Here is the fifth and final part of my translation of Bishop Atanasije's talk. Continued from parts one, two, three, and four:
This experience of repentance does not exist in any religion, in any spiritual experience, or in any mysticism. Even, unfortunately, in western Christianity this feeling, this experience, this event has been nearly lost.
Fr Justin told us that he studied in Oxford from the beginning of 1917 until 1919. An Anglican monk, after two years of friendship, told him: “You are all young and cheerful, like us. But there is one thing that you have that we do not have, and that is repentance. We do not know it…” “The thing is,” Fr Justin said, “that the two of us once got into a real quarrel. Later I could no longer contain myself and went to him to ask forgiveness, throwing myself at his feet, crying, and this man accepted it… He saw repentance.”Photograph: Fr Justin (Popovic) in 1935.
The Fathers teach that one should not stir up the passions, one should not even “tread on anyone’s shadow”… but so that this would be genuine repentance, this needs to be done with love, that is, one should not simply be indifferent to the condition of one’s brother. Otherwise this would not be humility or dispassion, but simply a conventional bearing, a “good tone,” that is, hypocrisy, an official determination: one need not interfere in other people’s business, they say. (Although people die in Vietnam, Yugoslavia, or Cuba.) Everything is reduced to external decorum… Like Fr Justin said: culture is often varnish, and inside are maggots. Of course, one should not be aggressive. But God has guided us Orthodox through history in such a way, and we have opened ourselves up to God in such a way, that we can never be without problems. But recognition of the status quo, the recognition of the regime of abnormal normality – this is not Christianity. Repentance is precisely a protest against this abnormal condition. In a family there are sometimes difficulties, and in the parish, in the diocese, in the government, in the world – a Christian cannot be “reconciled” to this. He will certainly fight this. He will begin with himself, because repentance is self-judgment, self-limitation or, as Solzhenitsyn said, or as Tarakovsky said – it is shame, shame in a religious understanding, in the sense that man returns to himself and begins to feel ashamed. In Abyladza’s film “Repentance” it is clear what real human repentance is. A man begins to feel ashamed of his deeds and immediately the decision to change arises. One may say that only in Orthodox countries, in Russia, in Serbia, in Greece, does repentance exist as a theme (and even in literature). Recently Lubardo’s novel “Repentance” appeared in Serbia, about the relationship among Serbs, Muslims, and Catholics in Serbia. In this novel it is only the Serbs that repent. The Serbs not only talk about repentance, but also practice it.
Glory to God, that means that we are sinners. This is not pride, we do not pride ourselves, but we cannot reconcile ourselves with such a situation, not with ourselves, not with others. Fr Justin called this the authentic revolution of the Christian against sin, against evil, against the devil, against death. This is a rebellion of man against his false self, and a rebellion against falseness in other people, and in religion – a rebellion against false gods and a fight for the true God. Repentance searches for an authentic vision of the world, of God, of man; it searches for the right faith.
It shocks me that in Russia today such a mass of young people is returning to God, to Orthodoxy. We do not have this. This is not simply a matter of finding faith in some sort of God, of throwing off atheism and finding some mysticism, but a matter of finding the living God, of entering the authentic life of the Church. I recently read a good article by Vladimir Zelinsky called “The Time of the Church.” It is clear how someone has found God, found Christ, found the Church. If someone simply repented somehow and wanted to live, and it did not matter what Church he belonged to, then I would doubt the authenticity of even his initial repentance. This is a sort of metamelomai, but not metanoia. This is not a true restoration of life. For this reason the Fathers so zealously stood up for faith.
But one must not forget that love is the first dogma of our faith. Love is an authentic cross, but do not be afraid of love if it leads to the cross. Never forget that when love is on the cross it still remains love. If Christ had not said “Father, forgive them!” then He would not have been Christ, believe me. He would have been a hero, an ideal man, but not the true Christ the Savior. In Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” Christ even kisses the inquisitor. This is not sentimentalism, not romanticism; this is authentic love, which does not fear. Therefore we Orthodox always feels that our strength and our invincibility are not in us ourselves, but in the reality of that that which we search and desire, and in that in which we believe and that for which we live.
In repentance one must remember that God is on the other side of our good and of our evil. We should not identify ourselves either with our evil or with our good deeds. We should not think that we can guarantee that we will be on the path of doing good. One should hope only in God. But one should also believe that evil deeds, if I judge and reject them, cannot separate me from my God. Russians have a tendency to exaggerate their sins, and suffocate and drown in them, as in an abyss. This is already a sort of distrust in God. Such an approach, inflating one’s own sins, belittles God. But the opposite approach makes God into a liar. He sent His Son to save us, and we say: “No, that is not necessary, I do not have any sins”…
Christ saves as a free gift! From our side there is no retribution or making up. But one needs to recognize clearly that sin is sin, and that sin is evil, and that sin is a lie, and that sin is the enemy of man. A full repentance in Orthodoxy is courageous, not sentimental. A man goes to war. The Holy Fathers say that man has the gift of rage, of anger, and that this is a gift of God. It is like the gift of being able to eat food. The gift of eating can immediately turn into a passion for food. It is the same with anger, behind which stands movement, a dynamic. The virtues must be on the advance – active, and not passive. But if they are deformed they can become a tyranny for others, turn into aggression.
But one needs to be dynamic! One needs to fight with evil. Orthodox repentance has this “rage.”
I was told that one of the oldest monks in the monastery of Meteora, Fr Varlaam, had a stroke, a brain hemorrhage. This took place during the afternoon rest. He was lying down and suddenly saw that everything around him had turned red. He tried to get up from his bed, but was unable. And suddenly the thought arises from the depths of his soul: “I am dying, and have not Confessed or Communed! Can it be that I, who have been a monk for so many years, will die without Communion?” With great determination he got up, not himself knowing how he found the door. God helped him: the abbot just happened to step out of his cell and see what a state he was in. The monk cried out: “What are you looking at? Communion!” The abbot understood at once… The monk received Communion. Then he lived on. Such is the strength of rage!
Are you dying? So what? Are you going to let that keep you from receiving Communion?
St Demetrius raised up Nestor, a young Christian, and blessed him to kill the gladiator Lyaeos, a terribly cruel villain. The Church sings of this in the troparion to St Demetrius of Thessalonica. This is authentic saving rage. It is the power to get on your feet. When Job complained, and had reason to complain, God did not begin to comfort him, but demanded that he stand on his feet and submit himself. This restored Job.
Only Orthodoxy has preserved the ascetic ethos. We endure falls and patiently do not become embittered, but we do not remain unfeeling towards others. I cannot be unfeeling. And I cannot, as a Christian, allow myself to hate, because hatred is a flight from Christian responsibility.
This happens in parishes. A man thinks that someone hates him, and uses this to create an alibi for himself not to talk to him. But one needs to try to communicate, to make one’s neighbor’s problem one’s own problem. One needs to feel pity not with some sort of pride, but with real compassion.
Christianity is dynamic, not passive. Christianity is not “apathy,” as the ancient Stoics understood it. The point is not to put oneself to death, but to put to death one’s service of evil and sin, and put oneself to work for God. Life is not nirvana. Life is Communion, glory to God, raising up, growing. Therefore repentance is real if it comes about genuinely and actively, if it immediately rouses one, if it immediately makes one feel called.
Let’s compare two saints, St Isaac the Syrian and St Symeon the New Theologian. Isaac the Syrian was much more sullen and sorrowful. But St Symeon the New Theologian was joy, dynamism, he was all joy.
This more sorrowful, more sullen side was sooner expressed in the West, for instance in St Claire. When the grace of God leaves them they get lost in despair. In Orthodoxy – no! Here a man says: “God visited me, gave me His grace, by which He wants to raise me.”
Athos has always left this impression on me from the monks: the Athonites are great ascetics, deprived of many comforts of life, but they always have joyful faces. They are all original, because each one of them lives a vital life.
Repentance brings about a good “ambition” in man. Let us recall the prodigal son: are I not the son of such a father, was I born to live with swine in a distant land? No! I will go to my father…
Repentance, prayer, fasting, Confession – they all go spontaneously. One needs to get oneself to have this freshness of the Christian life, and strive towards it. As the ancient Fathers said, one needs to start each day anew.