we embrace it, and very quickly we come to another aspect of our purification: our need to repent.
As we turn our attention to repentance, I want to challenge you to look at repentance in a more expansive way. I may be oversimplifying a little bit, but we tend to view repentance and confession primarily in terms of justification. I come with a list of transgressions, I tell God I’m sorry, he says, “I forgive you,” and we’re in good standing again—nice. But I want us to see repentance and confession in the light of purification, illumination, and deification, to see repentance not simply as a recognition of how bad we are, but a realization of how lost we are. And when I say how lost we are, I’m not defining “lost” as not being saved, but rather as a measure of how far we have strayed from paradise, how far we’ve wandered from home, how much we have forgotten about the purpose for which we are created.
I want you to see confession not simply as a means for pardon, but as a means of being set back on the proper path. I want us to understand what metanoia, repentance, means. It means “to turn and go in the opposite direction.” We need to see that sin is not simply bad behavior; it is traveling in the wrong direction.
Look at the story of the prodigal son. He wanted his bite of the apple. He wanted what was his. He wanted to possess it, and by possessing his inheritance he would be satisfied. And he gave into his passions, and he took those possessions, and the Scriptures say what? “He went into a far country.” He went in the wrong direction. And he consumed those riches, and he was left with nothing. And he looked up and he found himself in a pigpen, and he realized how lost he was, how far he had strayed. He came to his senses and realized where his true home was. And he determined and repented to return to his father’s house, to turn and go in the other direction. And when he made that turn and headed back home to resume his true identity as a son of his father, he was welcomed back into his father’s house.
He purified himself, he repented, he saw the truth, and he returned home. And his father proclaimed, “My son was dead, and now he’s alive again!” Brothers and sisters, the prodigal son is a story of purification, illumination, and deification. And if we see repentance and confession this way—as a way home, as a way back to our father’s house—then like the prodigal, we will run to our Father’s house. But if we see it as simply acknowledging our badness, our transgressions, then our pride or humiliation may keep us away or keep us dishonest.
So come to confession with the heart of the prodigal son. Listen to his words from the hymn of the Sunday of the Prodigal Son:
Having abandoned thy paternal glory, I squandered on vices the wealth which thou gavest me. Wherefore I cry unto thee with the voice of the prodigal: I have sinned before thee. O Compassionate, receive me as one repentant.
The prodigal son repeated the sin of Adam. He chose to leave the dwelling-place of his birth, to possess the world as a thing in and of itself. But with repentance he was on the way back home. And like the prodigal son, our repentance is our return to the place of our birth. Where is our birthplace? It is our baptism, the place of our rebirth into Christ. And when we wander from the grace of that birthplace, repentance brings us back home. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, “There is no sin that does not surrender and retreat in the face of the strength of repentance, or rather the power of Jesus Christ.”
But when we’re ruled by the passions, when we’re lost in this sense of the word because of our sins, we ourselves and the evil one provide several obstacles to repentance, thus several obstacles to our purification. And the obstacles that are set in our path when it comes to repentance and confession, the first one is insensibility. The prodigal son “came to his senses.” He had to come to his senses, but the first obstacle to repentance and confession is insensibility. We’re so enslaved to our passions in the world that we’re insensible to our sins. We say to ourselves, “I don’t have anything to confess. I’ve never killed anybody. I’ve never stolen anything.” And I know some of you have, and I don’t mean to embarrass you; I mean to exhort you. But only on the rarest of occasions should your answer to my question, “Is there anything specific you wish to confess?” be “No.”
So we convince ourselves we haven’t done any big thing. Or we, in our insensibility, our excuse might be, “Everybody does that.” And you know what the world teaches us? Boy, is it so clear in our culture. The world teaches us that if enough people are doing it, it can’t be sinful. But St. John the Evangelist says otherwise.
If we say we have no sin, then we deceive ourselves and the truth is not within us. If we say we have not sin, then we make Christ a liar, and his word is not in us. The unrepentant man cannot be purified.
St. James, the brother of our Lord, says, “In many things we all stumble.” This insensibility, this refusal to acknowledge our sins, if it’s not overcome, then it will lead to hard-heartedness and the total inability to hear God’s voice. So, like the prodigal son, we need to come to our senses. Obstacle number one: insensibility.
Obstacle number two is the opposite extreme: despair. Those who believe that they’re so sinful, they cannot be forgiven. You think your sins are beyond forgiveness? Listen to what St. John Chrysostom, in his homily on repentance, has to say about [that], to the person that thinks there is no forgiveness for them. I love this! I wish I could think up this stuff. [Laughter] He says:
None should despair about his salvation. Are you a tax collector? Then you can become an evangelist. Are you a blasphemer? Then you can become an apostle. Are you a thief? Then you can plunder paradise.
Speaking of Matthew, St. Paul, and the thief on the cross. He says there’s no sin that cannot be expunged through repentance. You have a Physician who is superior to the illness. You have a Doctor who is able and wants to cure you. Do not let despair, do not let the lie that your sins are so enormous that there’s no way God can forgive you. He forgave a tax collector, he forgave a blasphemer, a thief, murderer, you name it. You ain’t so bad.
The third hindrance to repentance and confession is shame. “How can I admit that to the priest?” Again, St. John Chrysostom:
You should feel shame when you sin, not when you repent! Shame follows sin; courage follows repentance.
Listen. I love this. This is actually funny. St. John of The Ladder speaks of this reversal. He says, “A man commits a sin and feels no shame, then blushes at the mere mention of it.” We can’t let shame keep us, for all in sin and fallen short of the glory of God.
A fourth hindrance is procrastination. We’re tempted to fulfill the passions today and labor for virtue tomorrow. St. Basil the Great says, “The evil one constantly baits us with pleasure to secure our happiness today and put off our hope till tomorrow, and by doing this our whole life is stolen away.”
Then the fifth hindrance is repetition of sin. “I’m going to do it again, so what’s the point? Why bother?” Again, St. John Chrysostom:
The man who wants to cut down a tree swings an axe at its roots. If the tree does not fall after the first swing, does he not swing four, five, or ten times? This is what you should do.
Giving up because of repetition is like saying, “I’m going to get dirty, so there’s no point in me taking a bath.” I’ve used that logic before.
Repentance puts us back on the true path. It is our turning in the opposite direction. It is our returning to our Father’s house. It is the means of purification and renunciation of the world. And we must not let insensibility or despair or shame or procrastination or repetition keep us lost. So we’ve been talking about changing the way we see the world and acknowledge that that effort will create a little bit of perspiration—but there’s more. There’s this thing called obedience, and with that, the perspiration will turn to sweat, and we’ll have that discussion next week.