Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Elder Joseph of Vatopedi on Repentance

The Crucifixion of Christ (source)
The greatest benefit which God has granted our fallen nature is none other than repentance. Without it no man would ever secure his salvation no matter how perfect God’s plan to save the world is. Because man’s “every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood”( Genesis 9:21). Given that our inclination towards sin is therefore natural, no one is able to remain without sin, “even if his life is only one day”. Repentance is dual in essence and both of its forms are beneficial to our lives. Its initial stage takes the form of regret for our past sins, followed by the rectification of the wrong deed which brought about the sin.

            According to the spiritual judgement of our Fathers, the whole human activity originates in the mind. This is where every thought is captured as an image and it is gradually being acted out. This is what our most discreet of our fathers, Saint Maximos the Confessor says: “Do not misuse the thoughts, so that you do not abuse things with your actions out of necessity. Because, if one does not sin in his thoughts he will never sin with deeds”. «Μὴ παραχρῶ τοῖς νοήμασιν, ἵνα μὴ ἐξ ἀνάγκης καὶ τοῖς πράγμασι παραχρήσῃ. Ἐὰν γὰρ μή τις πρῶτον κατὰ διάνοιαν ἁμαρτάνῃ, οὐκ ἂν ἁμάρτῃ ποτὲ κατ᾿ ἐνέργειαν»(( Μαξίμου Ὁμολογητοῦ, Τετρακόσια Κεφάλαια περὶ ἀγάπης,Ἑκατοντὰς Β΄, §78.))..( Saint Maximos The Confessor, Four Hundred Chapters on Love, Second Hundred, paragraph 78) When one misuses the thoughts,  the abuse of things will follow. Repentance means: literally recalling the mind to its former position, whereby things are properly ranked. In our generation however, repentance takes more the form of begging God for forgiveness.

                        When one describes our sinful nature, using humble words, one truly expresses  the pitiful and miserable state to which we have been drawn into because of the perversion of the law of sin. Therefore as Paul says: we constitute a hideous “body of death”( Romans 7:24) since we are “wretched because of the law of sin at work within our members”  ( Romans 7:24). This is as far as we are concerned. However, “ Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will- to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves”. We brag about this selection and we experience our Father as “ He who lives in unapproachable light” ( A Timothy 6:16). However, this secret mystery remains with us untouched, not just when we find ourselves in a state of contemplation but even when we are inundated with its proximity. Is it not, however, our initial value as created beings in “ his image and likeness”  another mystery? We must therefore, quickly endeavor  to increase our thirst and dwell deeper and deeper unto Himself through our struggle and into the magnificence of our predestination since the  beginning of time.

Who is He, after all? Isn't He the absolute “ Being”, the beginning of everything, the One who has revealed Himself as a person and as an existence “I Am”? We have just now come to know Him through his only co-substantial Son. “No one has ever seen God, but God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known”.( John, 1:18) We have also come to know God the Father through the Holy Spirit. “But the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything that I have said to you”(John 14,26) The incarnate Word of God, who is  a joint ruler and co eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit, began his gospel saying: “Repent. The kingdom of Heaven is at hand”.(Mathew 4,17) Our sweetest Jesus, our Saviour, the Path, has become our path towards the Father and the Spirit. And They have also connected us with Him. Therefore, the ultimate in the knowledge of God is our true faith and our hope. Many psalms of  David constitute a confession of repentance. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me? So far from the words of my groaning? Oh  my God I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night and I am no silent.Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel. In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed” ( Psalms 22,1-6)

            Our fathers, next to whom we have studied and whose mouths we have heard speaking the truth, have described as much as possible and as much as we could grasp, the depth, the breadth and the stature of comprehensive repentance. From all these explanations we cite just a few. Repentance, or rather the person who repents, begins with asking God to forgive him his trespasses. As long as he does not repeat the deeds for which he repents, he reaches unto “Third heaven” through the grace of Christ and the meticulous application of the rules of repentance. There, he hears and learns unutterable and unfathonable expressions and contemplations, which he cannot speak of or explain to those who are not familiar with this grace. “Whether it was in the body or our of the body I do not know”. ( B Corinthians 12,2) This state of affairs belongs not just to Paul but to anyone who ardently repents.The crashed and humiliated spirit of man, which thirsts for the wholesome love of Christ, is captured by Him and is lifted up to where the Lord takes him without being able to comprehend where, how and how much is the measure of this.

As our unforgettable elder used to say, the human senses are not functioning  during this state, neither is the mind thinking  but it is just admiring. Only when it returns to its normal state can it express, or vaguely describe if at all, that which it has experienced. Paul was writing to the Corinthians that he was “caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things which man is not permitted to tell” ( B Corinthians12, 4) Because “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” ( A Corinthians: 2,9). We only partly conceive  and partly comprehend what is beyond the physical world.

            Our Fathers tell us that recognizing one’s corrupt nature is a great gift of God, even greater than the contemplation of deep theories. When we recognize the internal darkness and when the infernal and dreadful nature of sin is being revealed to us, provoking our repugnance, then the divine grace perceptively grants us its own consolation.

            Saint Isaac refers to various types of consolation and perception of the divine grace, especially  at times when one has to endure long lasting trials. «When I stand in prayer, I can only utter one praise. From there on, even if I stand up in prayer for three days, I remain in awe of God and I have no sense of the effort required”.( Saint Isaac, Third Ascetic Treatise “ On the departure”) And he goes on to say: “I stood outside in the yard of my cell, in bright sunlight. As soon as I started to utter one praise, I was conscious of  my spiritual task, but nevertheless, I was captured, without realizing where I was. I remained captivated in this state all night until the next day when the sun burnt my face again. Then I came to my senses and I immediately realized that it was the next day”. Let no one ever think that those were achievements of the early Fathers.  Since the Lord  “who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever” will grant His grace today to those who are willing to begin the struggle.

            Blessed Elder Joseph, the Hesychast, was telling us that the divine grace presents in itself perceptively at the end of exhausting endurance.“Even to me”, he said, “when trials would increase so that they would exceed my endurance, then out of the blue I would have a comprehension, which according to the Psalms, was relevant to the pressing burden”. “When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul” ( Psalms 94, 19)”. Once an angel of God gave me the holy communion, another time the Lord, seen hanging on the Cross, reminded me of the love for hard work. Our sweetest Lady has also consoled me several times, appearing to me in person in accordance with her motherly providence, which she especially demonstrates to us, the residents of the Holy Mount Athos. Oh, how pleasing it was to hear her voice, which was as sweet as honey,  guaranteeing my salvation!”

            The divine grace which appears because of repentance, tosses the soul towards God, whose light attracts it. In the beginning, this is not so obvious, but His warmth, which is love, begins to soften the heart. Then surprisingly, a dispute shows up. On the one hand, one is consumed with fear, or rather horror, realizing his own awful guilt. On the other hand, he is swamped with the grace of the presence of God with which he has not been familiar so far. The division of fear is excessive, since the presence of grace opens up one’s eyes and he consciously experiences his own filthiness. The perceived presence of the grace consoles him but he cannot contain his tears, which indicate his honest repentance and his return from the “far away land” where he had spent his “father’s possessions”. Several times the intensity of the horror of the personal sin becomes so strong that hatred against oneself is aroused as well as positive revulsion towards the passions which cause his separation from the beloved God.

            “If anyone comes to me and does not hate… even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” ( Luke 14, 26).  This real intensity of loathing, which is caused by “ the experience of God”, increases the fervor of prayer and becomes like flame. Then, the soul conceives the darkness of death as well as the hope to our Saviour Christ. Such conditions do not come about through human effort but are the results of the philanthropy of the heavenly goodness. I recall how our blessed Elder Joseph was describing this kind of prayer. He had a peaceful look and was expressing, to the extend which we could comprehend,  the tranquility of his thoughts. After this meeting, because it is indeed a divine meeting, a wonderful peace descends on the soul and the perception of the full presence of God reigns in everything.

            “Give blood and take spirit”, says Saint Peter of Damascus. While Saint Maximos the Confessor says: “He who believes is afraid; he who is afraid is humbled; he who is humbled becomes peaceful; he who is peaceful observes the commandments; he who observes the commandments is cleansed; he who is cleansed is illuminated and he who is illuminated by the coffer of mysteries becomes bed-fellow with the groom Word” ( Saint Maximos the Confessor, Four Hundred Chapters on Love, One hundred, paragraph 16). “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life” ( Mathew 7,14). Therefore, the struggle which delivers us from the passions which prevent our illumination, is painful. The long experience of our Fathers has proven this beyond doubt. “God will not enter a body full of sin” (Wisdom of Solomon 1, 4). “The source of all passions is self love and the end result is pride. Self–love constitues the irrational love towards one’s body. He who has uprooted it, has detroyed with it all other passions” ( Saint Maixums the Confessor, Four Hundred chapters on Love, Three Hundred, paragraph 57). Both the source and the final result of this calamity are deadly, but they are especially harmful to prayer. The divine grace only approaches the humble. Both the early and the present day holy fathers, illuminated by grace, have given our super- substantial God, various names, either in accordance with His divine atributes, or in accordance with the way He appears: as the light, the truth, the all- goodness etc. One more attribute which He Himself has testified is: “learn from me, for I am gentle and humble at heart” ( Mathew 11:29) This attribute is particularly significant and that’s why the warriors of all times have not conceived it as a simple virtue but as an indication of His divine character, which has a special referrence to His personality. “Those who belong to Christ” ought to resemble their Father’s character, so that their entry into the kingdom of God is safeguarded and are not sent away as illegitimate children and hear the horrifying saying: “ I do not know you”( Mathew 25, 12) since “ God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” ( James 4:6). Pride is a horrible darkness. It is the opposite of the divine goοdness; it is the source of every evil, the root of every tragedy, the sower of hatred, the body of vice whence the disastrous individualism arises. Christ “is the light, the truth and the life”. When this true light embraces us, we feel its love, its wisdom, we perceive Him as the self truth. We obtain with indescribable pleasure discerning knowledge as a state of our spirit. He has said of Himself: “ I am the truth” ( Mathew 14: 6). The Father and the Holy Spirit testified on this. However, one cannot attain a cognitive perception of this theological reality only by hearing about it. “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kigdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” ( Mathew 7:21). A comprehension of this truth and the discovery of God Word, who is found concealed in His commandments, is only attained to through prolonged and long perseverence in prayer and repentance. The more one perseveres in the observance of the commandments the more illumination and expansion one receives in his mind. “ You have led down precepts that are to be fully obeyed”.( Psalms 119 ,4) “ How sweet are your promises to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” ( Psalms 118, 103) “The Lord is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.( Psalms 119, 105)

            The meaning of the cross is distinguished by obedience to the commandments and perseverance in the face of tribulation. Blessed is he who willingly carries his cross. He who generally accepts this burden for the rest of his life, perseveres in a different way. He accepts it as a call by the Heavenly Father. The Christian mission is completed on the cross and through the cross the created being convenes with the uncreated divine Being. Hard pressed by the violence of the lowly passions and the evil spirits, our only safeguard is to take shelter under the One who is able to save us. We therefore, endlessly call out: “ Awaken your might; come and save us.”( psalms 80,2) Our Lord’s uncreated divine grace takes the place of a mother. It comes to our assistance and not only does it rescue us from the symptoms and the hardships, but it also consoles our spirit through its sweet presence and inspires us to have courage in the face of new defenses and assaults. Our spirit broadens and our spiritual cognition is enhanced in the face of trials and of various hardships in general. “Through trials Thou have broaden my spirit” ( Psalms 4,1).  When the valuable habit of perseverance in hardships is formed, then the Lord permits harder tests so that we become perfect. This is the meaning of these words: “Blessed is the man you discipline Oh Lord, the man you teach from your law”( Psalms 94:12).  Our Fathers say: “ It is not possible for one who has sinned to escape the future judgement if he does not persevere willingly in the face of hardships or of the undesirable tribulations”( Saint Maxiums as above, two hundred chapters, paragraph 66)

            Humility is the greatest benefit derived from the onslaught of temptations. The awful beast of pride is crashed and divine knowledge approaches the mind. It is not inappropriate to metaphorically describe the idol of egocentrism as “the abonination that causes desolation which stands in the holy place” ( Mathew 24:15) Nothing is more effective to steer the mind towards humility than the various hardships which befall man, whether willingly or unwillingly. The weakness to free himself by his own efforts, teaches him practically how worthless and vile one is. Then the Lord’s saying : “without me you can do nothing” ( John 25, 5) becomes absolutely true and thus the mind is shifted to the true world of the kingdom of heaven through the divine grace.

            The second point regarding the usefulness of trials is the deeper knowledge of the unknowable designs (κρίματα) of God’s providence which govern the universe. Various events, usually painful and intensive, are the proper therapeutic tools through which τηε divine goodness maintains the equilibrium of our rebellious, fallen nature.

            “If we judged ourselves we would not come under judgement. When we are judged by the Lord we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world”( A Corinthians 11:31-32)  Once we realize that it is necessary to go through  “fire and water” ( Psalms  66.12) in the face of various temptations, so that they shape the sympathetic image of the wounded man in us and of other human beings, then the real meaning of our fallen nature is formed inside us and the truth of our resurrection follows. God’s philanthropy, which is the result of his fatherly affection and providence, introduces us to the cognition of the divine love. It is true that “The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” ( Hebrews 12: 6). As a result, the devout become merciful to their fellow human beings in accordance with the law of influence since “their father is merciful”! (Luke 6,36)

            The Holy Spirit as an educator conveys through Its descend the pain of mankind inside the souls of the devout, since these souls are communicating with the uncreated divine grace, which comprehensively embraces the entire pain of mankind. Let us just stress that we are explaining the meaning of the cross, about which Paul was boasting. He was only relying  on the cross for his spiritual existence; he was believing in it, was hoping in it and was boasting about. All those who have  “crucified their sinful nature with its passions and desires”( Galatians 5, 24) have followed in his footsteps. The reason for God’s emptying of himself was to tackle the wrongful preference towards hedonism- whence came the fall- with its antidote: love for hard work.

            The Word God emptying himself just once because of His all consuming love for us, renders unnecessary all comment and questions. Peter, the best of the disciples, emphasizes that “since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude” ( A Peter 4,1). This begs the question: Is any logical being’s foremost duty to love God totally as Divine and therefore, as his Lord and Creator? This God becomes a reformer and a re-generator and raises the fallen higher than his first position and value and not just higher  but “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion and every title that can be given” ( Ephesians 1,20). Is n’t He worthy of our honour and respect? Our sweetest Jesus, our Lord, by becoming dual in His nature because of the enormity of His self sacrifice, has taken away any pretext that we may have about the so-called freedom of choice or of any other alternative. We have now become spoils of His love. We ought to love him absolutely ( κατά πάντα)  since “ he loved us first”( A John 4,19). If therefore, we recognize none other than our one and only crucified Lord Jesus Christ, is n’t it our absolute duty to practice our love for hard work( φιλοπονία- philoponia)? This is the reason why all those who belong to Christ, during  the three major periods of the life of the Church, have been crucifying themselves because they “want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like Him in his death and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” ( Philippians 3:10-11). It is for this reason that we have been constantly underlying the need to bear one’s cross and practice the comprehesive love for hard work. The Triadic essence of the divine Being rests at the centre of the knowledge of God.  “The Father, the Word Son and the Holy Spirit, are one”( A john 5:7) and each one testifies for the other. This testimony extends towards our own nature. The Lord has entrusted His disciples with the task of bearing witness about Himself. “When the Cousellor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of the truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me; but you must also testify, for you have been with me from the beginning” ( John 15, 26-26) The relationships between people as persons are of the same kind. The testimony, as true life, is forever spinning inside love and creates communion. A person, by nature, cannot live isolated but behaves lovingly towards other fellow human beings and through the virtue of solidarity responds to the others and testifies for them. It is for this reason that our Creator has said that “It is not good for the man to be alone” ( Gen 2,18). The more we adhere to divine precepts through faith and obedience, the more the divine illumination is amplified inside us. True repentance, with all its components, but especially through deep prayer, leads us towards communion and assosiation with the uncreated divine grace, which explains the form of the divine reality. Why is it suprising that we find in Him the comprehension of ourselves through His grace, since we have been initially created in His image and likeness? It is this comprehension which reforms our existence in accordance with the divine attributes, since to all those who “received him, he gave the right to become children of God” ( John 1,12).  Is there anything more natural than children exhibiting their father’s character? By ‘character’ I mean the most crucial of the divine attributes, that of love, which is immediately manifested inside the soul of the person who has received the divine illumination. It is through love that the faithful communicates with his fellow human beings and completes his testimony. Here is a testimony of our fathers who “did not fail to confess, but confessed freely”( John 1,20 )about the truth and the divine promises and about the entire divine revelation. They did not hide from their children nor their brothers, that which they have heard and seen, so that their testimony represents unambiguous evidence and becomes our whole expectation.

Source: Translated by Olga Konari Kokkinou from the Greek edition: Γέροντος Ιωσήφ Βατοπαιδινού, Αθωνική Μαρτυρία, Ψυχοφελή Βατοπαιδινά 2, Έκδοσις β΄, Ιερά Μεγίστη Μονή Βατοπαιδίου, Άγιον Όρος 2008. Taken from here, see for the full quote.
Icon of Elder Joseph the Hesychast (source)  
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

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