Translated by Alexey Malafeev
God was graceful to allow me to be among the spiritual children of St. Aleksiy Metchev and hieromartyr Sergiy Metchev. It was there that I realized, as the Holy Fathers had written about it, that the most important thing in one’s life is acquiring and keeping a penitential feeling.
John the Forerunner and Baptist of our Lord started his sermon saying, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mat 3:2). Our Lord said similar words at the beginning of His sermon, “Repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mar 1:15). This is the Alpha and Omega of preaching about the Gospel and spiritual life. That is why hieromartyr Sergiy Metchev called repentance the core of the spiritual life. He even called his parish a ‘repenting liturgical family’. He would draw their attention to the fact that during church service, which is crucial for an ordinary person in acquiring a penitential feeling, we read David’s penitential psalm throughout the whole year. We should not skip it because it is our main reminder of penitence, and there are words in it that we often forget, because we say them without thinking. They are, “For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.” Ever! There is only one week, after Easter, when we do not read this psalm, because Bright Week is Easter in Heaven. After that we go again, “Have mercy upon me, O God…” And it is very sad when this psalm is skipped in our churches.
When we read Lives of Saints, we see that all Saints had a penitential feeling. Monastic spirit cannot rise without acquiring this feeling, which is fundamental. When St. Sisoy the Great was on his deathbed and his face shone like the sun, he asked God for more time to repent. He was asked by the brothers, “Do you really still need to repent?!” And he answered, “I do not know if I have laid the foundation for penitence yet.” Facing the end, he still talks about penitence. Once brothers came to St. Pimen the Great and started asking spiritual questions, but he remained silent. They got confused because for a long time they had wanted to learn from him and talk about higher matters. Somebody told them later, “You shouldn’t have started with that. He might tell you about high things, but he will only have a conversation with you if you start talking about sins.”
When Peter at the Lord’s word let down the net and caught so much fish that the net was about to break, he fell down at Jesus’s knees saying, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luk 5:8). It is an example of how deep Peter’s penitential feeling was. So when one encounters something holy or God’s grace, the first feeling they have is their unworthiness, their sinfulness. Isaiah exclaimed, “I am a man of unclean lips … for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: and he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged” (Isa 6:5-7). The saints were always aware of their sinfulness, and the higher they got, the more they felt their sinfulness.
When some people told one ascetic, “You say that you’re the most sinful person. How can that be? You don’t sin much.” He replied, “Do not confuse me, I cannot explain this to you, but I do feel that I am the most sinful.” Penitential feeling was so natural for the saints, that they, despite seeing God’s grace and miracles working through them, still felt like sinners.
Penitential feeling is, in fact, a spiritual condition of being constantly aware of your sinfulness. Some people mistakenly think that penitence is when a person confessed their sin. But confession is only part of penitence. The first step is realizing your sinfulness. The second is when you confess your sin. But it is also merely a step to acquiring a penitential feeling.
Father Sergiy Metchev stressed that, even though one confesses their sins, they still hear the words of the priest’s prayer asking the Lord to give them penitence. But what was it when they were confessing? Was it not penitence? The answer is that confession is a step to acquiring a penitential feeling. That is why St. Sisoy the Great said, “I do not know if I have laid the foundation for penitence yet.” He did not just say it, he did really feel it.
The most important thing is understanding your sinfulness. Sinfulness is most grievous when the person does not realize it. But the true abyss of sin is when people are obstinate about it, saying, “I didn’t do anything wrong!” We are usually indignant when a child does something bad and then says, “I didn’t do anything wrong!” We tell this child, “It’s impudent to say so! Aren’t you at fault?” But we ourselves act just like this child…
Let us remember the parable about the prodigal son (Luk 15:11-32), who left his father and wasted all that he had. But then he came to himself, that is, thought about his life, remembered his father’s house and said, “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him…” And then he starts confessing, “I have sinned against heaven, and before thee and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.” This is the beginning of penitence, when one realizes their sinfulness. What matters is not that one is a sinner, but that they are aware of it, and it is very important.
By the way, it is a typical problem of confession. There is a priest and somebody who has come to confession (I do not say “a penitent”, but “somebody who has come to confession”), looking at the priest. The priest is waiting for the person to confess, but the latter is waiting for the priest to ask him questions. It is time to confess, but the person is silent, so the priest starts asking, “So, what are your sins?” The person replies, “Well, all kinds of them…” Or worse, they might say, “But I haven’t sinned at all!” This means that this person’s spiritual condition is really bad. When they talk about “all kinds of sins”, it means, “Come on, Father, let’s finish this, there’s nothing to talk about.” But if they say that they have not sinned in any way, it is not a confession at all, since they do not have a slightest idea about their sinfulness. That is why the hardest thing about spiritual life is seeing your sins. As the Holy Fathers say, seeing your sins is higher than seeing angels. Most of us do not see angels, not speaking about sins. By the way, this Holy Fathers’ thought is very deep, because when people see their own sins, they also see that other people are better than them, closer to angels. That is why people who see their own sins also see angels, that is, sinless people around, while people who do not see their own sins also see demons around.
The Holy Fathers give an example. A man came to a monastery, lived there for a while, and was asked, “How did you feel when you first came to the monastery?” He replied, “Everybody seemed like angels to me.” “What about now?” “Now they seem like demons.”
This means that he stopped seeing his sins, therefore he stopped seeing people as angels, to be more exact, as God’s images. It is a big problem when somebody starts looking at others’ sins. Actually, It is the main cause of not seeing one’s own sins. If you have a penitential feeling, you will focus on your sins when seeing somebody else’s. If you do not have this feeling, you will only see others’ sins, and even judge people and tell others about them. When a woman taken in adultery was brought unto Jesus, He said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” (Joh 8:7) Then many people began to think that everybody is not without sin, so nobody threw a stone at her. It is we who start ‘throwing stones’…
As a model of penitence we have the Great canon of St. Andrew of Crete, the canon of repentance. There are many examples of penitential feeling, including those of concrete personalities. For instance, we have Noah and his sons as a prototype of the penitential state that we must acquire. The canon speaks about a soul that looked back, but not to cover somebody’s nakedness, like Noah’s sons did, but to come back to its sins. It is a known fact that we only see in others what we can understand, what we have inside us, too.
We often think that a sinful condition is a pleasure, a sinful one, of course. But the thing is that a sinful condition is caring about flesh only. Our world was created out of nothing as a spiritual and material whole. Caring about material things only means neglecting the spiritual. Since people are both material and spiritual beings, if they neglect the spiritual, their bodily desires, as the Holy Fathers tell us, acquire spiritual qualities. We essentially strive for the unlimited, as we were created to become like God. Becoming like God is an endless process of constantly trying to reach Him. We will not be able to say, “I have achieved it.” As I understand, we talk about acquiring the Holy Spirit. But even saints, who are already in the Holy Spirit, change as they grow spiritually. When somebody backslides, the desire for the Eternal Joy, the Source of life turns into moving away from the Source of life to the eternal darkness. The body, as the Holy Fathers explain to us, becomes insatiable, so people are no longer content with anything.
Ancient Romans, when they were indulging themselves in gluttony, would sometimes go to a special room where they took a drug to vomit, then they went back and continued eating. It came to this madness. Sinful conditions, when extreme, are as ugly and disgusting as demons, but in the beginning they appeal to you, lure you to something, intrigue you, and only then they become awful and painful. Indeed, if one does not get rid of a sin, one becomes its slave. What is there for a slave to expect, especially if the slave’s master is a sin, the beast-like devil? Sins treat their slaves in a very cruel way.
An example of this is prisons, full of terrible cruelty and evil. This is what people make for themselves when they go away from God. But hell is even more horrible, because here, on Earth, people direct their anger to other people or objects, while in hell they will feel abandoned by God and find evil inside themselves. The state of loneliness is the opposite to the state of love, as love always has an object. But people in hell have nothing, each of them being all alone, and it is an awful state.
Why did God create people? He was already the Heavenly Father and had other creatures. However, He wanted to create somebody like Himself. And the first woman was bone of her husband’s bones, and flesh of his flesh, a helper and conversation partner. She was the object for love.
Sin is about an “everything for myself” kind of attitude, about being self-centered, conceited and egoistic. I think it was Komiakov who said that everybody walks a different path to hell, alone, while you can only go to heaven together with others. This is very deep. Bear ye one another’s burdens… (Gal 6:2). That is why sin separates people from each other. But realizing your own sinfulness is not something that makes you retreat into your shell. It makes you understand that you live among people and that you should be forgiving, humble and patient. Penitential feeling is closely connected with humility, whereas sinfulness always finds an excuse for a sin.
That is, if there is sinfulness in a person, it will always find an object, let it be another person, a thing or an animal. Even a fly can drive such a person mad. But when a person has a penitential feeling, they accept all troubles thinking that their sins deserve this punishment. Penitential feeling, as opposed to sinfulness, makes people believe that they themselves cause their own problems. “If I can’t do something right, it’s only my fault…”
Father Nikolay Gurianov used to say that people should be full of love for everybody and everything around them. Father Sergiy Mechev used to say that people should be conscientious, not only about other people, but even about things. Strictly speaking, throwing things around in a careless manner is also a sin, one should put them where they belong.
From The Path of Penitence. Moscow, 2007.