Looking into oneself
In observing the course of our feelings and thoughts, we become quickly convinced that within us constantly battle two entities: one good and one evil. Real Christian life begins only after we consciously elect the good and reject the evil. When we disregard our spiritual growth, passively succumbing to our desires and tendencies, whatever they may be, not making any evaluation of them, we are not yet living a Christian life. Only when we become painfully aware of our shortcomings, when we judge ourselves in the light of the Gospel and decide to improve our moral condition, only then can we begin to ascend on the path to salvation. The Gospel has many vivid examples of the sudden change in people who decided to turn to God. One of them is illustrated by the parable about the Pharisee and the Publican (Lk. 18:4-14). The Pharisee is an example of self deception. He frequents the temple and observes the established religious rituals. Yet it cannot be said of him that he is a pious person, because he is quite content with himself, full of pride, and despises others whom he considers not so religious. He boasts of his righteousness because he fails to see his own moral deficiencies — lack of compassion and love, selfishness and formalism — to mention a few. The Publican, on the other hand, illustrates a sinful person who realizes his poor moral condition and repents. He judges only himself and wants to become a better person. He asks God only for mercy and guidance, and God accepts his prayer while He rejects the boasting of the Pharisee. Jesus Christ makes the repentant Publican an example for us so that we thoroughly examine our hearts and make every effort to correct our moral condition!
Another genuine repentance is seen in St. Mary of Egypt. Having been a reckless and passionate sinner from her youth, after visiting the Resurrection church in Jerusalem she repented deeply, went to the desert and after living there the rest of her life she became one of the greatest saints. (She died at the beginning of the 6th century.) The Church observes her memory in the 5th week of Lent as an example of true repentance.
Often a person, even when considering himself a Christian, pays no attention to his shortcomings and for many years lives unconcerned with any moral improvement. Then suddenly, sometimes after a personal tragedy and sometimes without any apparent reason, his spiritual eyes open, and he decides to turn to God. He becomes a completely different person. In many cases, though, this turning to God happens slowly after much hesitation and repeated falls.
Let us now verify whether the above conditions apply to us. Observe carefully your actions during the last several days, your feelings and intentions, words you said. Just yesterday, for example, you cruelly hurt someone with harsh words, or with an insulting suspicion, or by a caustic sneer. It has been three days now that you have been disturbed by some dirty, base desire, and you not only did not drive away this sinful desire, but even dwelt on and enjoyed it. Or you were given an opportunity to do something good for somebody, but you felt that this would disrupt your peace and comfort, so you failed to do it. If you were observant and conscientious, you would realize that passions comprise a great deal of your existence, that your whole life is like a large braid made of small and great sins: unkind thoughts, feelings, words and deeds. If we pay no attention to the moral content of our life or think that it is quite normal, we still are pagans in our mentality. We will have no reason to try to change. Our true spiritual life will begin only after we say decisively, "No, I do not want to slide down any more! I want to become a true Christian!"
But as soon as you choose the path to righteousness, you will discover that the battle against bad habits and temptations is extremely difficult, painful and exhausting. You will see how frequently impure thoughts, feelings and desires, often against your own will, take hold of you and push you toward sinful actions. In many cases, only some time after you have uttered a cruel or offensive word or have perpetrated an unkind deed, you begin to realize that you should not have spoken so or have done that. But before you have actually sinned, you did not understand where your thoughts and feelings were pushing you. So over and over again we fall into actions that we later regret. This is the way we start to learn the great truth of the words of the Apostle Paul: "For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do" (Romans 7:15). Where do we find help, and how can we be delivered from our inner conflicts? Some people share their difficulties with someone in the family or a close friend; some visit a psychiatrist. But these are only partial and often ineffective solutions. Only after you experience the total difficulty of spiritual warfare and the ineffectiveness of human means do you begin to realize how effective is the regenerating power of Divine Grace.
A prolific pre-revolutionary spiritual writer, Saint Theophan the Recluse, relates the following story: "There was a youth who was greatly saddened because of his numerous sins. Once in grief he fell asleep. And there, in his dream, as if out of the sky, he saw coming down an Angel. The heavenly visitor slit open his chest with a knife, took out his heart, cut it into pieces, and removed from it all the spoiled and corrupt parts. Then he carefully replaced the heart in its original spot, and finally healed the wound as well. The youth awakened and felt cleansed of all his sins. He was so happy that God had accepted his repentance in such a sudden and unexpected way and relieved him from this unbearable burden. In truth, wouldn't it be good," asks Bishop Theophan, "if we could experience a similar healing from a light-bearing Angel!" And such an Angel is available to us. It resides in the healing Grace of our Redeemer which operates through repentance in the Sacrament of Confession!
We know that Jesus Christ brought to earth the holy life. Through the Holy Sacraments of the Church this life is transmitted to all of us. Confession or Repentance is one such sacrament. It is not just a ritual or a venerable old tradition but is an extremely powerful tool for moral healing and correction. It responds to one of the most essential demands of our damaged nature. To decline Confession is the same as suffering from some physical ailment and knowing the right medication but, due to laziness, not using it and thereby letting the illness run rampant.
Next: Power of the Sacrament of Confession