Source: Ora et Labora
Repentance is the beginning of the new Christian life, or of the new Christian existence, an existence in Christ.
The Gospel began with the words of St John the Forerunner: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” And Christ’s preaching after His Baptism was: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
But in our times the question is raised: why does one need to repent? From a social point of view it is inappropriate to speak of repentance. There is, of course, something like repentance, especially in the countries of eastern totalitarianism: when someone deviates from the party line, then “repentance” is required of him, or when the party leaders themselves deviate from their original plan – only this is not called repentance, but some sort of “reform” or “perestroika”… This indeed is not repentance. Who of you has seen Abuladze’s film “Repentance”? There it is namely false repentance that is talked about, and it is only at the end of the film that one sees what true repentance is. The film unmasks false repentance, as a sort of alteration of an “ideal,” or “style” of power, which remains unchanged in essence. Indeed, such “repentance” has nothing in common with true repentance.
In Holy Scripture there are (in the Greek text) two different expressions for repentance. One expression is metanoia, and the other is metamelomai. Sometimes this second expression is translated not by the word “repentance” [покаяние], but by the word “rethinking” [раскаяние]. I intended, for example, to go to Frankfurt and “rethought,” that is, I changed my mind: I won’t go. This, in Holy Scripture, is called metamelomai, it is simply a change of intention. This has no spiritual significance whatsoever. In social and psychological thought there is something like “rethinking” [раскаяние], that is, change. In the field of psychology there is a “reconstruction” [перестройка] of one’s character, of one’s neurosis… In the depth psychology of Adler, or of Freud, or even in Jung, there is no understanding of repentance.
Repentance is a religious concept. One needs to repent before someone. This does not mean simply to change one’s lifestyle, or one’s inner feeling, or one’s experience, as in, say, Eastern religions and cultures. These religions say that man must make his own experience, must know himself, and realize himself, so that the light of his consciousness might awaken. But God is not needed for such a change. Christian repentance is necessarily before someone.
Here is an example for you. One of our Serbs – he is now already sixty years old – was a Communist in his youth and, like all of them, did a lot of bad to the people. But later he turned to faith, to God, to the Church, and said, when he was offered to receive Communion: “No, I did a lot of evil.” “Well, go, confess.” “But no,” he said, “I’ll go to confession to a priest, but I sinned in front of the people, and I need to confess openly to the people.”
These words are full of an understanding of what repentance is. Here you see the ecclesiastical perception, that of ancient Christianity, and authentically Biblical, that man is never alone in the world. He stands, above all, before God, but also before people. Therefore in the Bible man’s transgression before God is always related to one’s neighbor, and this means that it has social, public dimensions and consequences. This is felt both by our people and by the great Russian writers. The Orthodox people have the sense that a thief or tyrant, or someone who does evil to his neighbor, is the same as an atheist. Even if he believes in God, it is of no use, for in actual fact he blasphemes God, since his life is incompatible with faith.
From this we get a holistic understanding of repentance, as a correction and standing before both God and people. Repentance can never be measured only by social or psychological scales, but is always a Divinely-revealed, Biblical, Christian conception.
Christ begins His Gospel, His good news, His teaching to mankind with repentance. St Mark the Ascetic, a disciple of St John Chrysostom, who lived as a desert-dweller in the fourth-fifth centuries in Asia Minor, teaches that our Lord Jesus Christ, the power of God and the Wisdom of God, providentially concerned with the salvation of all, out of all His various dogmas and commandments, left only one law: the law of freedom. But one can reach this law of freedom only through repentance. Christ commanded the Apostles: “Preach repentance to all the nations, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” By this the Lord wished to say that the power of the Kingdom of Heaven is contained in the power of repentance, just as bread is contained in leaven, and a plant is contained in a seed. In this way repentance is the beginning of the Heavenly Kingdom. Recall St Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews: those who repented felt the power of the Heavenly Kingdom, the power of the age to come. But as soon as they returned to sin they lost this power, and again needed repentance.
So repentance is not simply the social or psychological ability to live with other people without conflict. Repentance is ontological, that is, a category of being in Christianity. When Christ began His Gospel with repentance, He had in mind the ontological reality of man. We will put it in the words of St Gregory Palamas: the Lord’s commandment of repentance and the other commandments fully correspond to man’s very nature, because in the beginning He created this human nature. He knew that later He Himself would come and give these commandments, and therefore created man according to the commandments that He would give. Conversely, the Lord gave those commandments that would match the nature that He had created in the beginning. In such a way, Christ’s word of repentance is not a defamation of human nature, it is not an “intrusion” of something foreign into man’s nature, but is the most nature, normal, appropriate thing to man’s nature. The only problem is that man’s nature is fallen, and therefore is in an abnormal condition. Repentance is precisely the tool by which man can correct his nature, returning it to its normal condition. Therefore the Lord said: “Metanoite,” that is, “change your mind.”
The problem is that our thought has departed from God, has departed from ourselves and from others. It is this sick, pathological condition of man that in Slavonic is called страсть [passion], and in Greek pathos (pathology). This is simply an illness, a perversion, but not yet destruction, as illness is not the destruction of an organism, but merely corruption. The sinful state of man is a corruption of his nature, but man can be restored and corrected, and therefore repentance works like health amidst sickness, on the sick nature of man. Given that the Savior said that we must repent, even if we do not feel ourselves in need of repentance, we should believe Him that we do really need to repent. In fact the closer the great saints approached God, the more strongly they felt the need for repentance, inasmuch as they felt the depths of man’s fallenness.
Another contemporary example. A certain Peruvian writer, Carlos Castaneda, has already written eight books about a certain Indian sage and magician, Don Juan in Mexico, who taught him to take narcotics in order to obtain consciousness of a separate, special reality, to enter the depths of the created world to feel its spirituality and meet with spiritual beings. Castaneda was an anthropologist and stirred up a great deal of interest among young people. Unfortunately already eight volumes have been translated [into Serbian]. There was a discussion in Belgrade a few days ago: what about Castaneda – accept him or reject him? A psychiatrist said that taking narcotics in order to hallucinate is a dangerous path, and one from which one might not return. One writer praised Castaneda. I turned out to be the most stringent critic.
In the diagnosis of Don Juan the writer Castaneda offers nothing new. Mankind is in a tragic, abnormal condition. But what does he propose to get us out of this condition? To feel a different reality, to free ourselves from our limitations. What does one get out of it? Nothing! Man remains a tragic being, not redeemed and not even ransomed. Maybe, like Baron Munchausen, we can pull ourselves up from the mire by our own hair. The Apostle Paul points out that there are no other heavens, nor another creation, nor another world, nor a seventh heaven that can save man, for man is not a faceless being who lives only in peace and tranquility. He is a living person, and seeks living communion with God.
One Serbian peasant-communist said fairly crudely: “Well, where is God, that I can grab Him by the throat?” Is he an atheist? No, he is not an atheist; he has a lively sense of God, struggling with God like Jacob. Of course it is outrageous for the Serb to speak this way, but he felt a vital life… But to think that salvation is found in some balanced blessedness, in nirvana, in the inner world of concentration and meditation – this leads man nowhere. This ends even the possibility of his salvation, for man is a being created from nothing into being and invited to communion…
In the Song of Songs or in the Psalms we see an existential dialog between God and man. They both suffer. God feels sorry for man, and man feels sorry. Dostoevsky in particular has clearly shown that when man is distanced from God he loses something precious and great. Such a blunder, not coming to meet God, is always a tragedy. Tragedy is the consciousness of the loss of that which could have been grasped. When man loses love, is distanced from God, he feels this tragically, for he was created for love. Repentance returns us to normal or, at least, to the beginning of a normal path. Repentance, as Fr Justin (Popovic) said, is like an earthquake that destroys all that had seemed stable, but turned out to be false, and then one needs to change everything that had been. Then begins the authentic, permanent formation of the personality, of a new man.