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What is repentance? Can one truly repent if one has sinned greatly? Repentance is a turning back to God, and so long as we draw breath, no matter how low we may have sunk, we can turn back. But that turning back may be arduous and painful. On the final Sunday of Great Lent, we are reminded that, so long as we choose to repent, the door is open.
On the final Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate Saint Mary of Egypt. The account of Saint Mary comes to us through Saint Sophronius of Jerusalem (himself an interesting figure in his own right), which he transcribed as it has been verbally passed down for perhaps a hundred years at that point. Mary was from Alexandria and had lived as a prostitute for 17 years, from the age of 12. Moreover, she claimed that she lived that way as much for pleasure as for the money. Yet in a moment she changed.
She encountered a group of men about to sail for the Holy Land, so as to be in Jerusalem on the day of the Exaltation of the Cross. She had no money to pay for the journey but prostituted herself for the passage. Yet upon reaching Jerusalem, when she tried to enter the Holy Sepulchre with the others, she was barred from doing so, though not by any visible guards.
“I had at last squeezed through with great difficulty almost to the entrance of the temple, from which the lifegiving Tree of the Cross was being shown to the people. But when I trod on the doorstep which everyone passed, I was stopped by some force which prevented by entering. Meanwhile I was brushed aside by the crowd and found myself standing alone in the porch. Thinking that this had happened because of my woman’s weakness, I again began to work my way into the crowd, trying to elbow myself forward. But in vain I struggled. Again my feet trod on the doorstep over which others were entering the church without encountering any obstacle. I alone seemed to remain unaccepted by the church. It was as if there was a detachment of soldiers standing there to oppose my entrance. Once again I was excluded by the same mighty force and again I stood in the porch. Having repeated my attempt three or four times, at last I felt exhausted and had no more strength to push and to be puched, so I went aside and stood in a corner of the porch. And only then with great difficulty it began to dawn on me, and I began to understand the reason why I was prevented from being admitted to see the life-giving Cross. The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart and revealed to me that it was my unclean life which barred the entrance to me. I began to weep and lament and beat my breast, and to sigh from the depths of my heart.”
Mary saw the icon of The Theotokos above the door and knew who had barred her way. Now repentant, at last she was able to enter. Upon leaving the church, she prayed before the icon above the door and heard “If you cross the Jordan you will find glorious rest.” And so Mary made her way to the Jordan, and after a time of preparation, she crossed over it and into the desert beyond, where she would not be seen again for 47 years when she encountered Father Zosima, to whom she related her life at last. She spent those decades in the desert repenting, always praying for her wounds to be healed, battling through prayer the desires that had so plagued her all her life.
She asked Zosima to see her again in a year and to bring her the Eucharist that she might partake, and at that second meeting asked him to see her once more in another year, at the place where they first met. When he found her, she had fallen asleep in the Lord, and there he buried her.
I asked at the beginning what repentance is. I might as well have asked what forms it takes, but it takes different forms for each of us. Moreover, repentance is often a lifelong process without some definite end in sight, save perhaps for the repose of death. The damage we do to ourselves through our sins is not something from which we can be instantly healed, for our sins come from our passions, and those do not simply go away or instantly repurpose themselves when we begin to repent. Indeed there is an account of a monk who was considered a saint within his own lifetime, who as he lay dying was heard to pray that he had not been granted enough time to repent.
“We simply are not saved by getting better. It is a false image and a false goal. Of course, critics will charge that I’m being defeatist and suggesting a path devoid of moral effort. I am doing nothing of the sort. Everyone should, at all times, struggle against sin. But measuring, even watching for improvement can be not only self-defeating but sinful in itself. The Ladder points to a very different path:
“You cannot escape shame except by shame,” St. John says (4.62).
We do not gradually improve and thereby leave our shame behind us. The way down is the way up. The ladder of divine ascent is actually a ladder of divine descent. The path to union with God is only found in making the descent with Him. “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there” (Ps 139:8). St. Gregory the Theologian says, “If He descends into hell, go with Him” (Oration 45).”
The other thought is from the film Andrei Rublev (I used this same clip in my thoughts on the Notre Dame fire). Theophanes says “God will forgive you; do not forgive yourself.”
O ye choirs of the righteous, rejoice like David in the Lord today, and all ye that are upright in heard, make your boast in Him, looking upon Mary who is worthy of our praise. Completing her life in holiness, she has been glorified by God with miracles and many acts of power, which show to us and all the faithful what honour she enjoys in heaven, and what boldness she has gained in the presence of the Master. At her prayers, O Christ our God, grant salvation to our souls. (From The Lenten Triodion, Saturday Vespers for St. Mary of Egypt)
- Kidd, David (ed) and Ursache, Gabriella (ed), Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion, HDM Press, River Junction, Michigan, 2005
- Mother Mary and Ware, Kallistos (translators), The Lenten Triodion, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, South Canaan, PA, 2002