Repentance


This eight-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

I began by quoting Saint Seraphim of Sarov, and I come back to him now, for he taught that:

However important prayer, fasting, vigil and all the other Christian practices may be, they do not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although it is true that they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, are the only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. Mark my words, only good deeds done for Christ’s sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

The question is how we are to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Fathers are all-too-aware both of our capacity for self-deception and of the power of the demons to imitate a virtuous life. However, there was one virtue that they were absolutely clear that the demons could not imitate and that was humility. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers we read:

When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The latter struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and he said to him, “What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me.” Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, “Your humility. Because of that I can do nothing against you.”

We can probably all think of examples of false humility, but true humility has something self-authenticating about it. It is one of the most difficult things that there is to learn and I suspect that for most of us it takes at least a lifetime. Yet it lies at the very heart of the life of repentance, of a genuine turning to God, and in the lives of the saints we see how liberating and joyful it can be.

I also started by quoting Saint Seraphim “Acquire the Holy Spirit and a thousand around you will be saved.” Christian life is not just for ourselves, but is something that has implications for those around us and indeed for the whole cosmos. In the Orthodox Church, the Liturgy is offered “on behalf of all and for all,” for Saint Paul tells us that God desires all people to be saved. (1 Tim 2:4) For this reason all manner of people are mentioned in the litanies. Likewise, the point of conversion, of the breaking open of our hearts, is that they will expand and be filled with compassion for all. This, and nothing less than this, is what the Gospel calls us to. In the words of Saint Isaac the Syrian:

Once an elder was asked, ‘What is repentance?’ And he replied, ‘Repentance is a contrite and humble heart.’ ‘And what is humility?’ ‘It is a twofold voluntary death to all things.’ ‘And what is a merciful heart?’ ‘It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of the merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy.

This seven(?)-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

This lifelong process of repentance involves an active struggle or ascesis, in which we cooperate with God’s grace as we try to live according to His commandments. This is not simply a matter of outer observances, but rather of using the means that the Church gives to us to grow in purity of heart. For the commandments ultimately lead to a life according to the Beatitudes. (Matt 5:1-12) Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos writes:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” is the Lord’s commandment that we should look for our spiritual poverty, that is, that we should experience our wretchedness. “Blessed are those who mourn” is the Lord’s commandment to weep over the passions which we have in us, over our desolation. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” is the Lord’s commandment to hunger and thirst after communion with God. “Blessed are the pure in heart” is Christ’s commandment to purify our hearts. When He says “blessed” it is as if He said: “Become poor, mournful, thirsting for righteousness”, and so forth.*

Rooted in the Scriptures and in the teaching of Christ, the Church has developed ascetic practices that help us to live according to the commandments of Christ and to bring our wills into conformity with His. These include vigils, study, prayer, self-control and hesychia. However, how we apply these will vary from person to person. We are all different and have different needs. Moreover, we are saved not as isolated individuals, but as members of the Church. Orthodox tradition therefore emphasises the importance of accountability and of seeking the guidance of a trusted spiritual father who can serve as a physician of souls, for on our own we are capable of great self-deception. It also emphasises – and the liturgical texts for the first week of Great Lent make this abundantly clear – that heroic acts of asceticism are of no use if they do not make us more loving towards our neighbours.

Asceticism is a difficult topic to address in some contemporary Christian circles and misconceptions abound. It may help to say what asceticism is not: it is not suffering for sufferings sake, as if that will somehow help us, or please God. It is not an attempt to win favours with God. It is not rooted in some dualistic hatred of the body. On the contrary, asceticism, which comes from the word for struggle, is rooted in the recognition of the importance of our bodies for our salvation. By curbing our appetites it enables us to break through the mental images we may have of ourselves and to face up to who we really are and to the things that matter to us. And it enables us to learn true freedom, for we may think that we are free but we do not realise the extent to which we are really controlled by our desires.

This recognition of the importance of the body is also found in the Orthodox approach to prayer. Prayer is not simply a mental activity, but one that involves all our senses. The traditional Christian posture for prayer is that of standing – the posture of the Resurrection –, although kneeling and prostrating have their appropriate times and places as well. This use of our bodies is expressed in other ways – gesture, icons, incense, music, colour, light and so on. These are not simply arbitrary or a form of decoration, but are conveyers of meaning although often at a very subtle level.

What we do in our bodies affects the whole of our lives. Many western converts to Orthodoxy find that we need to get over a certain threshold before we are able to do things like kissing icons and making prostrations. Yet in doing so a whole world opens up for us as we come to realise, not simply in theory but in reality, that Christianity is not simply about what we believe with our cerebral minds, but what we do. And through the “doing” we are gradually led to the place of the heart, the place where true transformation can occur.

To be continued…

* Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos), Orthodox Psychotherapy, 48.

This six- seven-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

We have seen something of the “big picture” of what we believe Christian life is all about. Created in the Image of God, our whole life is a journey towards the restoration of that Image in us, in which, through cooperating with the work of the Holy Spirit we may become Spirit bearers who radiate the Light of Christ. The question remains, however, how we are to do this, for we need to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit, actively struggling to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12)

This process of transformation is what we understand as a life of repentance. Sin and repentance can be difficult topics to address in our contemporary society, for too often people associate them with a crippling guilt which would seem to deny our God-given dignity, making us feel like worthless sinners who cannot do anything good. Yes, sin is a reality in our world, and we need to acknowledge that. But, more fundamentally, sin is something that Christ comes to save us from and repentance is not about feeling guilty but about changing our lives so that they might become transparent to God.

In an Orthodox understanding, sin is not seen so much in legal terms as having broken laws and thus incurring God’s wrath, but rather as having missed the mark, of being aware that our lives are not what they were meant to be. There is a fundamental brokenness that runs through our lives which we are not able to put right on our own. Repentance means learning our need for God and our dependence on Him. It is recognising that we are sick and in need of healing. It is to pray, as Saint Macarius teaches us, “Lord, as you will and as you know, have mercy!” or simply, “Lord help!” And we are able to do this because, no matter what our sins, God does not abandon us.

A soldier asked Abba Mius if God accepted repentance. After the old man had taught him many things he said, ‘Tell me, my dear, if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away?’ He replied, ‘No, I mend it and use it again.’ The old man said to him, ‘If you are so careful about your cloak, will not God be equally careful about His creature?’

Repentance involves coming to acknowledge the truth about ourselves – a gradual process as we grow in self knowledge and are able to begin to recognise the ways in which we have become adept at deceiving ourselves. This is no purely intellectual exercise, but is rather about getting in touch with what Scripture and the Fathers call the heart, that centre of our being that is the core of our consciousness and desires. As Saint Macarius the Great wrote:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.

Repentance involves mourning for our sins, but the Fathers speak of it, if it is genuine, as a joyful mourning, for it is a mourning that liberates and frees us, enabling us to move forward to greater knowledge of God and of ourselves. At the beginning of Lent we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, and in the Lenten texts we identify ourselves with them, recognising that our human life is in many ways an experience of exile, for we have lost our true home and our true identity. And yet this very recognition is the beginning of a desire to return home, and our whole journey to Easter is a journey to that home, to the victory of Christ, the New Adam, who in his own flesh conquers death.

Great Lent will have begun by the time this appears (I will be in Robertson without easy internet access and so am setting it up now), but we have been singing “Open to me the doors of repentance,” for a few weeks now – okay, trying to sing it might be a better phrase for some of us! – and so I have had it going through my mind quite a bit recently. And yesterday it suddenly struck me that the gift of repentance is really something that we need to ask for, that the mystery of repentance is something I do not properly understand. It is more than simply a cerebral act of the will, or the saying of words, although both the will and words, and many other actions, are necessary. But it is also something more, and deeper, than that. Something that is beyond our power which we cannot manufacture, but need to ask for.

It remains spiritually impossible to talk of Hell for others. The theme of Hell can only be broached in the language of I and Thou. The threats in the Gospel concern me; they form the serious tragic element in my spiritual destiny; they prompt me to humility and repentance, because I recognise them as the diagnosis of my state. But for you, the numberless you of my neighbour, I can only serve, bear witness, and pray that you will experience the Risen Christ, and that you and everyone will be saved…

Olivier Clement quoted in Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church, 227.

The Lord my Creator took me as dust from the earth and formed me into a living creature, breathing into me the breath of life and giving me a living soul; He honoured me, setting me as ruler upon earth over all things visible, and making me companion of the angels. But Satan, the deceiver, using the serpent as his instrument, enticed me by food; he parted me from the glory of God and gave me over to the earth and to the lowest depths of death. But, Master, in compassion call me back again. (Vespers for Forgiveness Sunday, 168)

One of the primary images in the Triodion is that of the return to Paradise. Lent is a time when we weep with Adam and Eve before the closed gate of Eden, repenting with them for the sins that have deprived us of our free communion with God. Lent is also a time when we are preparing to celebrate the saving even of Christ’s death and rising, which has reopened Paradise to us once more (Luke 23:43) So sorrow for our exile in sin is tempered by the hope of our re-entry into Paradise …

Note that the Triodion speaks here not of ‘Adam’ but of ‘me’ : ‘May He open unto me the gates which I closed’. Here, as throughout the Triodion, the events of sacred history are not treated as happenings in the distant past or future, but as experiences undergone by me now within the dimensions of sacred time. (46)

Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, “The Meaning of the Great Fast” in Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, The Lenten Triodion (Faber & Faber, 1978).

 

In reality, a monastic community consists of broken people living a life of repentance. Like all broken people, monastics come into intense conflict with one another, conflict which visitors and pilgrims never see because monks and nuns tend not to “wash their dirty linen in public.” What the visitor to a monastery experiences in the gracious hospitality and respectful distance is absolutely genuine, but it has little to do with the experience of the monks and nuns themselves. Outsiders who visit a monastery may consider the members of the community to be “perfect, holy, peaceful, and sinless.” Members of the community know better. The basic difference between monastic life and parish life in this respect, then, is that the problems in a monastery become far more severe, but the solutions become even more profound and life-changing.

They say that in any average monastery nine out of ten who come to try the life end up leaving. It’s all about handling the pressure of interpersonal relationships. Either you give up and go away or you stay and make it work. Ultimately there is only one way to make the monastic life work—by demonstrating the willingness to resolve conflict by forgiving others, asking their forgiveness, reconciling with them, and by humbling yourself even when you think you are right. This process does not take place in every monastery, and as a result the monasteries which are healthy are very, very healthy, while the monasteries that go bad go very, very bad. In either case, they serve as an example to the parish, either a good example or a bad example.

What monastic life, at its best, has to offer the parish is a vision of what the Kingdom is like when we make our relationships with other persons work, because ultimately healthy relationships – with other human persons and with God – are the only thing that matters.

Monk Cosmas Shartz in the current issue of In Communion, journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship of the Protection of the Mother of God, February2011, p. 35, also available here.

It has perhaps seemed remarkable to many a reader of The Way of a Pilgrim that the traditional formula for the perpetual prayer of the heart goes: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He may have been surprised that this centrepiece of the hesychastic tradition in the Eastern Church is actually a sort of penitential prayer. Anyone who has read the chapter about the tears of metanoia, though, will not be surprised. Rather, it will seem to him quite consistent that the Fathers finally agreed upon this formula, which we do not hear about in the early period of monasticism. For it reflects perfectly that spirit which from the beginning inspired the Fathers in their endeavours. (113)

In this third section of the third chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, Father Gabriel (Bunge) outlines the development of what has come to be known as the Jesus Prayer, which originated in the Desert tradition of using oft-repeated phrases in prayer, and which is rooted in an attitude that calls out to God for help. This practice of short invocations goes back to the origins of monasticism and soon became known outside of Egypt. Evagrius advocated frequent and uninterrupted prayers like “spear thrusts” that were often comprised of scripture verses. While Evagrius did not seem to know of any fixed formula, Saint John Cassian passed on the Egyptian tradition of praying “O God, come to my assistance, O Lord, make haste to help me.” Abba Ammomas advised a monk to recall the prayer of the tax collector – “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” whereas Abba Macarius the Egyptian, when asked “How should we pray?” answered:

It is not necessary to ‘rattle on,’ but one has only to stretch out one’s hands and say, ‘Lord, as you will’ and ‘as you know’, ‘have mercy on me!’ On the other hand, if a battle is impending, pray, ‘Lord, help me!’ He himself knows what is necessary and treats us with mercy. (116)

Whatever the differences in form, these “ejaculatory prayers” are all cries of help to God. This is what Evagrius meant when he recommended “praying, not like the Pharisee, but like the tax collector,” for

The spirit common to all of these ejaculatory prayers is the spirit of metanoia, of remorse, conversion, and repentance. Precisely that spirit, then, which alone is capable of accepting the “glad tidings” of “reconciliation in Christ”.

The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel. [Mk 1:15]

Without “conversion” (μετἀνοια) there is no faith; without faith there is no share in the gospel of reconciliation. For this reason the sermons of the apostles, which Luke has preserved for us in his Acts of the Apostles, almost without exception end with this call for “conversion”. This metanoia, however, is not a single act, but rather a life-long process. The “spirit of repentance”, that is, humility that comes from the heart, is not attained once and for all. A lifetime is not sufficient to “learn” from Christ this essential feature, which, as he himself tells us, is his distinguishing characteristic. The practice of repeating over and over again – audibly or in one’s heart – this “supplication” (which was discussed in the previous chapter), in the spirit of the remorseful tax collector, is one of the best means of vigilantly maintaining an interior desire for genuine metanoia. (117-118)

These prayers were usually directed to Christ, even if, in the case of psalm verses, this was not always explicit.

The formula that later became usual, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”, merely says explicitly what was meant implicitly from the beginning, namely, that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”, except through the Name of Jesus Christ. Therefore it is with good reason that the Fathers later gave particular emphasis to this salutary affirmation of “Jesus the Christ” – to the extent of developing a full-fledged mysticism of the Name of Jesus. For the person who prays with a “supplication” consciously takes his place among the blind and the lame, and so on, who cried out to Jesus for help during his life on earth. They did this in a way that is in fact appropriate only when one is turning to God – and thus they demonstrated more clearly than by any verbal profession their faith in the Divine Sonship of the Redeemer. (119-120)

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues his discussion on the relationship between theology and spirituality in the seventh chapter of The Compassion of the Fatherby proposing four basic requirements for a living theology renewed in the Spirit.

The first requirement is that of repentance and profound renewal of the self.

The entire being must turn away from a dark existence, renounce the “old Adam” and Satan, and sin – all forms, direct or insidious, of illusion and diabolical seduction. The entire being must tend toward a purification of the heart, since the heart is the center of the human mystery – but also purification of the senses by an asceticism of the body and purification of the intellect by an asceticism of the thoughts. When the intellect is severed from grace, it hardens and proudly asserts itself. With all one’s effort, the mind must pass through the mystery of baptism, not the precise moment of child’s or adult’s baptism, but everything that baptism presupposes: preliminary and lasting renunciation of an old life and a desire for a new life, the sacrament of the death and the life of Jesus Christ. …

Thus, the proud mind that counts itself as the criterion of things and of the world must be baptized. This mind must discover silence by entering into the depths of the heart and gradually must be taught by the Holy Spirit… When the intellect purifies itself by this descent and attentiveness to God, life springs up from the transfigured heart, and the mind find new words. (127-128)

The second requirement is that of being in communion with the Body of Christ, the Church. The Holy Spirit incorporates us into the totality of the Body of Christ which is inseparable from its Head and this has consequences for our theology.

This “Body” contains not only the eucharistic assembly “here and now,” but the Church of all times, of all places – the communion of saints. This point is crucial to our understanding of theology. My theology is not my theology, not even that of the group to which I belong. Rather, my theology has been formulated through living experience: the life and suffering of the saints since Pentecost – and even before Pentecost by the patriarchs and prophets – in communion. This communion of the saints implies a communion of faith. This explains why the Orthodox Church does not accept intercommunion, which would make light of this profound unity, what Fr Florovsky calls “ecumenism in time.” Communion of faith entails not only attempts to create unity with the dispersed members of churches in our world today, but also constancy in maintaining unity with our church fathers. (129)

This concept of fatherhood runs very deep in Orthodoxy and “constitutes the very framework of Tradition” which is always transmitted from heart to heart in a living and personal way, whether through books or through actual encounters.

The third requirement is that it feed on the Scriptures, and especially the Psalms “which are the basic prayers and which nourished the prayer of Christ Himself.” (130)

In growing accustomed to reading them regularly and daily, they become an extraordinary source of knowledge, wisdom, and spiritual sensitivity. Little by little, something awakens in us; we become more attentive and more sensitive. (130)

An understanding of the Old Testament is important and leads us to the Gospels which are a “genuine sacrament” and puts us “in the real presence of Christ, just as an icon does.” (130)

The fourth requirement is that of love which is related to knowledge. Father Boris writes:

When I was young, I read St Augustine, the great church father that has marked the West until now. He said that, in order to love, we should first know. That has always shocked me because I would like to say that in order to know, we first should love. Certainly the two go together. St Paul says: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all the mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith … but I have not love, I am nothing… And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:1-2,13). He completes this picture by saying: “God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us” (Rom 5:5). The Holy Spirit pours the love of God into us like an ointment of great price, like a perfumed oil, and this love makes our hearts expand to the extent that God desires. (131)

Father Boris concludes this chapter by speaking of our obligation to witness and of the need to connect what we say to what we have seen, for

The human being cannot be satisfied with parcelled truth. We search for a vision of the world carried by God, a unified spiritual vision, with all our being, and at the same time, the words we utter – our proclamation to others – always fall short. Fortunately, we have the church fathers and great theologians, and we may repeat things that were expressed and lived better…

This love of Christ in us compels us, pushes us, and forces us not only to do theology, but also to simply be in Christ. Then our silence, as well as our words, will testify to a true theology, prayed and lived. (131-132)

In the third chapter of The Compassion of the Father, Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues his discussion of the mystery of forgiveness. He begins by pointing out that in the Liturgy, the Lord’s Prayer follows the epiclesis and that it is only in this context of the invocation of the Holy Spirit who transforms us into the Body and Blood of Christ, that we can live the Our Father – with its petition to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” – to the full. Indeed, “if we expect God to forgive us to the extent of our own forgiveness, it is a vain hope because we ourselves are not able to forgive.” (74)

In the Bible we encounter the primacy of the forgiveness of God which would seem to contradict the words of the Our Father “forgive us … as we forgive.” Here Father Boris distinguishes two degrees of forgiveness. The first is universal and absolute, that in Christ God has forgiven us. This is unconditional, for God loved us when we were still sinners. But there is also second degree of forgiveness:

through the action of the Holy Spirit we are called to be collaborators with the work of God by assuming this mystery and this achievement, the fruit of the forgiveness of God. Universal forgiveness is offered by not imposed. The human being remains free – this is the great mystery of the Christian faith – in the presence of the love of God, the forgiveness of God, the light of God, which we may accept or reject. Thus our refusal of God is part of the mystery of His love. (75)

Moreover, in the prayer of Christ on the cross – “Father, forgive them…” – we encounter the supreme reconciliation with the Father. This prayer encompasses all times and space.

Being in solidarity with his executioners, we are all concerned with this prayer of forgiveness that Christ addresses to the Father. The slightest refusal of God, indeed the smallest rejection of His love, unites us with those who tempted Christ during His life, and with those who crucified Him. Thus the prayer of Christ is truly an epiclesis to the Father. (76)

But sin is more than simply individual deeds. Behind it there is a personal power that seeks to subdue and destroy humanity. It divides them, whereas Jesus died in order to gather together the scattered children of God. (Jn 11:52) Sin breaks our “communing” character, isolating us from God, from other people and from ourselves. God comes to be seen as far away and harsh. Human relations become characterised by hate, incomprehension and vengeance. And the human being disintegrates, losing integrity and unity of being.

The deep heart, the immaterial place in the image of God, though indestructible, becomes alienated, seriously overshadowed, darkened, and locked up in its own depth. The human being becomes a stranger to his or her identity and ultimate vocation, roaming like a suffering soul between heaven and earth. In this state of multiple dissociation, the human being is at the same time a victim of possessive Satanic powers and enslaved to his or her own desires. (77)

However, this does not take away our own responsibility – “Responsibility and guilt remain because the image of God continues to glow in the depths.” (78) Forgiveness means that when God wipes the sin away, He heals the underlying wound and creates a new heart.

Man cannot truly heal himself: he does not have the strength for it because the wound in him is too big; it continues to bleed and cause suffering. Only God can forgive. (78)

Thus forgiveness means us allowing God to heal the wound of our own heart.

When we hear the words of the priest at the eucharistic liturgy, “Let us lift up our hearts” and the response of the choir, “We lift them up unto the Lord,” what happens at that moment? What does it mean “to lift up one’s heart to God?” This can be understood in the sense of forgetting all that is earthly, human, secular, and of turning to God in a relationship of absolute verticality, of prayer, adoration, and total supplication. That, however, is only a way of perception because whether we like it or not, our heart is a universe. Our heart is wider than the world because it contains it; it knows that the world does not know this mystery it carries within. When our hearts are filled with everything that make up our existence, our joys, our sorrows, all our loves, all our hatred and sufferings, what can we do? We are not able to tear all this from our hearts. Thus, we can only lift up our hearts to God. Just as we expose the sick part of our body to radiation that can heal it, so do we lift up our sick hearts and ask the Lord to penetrate them; we ask Him to enter into our sick and beseeching hearts with all His power, His grace, His love, with all the presence, the light and the fire of the Spirit to consume what must be, to transform and recreate what must remain for the kingdom. (79-80)

In this process we also learn not to place ourselves at the centre of things – for “who am I not to forgive?” – and repentance becomes the key to forgiveness.

When I ask for forgiveness while viewing myself as “the least of men and the chief sinner,” the forgiveness of the other assumes another resonance. Therefore I cannot forgive unless I ask forgiveness from all and each. This is the preliminary and inner dimension of forgiveness. When I forgive, it is still the me that is at the center. Conversely, when I ask for forgiveness, I break this proud me; the forgiveness of the neighbour, or of the one whose neighbour I am, becomes necessary.

The mystery of repentance is the first work of the Holy Spirit, which is to bring us to recognise ourselves as sinners, aliens, and orphans. “Give your blood and receive the Spirit,” a patristic adage states. The Spirit descends on the world in tongues of fire, in dew of living water to quench the thirsty, in healing the wounds of sin, in leading the lost sheep to the house of the Father, when I discover myself – and me alone – as a sinner and guilty (1 Tim 1:15). I ask forgiveness from all and each, but above all from God who alone can forgive: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk 2:7) (81)