Thursday, March 13, 2014

Taking Lent Seriously - Repentance

Lent is not just about fasting, but more importantly it is a period for introspection and repentance. If we are taking Lent seriously we will have made time for quiet reflection and made plans for a full confession with a priest.  Repentance is not something we do only in Lent, but is part of an Orthodox way of life. After all Christ began His teaching saying, "Repent, for the kingdom is at hand."  But during Lent the Church gives it special emphasis.

Elder Sergei of Vanves tells us that there are two kinds of repentance:
    1. Repentance that involves the confession of a specific sin.
    2. Repentance that is based on a general sinful state.

The first typed is critical, because to not repent for a specific sin is to remain in sin and to be separated from God and His Church.  For a specific sin there are three stages of repentance.
    First, repenting as soon as the sin is committed.
    Second, recalling it at the end of the day and asking for God's forgiveness.
    Third, confessing it when one receives the sacrament of Confession.

At the third stage we receive a full pardon and are reunited with Christ through the Holy Spirit as the prayer of absolution is read by the priest. In the eyes of God the sin no longer exists.  Your heavenly record is cleared and our conscience is relieved of its burden.

At the first stage we can gain forgiveness from God from lesser sins like wicked thoughts.  Elder Sergei says, "If you have a wicked thought and repent by desiring to think and act otherwise, this sin is erased immediately."

The Elder emphasizes the need for the second stage. He advises that we should provide a specific concentrated time for repentance each day, even if it is only but a few seconds.  This involves searching our conscience and making a spiritual critique of all our activities of the day. We should identify all that was evil as well as the good we did not do and that which was done without the proper attitude or thought. After  our examination we can ask God for forgiveness. This must be done with sincerity and with a contrite heart, feeling remorse that we were not able to do everything according to His will.

Elder Sergei also tells us not to pay attention to our past sins.  We are to live each day as a new day. We must remember that sin is not part of our true nature.  If we are not careful we can be led to despair and this we must avoid as it is a greater sin.

The second type of repentance is a more general condition, one many of us may have neglected. This is our sinful state that we inherited from the sin of Adam which has separated us from God. It is also called ancestral sin which we have inherited at our birth. It is a general state of our being where we have the inborn tendency to sin. The recognition of this may be termed as contrition.  Because of this condition we must also repent for the sins we have committed unknowingly. But how can we ask for forgiveness for that which we do not know we have done? Are we not only responsible for those sins we have knowingly committed? The reality is that this may be our largest area of sinfulness. Out of our ignorance and our psychological needs, such sins are hidden in our mind but linger underneath our awareness. We frequently unknowingly do something that offends another person and do not realize, or acknowledge, the impact of our actions. Each time we cause another person to suffer, knowingly or unknowingly, we have sinned. We need to admit the limits of our conscience and our spiritual weakness that leaves us in a condition where we are unable to discern such sins. The Elder advises us to ask God: "Forgive me of my sins which I do not know, for all my unconscious sins."  In addition we should recognize all our failures and insufficiencies. This means acknowledging in front of God our sorrow for not loving Him or our neighbor sufficiently, not having enough compassion or not praying enough.

Elder Sergei says that repentance is necessary for everyone because we are all sinners.  We all live in sin from birth, a state where we have a tendency to sin. Fortunately, our merciful God knows our condition and expects us to continually repent. God does not look favorably on anyone who does not think they are a sinner and does not see the need for repentance. Even if we do not feel we have sinned we must still have the feeling that we are sinners and with humility be repentive for our weakness and general condition, ever seeking to improve ourselves in the eyes of God.

According to Elder Sergei, repentance is "the key to spiritual life." It is the way we gain forgiveness from God. It allows us to become purified so we can be united with God. It allows us to have effective prayers and a true relationship with God. Thorough the humility that comes with a life of repentance we gain the support of the Holy Spirit which helps us in all kinds of difficult situations we face as the result of life in this world. He says that repentance is a normal state for all Christians.  This is the characteristic of the lives of the saints. It is the surest path for spiritual progress.

So if we are to take Lent seriously we must repent each day and seek a deeper understanding of our sinful nature, knowing that God will help us if we do repent. It is a good time for those who have not regularly participated in the sacrament of Confession to arrange for this sacrament.

Reference: Elder Sergi of Vanves: His Life and Teachings by Jean-Claude Larchet, pp 29-34

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