As we in the Catholic Church - Eastern, Oriental, and Western - conclude the Lenten season and enter into Great and Holy Week, I'd like to reflect for a moment on a central theme of this time of year: repentance. This theme has been weighing on me thanks to some recent conversations I've had, as well as some reading I've been doing and lectures I've been listening to.
"Repentance." For me that word, wrongly, evokes a number of negative connotations: guilt, depression, despair, shame, worthlessness, etc., etc., etc. Judging from recent conversations that I've had with other Catholics, it seems that I am not alone in the evocations that I experience whenever I hear that word. The difference? I understand that the emotional reaction that I have to that word reflects an improper understanding of the word itself. Sadly, however, there are many people who simply have no understanding of what "repentance" actually means. To them it means simply feeling of guilty, inadequate, and shame over their sins. But, as we know, this is not the true meaning of repentance.
But let me take a step back for a moment. In the Gospels both Jesus and St. John the Baptist tell us to repent. They call us to repentance because, as they say, the kingdom of God is in our midst. Some translations have it as the kingdom of God is "within" us. I think a good balance of both translations is in order. As a worshipping community, whether Catholic or Orthodox, the kingdom of God is certainly in our midst, particularly when we celebrate the Eucharist, but certainly in all of our actions as a community. However, as the great mystics of the East and West all point out, the kingdom is also within us, because Christ dwells in us. If you are seeking the kingdom of God, therefore, it is necessary to turn both to the worshipping community and within oneself. It is not possible to be a "solo-Christian." We need our brothers and sisters in Christ, because it is with them that we encounter God's kingdom in a very real way. But similarly we also need to enter within.
The problem of entering within, similar to entering a community, is that we encounter more than Christ there. We also encounter our own fallenness. Just as when we enter any community it become quickly apparent that we are a fallen people, so also when one enters one's own heart it becomes soon apparent that I am a fallen person. We seek Christ within. We seek His kingdom within. We seek His light within. But what we encounter is our personal demons and the kingdom of darkness. St. Teresa of Avila divides the "inner mansion" into rooms, some of those rooms are filled with snakes and reptiles, others with angels. St. Makarius of Egypt (or is it Evagrius of Pontus???) also speaks of the reptiles one encounters within one's heart. And so we have light blending with darkness. Even though we see the light within, so often we are overcome by the shadows within. It's as if one wakes up on a misty or foggy morning. We can see the light, but the density of the fog prevents us from seeing clearly.
As a Christian people we know that we have a certain goal in life. The old Baltimore Catechism sums it up something like this: "The goal of the Christian life is to love and serve God in this life that we might enjoy Him in the life to come." While this is certainly a good enough summary, for me personally it seems rather cold. I prefer St. Seraphim of Sarov's wording of our common goal: "The aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit." Later in the conversation in which St. Seraphim made that definition, he provides an example of what the goal looks like: he is transformed into fire and light! The aim of the Christian life, therefore, is to live in the light, to rejoice in and reflect that light in this world, and to rest in that light in the world to come!
Encountering the darkness within us, therefore, can be discouraging. We long for the Light. We love the Light. We want nothing more than to bathe in the Light of Life, to be fully alive in Christ. And yet, when we enter within - whether within a community or within ourselves - we find shadows mingled with the Light. Here is where we encounter that sense of sorrow and perhaps even guilt and shame over our own sinfulness.
But that is not the end of the story. The darkness we encounter is not permanent, unless we allow it to be. And now enters the true meaning of repentance. Repentance, according to St. John Climacus, is not the mother of despair, but the daughter of hope! Why do we repent of the darkness within? We repent because in Christ we have hope that the light of Christ, the fire and light of the Holy Spirit, will prevail over the darkness. Through His Resurrection Christ raises us to new life; through His Ascension He introduces us into the Kingdom; and through the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost fire and light descend in our midst and within us to cast out all shadows and to inflame us with new life!
This winter was a particularly hard winter in many areas of the U.S. Places that don't normally see any snow saw huge amounts of it. Arctic cold descended upon us time after time after time. It seemed as though the winter would never end. Darkness seemed to reign over our world because there were always clouds and heavy snow blocking the light of the Sun. I am one who loves winter. I love snow. I love cold weather. I love cloudy days (my poor Irish skin cannot handle sunlight for too long). But even I was happy to see this winter go. I was happy to welcome warmer weather and more sunlight. I was happy to welcome the new life that is now budding forth as I write this post.
In the Byzantine tradition Great Lent is referred to as a "springtime." Why? Because spring means new life bursting forth. It means more daylight. It means warmer weather. It means the joyfulness of the birds singing. It means color bursting forth in the budding trees and blooming flowers. It means movement and freedom after the frozen rigidity of the winter. This is what repentance is supposed to be. We are called to turn from ("repentance" comes from the Greek word "metanoia" which means to "change direction" or to "turn around") the darkness and coldness of our fallen humanity, of our sinfulness, and to turn toward the warmth and light offered us in Christ. This is why the Pascal season culminates in Pentecost! The warmth and light of the Holy Spirit descend upon us. Repentance, therefore, isn't gloom over our sinfulness. Rather, repentance is joy. It is embracing this new Springtime. It means movement, light, dancing, color, music. To repent is to turn from death and embrace life!
So as we enter into the Great and Holy Week, we should redouble our efforts of repentance. The winter of our sinfulness is casting one last storm, but the joy of the Resurrection follows. Let's weather the storm keep our eyes fixed on the Resurrection. May heaven consume us!