Mother Abbess Gabriella: Good morning, everybody. [Good morning.] I’m glad to be here with you. Now I was hoping for a better presentation this morning, but I really feel a little nervous right now. Fr. Tryphon is here, recording this right here. [Laughter] Okay, so anyway, I just have to make abstraction of your presence, Fr. Tryphon.
Fr. Tryphon: Do you want me to leave? [Laughter]
Mother Gabriella: No, by your prayers I’ll say the right words. Okay. Just a few ideas, a few words that you can take with you from this gathering here, this weekend, these days, that will be helpful for everyday life from here on, as we grow and mature spiritually, and really understand what is our purpose in life: the love of God. It’s true, I think the service this morning, it was a good choice of service, the Akathist Glory to God for All Things, in the setting. I think it touched everyone’s heart. What I was thinking really during that time was: How often do any of you pray that akathist? Do you ever, in your private prayer by yourself, do that? [No.]
What about if from here on you make a point that you do? At least once in a while, occasionally, but I think it really will be very, very helpful. Just let’s see what God’s love, God’s creation, and who we are, our relationship with God… Do you know that this akathist was written by a person who was in prison, in Communist Russia in Communist prison? So that’s out of the experience of someone who was in prison, and look what came out. It’s unbelievable. Just take notes on that; just reflect on that. I would really sincerely encourage you, that you make that part of your personal prayer, at least occasionally that you pray that akathist. It is available, and it’s available on recording also. You can listen to it. If you drive to work or to school or things like that, you can at least listen to it if you don’t read it yourself, but it would be good to read it once in a while yourself, not just to listen to it. It’s easy when you listen to something that your mind wanders someplace else, so it should be more read to grab your attention and have more meaning, and do that. Really, do that.
It reminded me, because of why—it’s very important. You see, suffering, humility, a repentant attitude, a repentant mind, it really brings us close to God and [we can] see and understand what we read in that akathist: the glory of God. So what is meant by repentance? I’ll just read a quotation here. Normally, repentance is regarded as sorrow for sin, a feeling of guilt, that we have done something wrong, a sense of grief at the wounds we inflict upon ourselves and others. Just remember that when we do something wrong it has an impact not only on ourselves but on other people also. But this is only part of it, only one aspect of repentance. No doubt that this is absolutely necessary, but it is incomplete.
The beauty of it is, if we look at the real meaning of repentance, which is metanoia, which means a change of mind, it is not only a regret for the past but a new beginning, a new way of looking at ourselves, at others. It’s a fundamental transformation; that’s the beauty of it. Repentance means understanding, a great understanding. It means we have seen the light; otherwise we would not know we need repentance, unless we are really being touched by God, by the grace of God, that we understand that there is a need for change.
So we have already, when we have the feeling, the notion, that we need repentance, we have already affirmed, in a sense, that there is a need for change and that we look up towards God’s love: not back in self-reproach, but forward with truthfulness. It is to see not what I have failed to do, to be, but what, by the grace of God, I can yet become. When seen in this positive sense, repentance becomes not one single act but a continuing attitude, and this is the attitude of an Orthodox Christian.
I am saying this [because it] is very important that we do develop that sense of repentance, that we are aware of God, because it gives us such hope! For me, it’s so great to know that there is something more that I can become. There’s something more that I can learn. There’s something more that I can experience. That’s the attitude of a Christian; it’s optimistic. It’s looking up; it’s reaching up to heaven. That’s why it says man stands upright. Man is God’s creature that walks on two legs and looks upward. A Christian doesn’t look downwards. That’s animals that walk on four legs; they look down. Man looks up to God.
That’s our attitude, and it is very important that we cultivate that especially nowadays when there is so much hopelessness in this world. There is so much—what do you call it?—depression. There is so much emptiness, especially in the young generation. We really have a mission, we have an obligation, we have a responsibility, that by being baptized Orthodox Christians that we have the grace of God, we have seen the great light, then we have a responsibility of sharing that, imparting that, with others. And it doesn’t take a great effort. It’s just: be that way. We don’t have to know I-don’t-know-what. It’s just a matter of being, of living, that way of having that attitude.
St. John Climacus, of course you know his famous work: The Ladder of Divine Ascent, he calls repentance the daughter of hope and denial of despair. You see, Christians do not despair; they hope. It’s very important. Please, make a note of that; take it to heart. When we have fallen, when we have done something terrible, when we see someone else who has done something terrible, have found really the bottom—do not despair. Do not despair; have hope.
Repentance, then, is illumination. It’s passing from darkness to light. It is the opening of our eyes to the divine radiance. It is to admit that the kingdom of God is here among us and at work, that God is at work.
I’m sure we know numerous examples of repentance from the Scripture and from the lives of the saints. So we are encouraged by those examples also. Unless we have seen the light, we cannot see our sins. St. Theophan the Recluse, which many of you I hope you know of him and some of his writings—The Path to Salvation, a beautiful book, very helpful—he says that as long as the room is dark, the dirt cannot be seen, but when the light is brought in, into the room, every speck of dust is distinguished. It’s the same it is with the room of our souls.
Once Christ has entered into our lives, we begin to understand our sinfulness. Remember St. Paul? He did not know what he was looking for, why was he tormented, and what he was doing and persecuting Christ. He was actually looking for, searching for Christ, [but] didn’t know how until Christ has touched him. It says Paul saw, and once he had seen the light, then he realized what he was doing, and then, of course, “What do you want me to do, Lord?” He says, “I have work for you.”
So the holy Fathers say that the closer we get to Christ, which is the Light, the more we realize our unworthiness and our loneliness and that we are sinners. Isaiah, after seeing God on the throne and the seraphim crying, “Holy, holy, holy!” after that vision, he said, “Woe is me, for I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, that I saw God the Lord in the unwaning light!” So as he was touched by God he realized his unworthiness. And, again, this is not to despair; this is not to make us depressed. No, it is to give us up hope and to have that understanding of what we are looking for.
According to the Scriptures, the beginning of repentance is a vision of beauty and awareness of God’s glory, not only mourning for our sins, but comfort and consolation that comes from the assurance of God’s forgiveness. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. We are in the season of the Nativity, and we know why we celebrate this. Why is this such a great feast? And it is linked to the crucifixion; suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection. It’s God’s love, nothing else. God’s love for us. God’s showing us the way to God by humility, by becoming humble, by ignoring oneself. So there’s nothing wrong with that, being humble. Put yourself at the bottom so we can be raised up.
The troparion of the saint [St. Nicholas] says, “You have acquired greatness through humility.” That’s something not to be afraid of. Becoming humble—what is that? Actually, one of the Fathers says talking about humility is more like prattle, more like telling somebody how good, how sweet honey is without tasting it. It’s hard to talk about what humility really is. It’s a matter of experiencing it, of living it, of allowing ourselves, of desiring to become humble to really understand what humility is. Of course, it’s linked to repentance.
So what is humility? St. John Climacus again says it is a constant forgetfulness of our own achievements. That is, in other words, to say whatever good we do, even our good deeds need God’s grace, and God fulfills whatever is lacking in us. It is the admission that I am the least important in the world and that again it’s not a matter of being humiliated or just feeling sorry for oneself: “I’m good for nothing,” that type of attitude. By no means! It doesn’t mean that, because, by God’s grace, I can become something. And once we know that the grace of God is working in us, we know that we are nothing but with Christ we can do great things. And Christ himself said that: “If you follow my commandments, you can do all the things I have done and even more.” Can you imagine? That God has given us that ability that we can do even more, greater miracles than he has done? Just think of that.
Humility is the disposition of a contrite soul and a giving up of one’s own will. That’s crucial, to give up our own will and do the will of God. Again, the Fathers advise: if we don’t do God’s will, then we’ll do our will, and our will is next to doing the devil’s will. So just be very, very careful. [Laughter] Once we slip from doing God’s will and we try to do our own thing, our own will, we’re next to the precipice; we’re next to falling down the hill and doing the devil’s will. So just try to keep the middle of the road.
A humble man will be gentle, kind, inclined to compunction, sympathetic, easy to get along with, inoffensive, alert, and active. That’s kind of… a few things what we can detect in someone who is striving for humility. I’ll give you an example that comes to mind. We have a new church, fairly new church, built, and we were doing the iconography in the church. So we have one of our nuns who does the iconography, but it’s the first time that she’s doing frescoes like that, on the church. She has done many small icons, panels, and there’s a difference in that, on doing small panel icons and doing frescoes on the walls of the church.
So we have this priest-iconographer. You may have heard of him or not: Fr. Theodore Jurewicz. He’s done lots of churches, a number of Serbian churches, beautiful iconography, and we had asked him to help. So what he does: He comes, basically, once or twice a year, as in the past year and a half, and this is the second year of painting the church; he comes and he helps with dividing the space—we take one area at a time—and deciding what icons [are] proper to put in that space, and he does the main drawings, and he leaves. And Mother Olympia does the icons, and she changes a little bit his style. He does Russian style; she does Byzantine style.
I say that’s an example of humility. How many artists, how many master-iconographers would do that? Not many, believe me. When they put their drawings then they will complete that—that’s the nature of the trade, unless they are his students or so, and they work together, supervising them, working together. But just to come and do that and allow somebody else to do whatever with those drawings and bring that to life: that’s an example of humility. He doesn’t put his name there. He doesn’t even want to know that he has done that.
And the greatest example is: who is the greatest artist? God. Has he put his name anywhere in creation? No. We just know. He’s so great, such great an artist that we know. His creature, his creation, glorifies God, instantly, spontaneously, without knowing, saying, “Who has done this? Whose name is on this masterpiece?” Whose name is on that icon or that piece of art or whatever, with a musical composition, anything like that.
David on Psalm 135 says: “The Lord remembered us in our humility and delivered us from our enemies.” So remember: God remembers us in our humility. And in Psalm 114, he said, “I humbled myself, and the Lord hastened to rescue me.” When we humble ourselves, God is there. He rescues us from whatever we’re in. Repentance lifts a man up. It’s as St. John Climacus says: Mourning for our sins knocks at the door, at the gate of heaven, but humility opens the gates of paradise. If we are repentant, we are lifted up to God; if we feel sorry for our sins and ask forgiveness, we are knocking at the gate of heaven. Then if we humble ourselves, we have opened the door, and God says, “Come in.”
Humility—St. John Climacus personifies virtues, so he says, “Humility has this to say: The one who loves me will not condemn anyone or pass judgment on anyone.” A man who has a humble mind will hate any argument and will be the first to end a quarrel. A humble man will ask from God less than what he deserves, and God will certainly give more than one deserves. As in the case of the publican, who asked just for forgiveness, God gave him salvation. David says that God will not be satisfied with the burnt offerings and holocausts, not the great things that we do, the great sacrifices that we do, and some people have this strength of making sacrifices, but if it is without humility, it’s not pleasing to God. What is pleasing to God? A contrite heart. A humble mind. God will not despise a contrite and humbled heart. This is why we like to earn a humble heart, a pure heart.
But there must be an outward behavior of our virtues. How do we act, what do we do to practice virtue and to practice humility? First of all, we have the example of Christ, who has shown us that we have to act out our virtues, the way we live. What we have in our hearts, we express that in our deeds and our gestures. So Christ himself has taken the towels and washed the feet of the disciples.
We have some great examples of humility. If you remember the story of Bishop Nonnus in Alexandria, who brought to Christ the harlot Pelagia. Do you remember that story? Okay. In short: There’s the bishops going to the cathedral for a service, and here comes a retinue with great pomp, richly adorned carriage with this beautiful woman. She was well known in the society of Alexandria at that time. It happened that when the bishop saw her on the steps of the cathedral as she passes by, and one of the bishops, whose name was Nonnus, he turns around and looks and stares at that woman, and, of course, all the others felt so embarrassed: “How can the bishop look at that woman? We all know who she is: the most famous prostitute in town.” And he looks and he looks, and everybody else is getting nervous and embarrassed that he looks at that woman.
And then he turns around and says, “Brothers, if we as Christians would put that much effort and take that much care to adorn our souls as this woman puts in adorning herself to please her lovers, to attract lovers, then we should be saved! What a great example! Learn from her.” [Laughter] She heard the words and wanted to know who he is, and she came to church the next day and asked for him and to speak with him. So she turned her life around. Yes, that’s exactly what it is, and that is an example of—humility, of him as a bishop, looking at someone that everybody despised. The other bishops would not look at her: “We’re the bishops, the hierarchs of the Church. We’re not going to look at this sinful woman.” And the great example of repentance: This is how we bring somebody to Christ! By noticing, by knowing, by being humble, and say: “The image of God is in this person! Let’s bring it out!” So you lower yourself, you humble yourself.
Now, there’s another funny story about St. Nicholas and St. John Cassian. John the Cassian, you know of him? Well, I’ll tell you this, the punchline at the end. [Laughter] Another story of humility. And you know that St. Nicholas is known. One of his virtues is humility. So the story goes like this: St. Nicholas and St. John Cassian have an appointment with God, so they start out together, traveling, and of course they’d better be there on time, and they’re best-dressed and best-behavior. On the way, walking along, they encounter this poor man with his wagon stuck in mud. So they look at each other [and] say, “The right thing to do would be to give this man a hand, but how can we give this man a hand, because we’re going to dirty our vestments and we’re going to be late for the appointment with God.”
So they went back and forth a little bit, and St. John Cassian says, “No, we can’t do this. We are going to be late, and then our garments will be all soiled. How can we present ourselves before God like that?” So St. Nicholas says, “You know what? You go ahead. I’ll give him a hand; I’ll catch up with you.” St. Nicholas stops and helped this man push his carriage out of the mud and get him safe on his way. Of course, he was a little late for his appointment with God, and his vestments were stained with mud.
When they got there, when he got there, God says, “Come in, Nicholas, come in. For what you have done, you will be remembered and commemorated several times a year, and people will know you for your deeds.” And to St. John Cassian, he says, “And you, for your lack of compassion and humility for your fellow man, you will be commemorated only once every four years.” [Laughter] So, because [of that,] St. John Cassian is commemorated on February 29—only on leap years. [Laughter and groaning] You got it! Now you got it.
What does God want from us? A humble and contrite heart. Yes? Not to be so correct according to the law, you’ve never broken a commandment, never transgressed any of the laws—that’s pride. This is not what God wants. He wants us to serve. He wants us to give of ourselves. He wants us to be humble. He wants us to do service and to treat our fellow man with dignity.
As far as repentance, just a couple more things here. There is a liturgical expression of repentance in the Church, and it’s during the lenten periods of the Church, so that where the whole Church is the body of Christ together focuses on repentance. You know how that [goes] with fasting and prayer and almsgiving, and we do that; it says in the liturgical life of the Church we hear the hymns of repentance and you know it’s Great Lent. That’s a focus as the whole Church focuses on repentance and forgiveness, so we do that together.
And then there is the sacramental expression of repentance, which is the sacrament of reconciliation and repentance and confession, and that we do, each one of us, as is needed individually.
Let’s look a little bit here about both of these examples. As I said, it’s during the four lenten periods in the Church that we should all make a point of going to confession during the lenten period. That’s the practice of the Church. Keep fasting. Listen to the hymns of the Church that are mostly of repentance. And with the Church participate in that. So lenten is the season of gladness. A spiritual springtime, it’s called, and a joy-creating sorrow. We reflect on that with the Church during the lenten periods.
Then confession that we all need to go as part of our practice of repentance, then we should know just a few things. It’s personal prayers for repentance, it’s on the hymns of every Monday and Tuesday in church, they’re of repentance, Monday being the commemoration of the angels, to encourage us to live the angelic life and the life of purity and of service; this is what angels do. And Tuesday is the commemoration of St. John the Baptist, who preached repentance. He started his preaching or his teaching with “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” and this is how Christ has started his teaching and his ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
So the Church sets before us these lenten seasons to awake in us the spirit of repentance, and it’s easy when we do it with the Church, but, as I said, then we have to do it on our own also. For our private prayers there is the canon of repentance and the canon of the guardian angel, which is a guide to our soul to repentance. So make that part of your rule of prayer, private rule of prayer, that you do read the canon of repentance, the canon to the guardian angel, as often as you can. I won’t set rules; I will not give rules and directions on that. You decide that with your spiritual father, and you know your time and you know what you are able to do. It’s a matter of doing something. These are good things to remember and good things to do.
As far as confession: In confession, Christ is the Judge who lifts the sentence of condemnation, but also he is the Physician, remember. He is the Physician. He is the Judge, so he gives the sentence, but he is the Physician, the Great Physician, who can restore us, our broken lives, to new life. And confession is, above all, a sacrament of healing. It is said in some of the Byzantine liturgical commentaries that a sacrament of anointing the sick, of holy unction, and sacrament of confession were treated as complementary aspects of one single mystery. Sometimes people still know that, that as a preparation for having an unction service, a healing service, they will go to confession. So that’s a very ancient practice, not practiced today, but both are sacraments of healing.
In the sacrament of confession, we ask to be cured, and we learn that God is really the hope of the hopeless, as we read in the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. The roots are in the Old Testament, in the book of Leviticus. We read about the Day of Atonement, when the priests at the temple would put their hands on a goat, confess their sins, and drive the animal out into the wilderness. That was a scapegoat. So even the roots of confession were in the Old Testament, and we know that in the New Testament Christ institutes the sacrament of confession when he comes through the closed door to the disciples and he says to them, “As my Father sent me, I also send you,” and when he said this he breathed on them and said unto them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whosoever sins you remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins you retain, they are retained” (John 20:21-23). So the sacrament of confession is instituted by Christ himself. He gave the power to the disciples, and the disciples stood there in uninterrupted apostolic tradition through to today.
So who has the power to forgive sins, to loose and forgive? The hierarchs and the priests. We have heard that yesterday. Fr. Tikhon, he mentioned that, what happens in confession, that the priest is there as a witness. And we do need witnesses! So they can help us before the judgment seat. Yes. You know how the passing of the soul is described, how the angel comes, our guardian angel comes to rescue our soul, and to show the good deeds that we have done, and the devil comes also to claim our soul. So we do want to have witnesses of our confession, of our good deeds, and this is why it’s good that we have the priest there to be a witness, not only necessarily to impart the wisdom of God, that would be necessary and the priest would do that, but especially to impart the grace of forgiveness and absolution and to be a witness for us at the last judgment seat. It’s very important.
The mystery of repentance is for the baptized members of the Church and it belongs to the Church. Now, a priest can hear a confession of someone else who is not a member of the Church, but he cannot give absolution to that person. Absolution is really reserved for the members of the Church. So who has the right to receive confession and where do we go for it? As I said, only baptized members of the Church can receive the sacrament, and the priest can hear the confession and give the absolution. It is encouraged and within the canons of the Church that the parish priest is the father confessor, and he is the spiritual father for his flock. So learn to have respect for the parish priest. It helps if you refrain from knowing the priest’s intimate life or his weaknesses or whatever he lacks and that he’s not a perfect man and he’s not holy. So refrain from that so you have confidence in going and have your confession in the presence of the priest, because he has the grace and the power given to him, the grace of the Holy Spirit that comes through the laying-on of hands of the bishop. So that is very important.
The priests are responsible, in their turn, as to whom they give absolution. On the other hand, as I said, the faithful must go to confession to their own parish priest, and only with the blessing of their own priest they can go to confession to somebody else. And as I said it before, have respect and consideration for the responsibility that the parish priest has for your souls if you are a member of that particular community, and if you do need to go to confession to another priest and you would like and you feel the need and the desire to have a spiritual father who would be a monk or even a spiritual mother for that matter, as someone to go for counsel every so often—you unburden your heart and receive some counsel, and that is fine—but you need to let your parish priest know. And you may go to confession and receive absolution from another priest also, but again it has to be with the knowledge and the blessing of your parish priest.
Again, I cannot emphasize enough that you have that respect for the parish priest and that consideration, because he is responsible to whom he gives holy Communion. Here we make a distinction between confession and Communion. They are not one dependent on the other, but confession, it is essential preparation for holy Communion. Not every single time, maybe—there is that practice also—but you follow the guidelines that you have in your parish, in your diocese.
What is a good confession? It’s really, again, a matter of a sincerity of heart. You must say your sins out loud, clearly, and sincerely from your heart, hiding nothing. Whatever is hidden, it becomes to our own condemnation. So don’t be afraid, don’t be ashamed—just say everything. What you have not confessed cannot be forgiven and absolved. Keep that in mind. The priest is there only as a witness. That’s not an easy job or a pleasant job, to stand there and hear somebody’s confession. Believe me, priests don’t take pleasure in that. It’s a great responsibility and they do it with trembling and fear, being the witness to such confession. But the most important thing with confession, if you do it, is that it’s from the heart, in sincerity, and that we try to change our lives after that. If we are sorry and we want to do something to correct our lives and not to repeat that—we all know that we do repeat sins, and that’s a little, yeah, it is embarrassing, when we go back and say, “I did it again,” but God says that he forgives, what? Seventy times seven, and he asks us to do the same thing, which means numberless times. Every time we need to.
Just a couple other practical things here. It is recommended that families have the same spiritual father. I don’t know how you grew up and how that was for you, but it’s good for you to know, and from here on, as you build your family, so it is good that family—husband, wife, and children—have the same spiritual father.
And it is good to practice the confession: start at home, as we learn to ask each other’s forgiveness and make peace with one another. That’s where we start. This is how we learn. And children can learn that if they’re very, very small. If we teach children—if we were taught, that’s our blessing, our privilege—if we teach children to ask forgiveness and to make up for what we have done, it’s preparation for the holy sacrament of confession. Start as early as possible. It is a good practice, as I said, to ask each other’s forgiveness every day.
One thing that crosses my mind is: “What if you would ask forgiveness of your fellow workers or fellow students, at the end of the day if you leave class or you leave the office, to say, ‘Forgive me if I have done anything that offended you today’?” I think that would probably be scandalous to them! [Laughter] Or they’d think you are nuts or something. But there is such great healing in that, and it may teach somebody something, yes. But there is such a relief, there is such burden-lifting that you know if you have done anything, that you forgive; you ask forgiveness and you forgive. Then you really feel free and really feel like you can fly. It’s such a great relief. [Applause]