Chapter 6 – Sayings of the Fathers on Contrition of the Spirit, pp. 151-157

Greetings and many blessings, people of prayer. Let us pray now as we begin:

O Spirit of God, guide us as we strive to understand more deeply how to be humble and contrite of heart, that we may experience more profoundly the fullness of Your love and mercy. Amen.

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Our author gives quite a large assortment of sayings from the Church Fathers, with particularly generous selections from St. John Climacus and St. Isaac of Syria. Rather than try to sort through them all in pieces, once again I will write the reflections that are given to me, as always inviting you to do the same.

I can make no argument against the need for humility and contrition. I would be a fool to try such a thing. Yet there is something just beneath the surface, needing to be said – and so I will write and see if it comes forth.

Let us begin with this excerpt from St. Isaac of Syria,

“So long as you are in this life, scorn your self by the constant remembrance of your sins. Confess them before the merciful God in contrition and you will gain intimacy with him.”

Does anyone else feel a tension in this brief passage?

I want intimacy with God more than anything. I believe He is merciful – merciful beyond my imagining.

But then why, I ask myself, would He want me to be constantly remembering my sins and scorning myself?

Not only does this sound very painful, but it sounds like an oddly gloomy way of living, inconsistent with Christian joy. Furthermore, it seems strange that God would want us to “constantly” remember our sins when He has promised to not remember them Himself (Isaiah 43: 25; Hebrews 8: 12; 10: 17).

Are we to never allow ourselves to feel forgiven in this life?

Herein lies the tension: if I am constantly remembering my sins and scorning myself for them, it seems that I am not truly accepting the mercy and redemption offered by the Lord Jesus. On the other hand, if I allow myself to feel forgiven and “forget” my sins, is this not the pathway to a pride in which I imagine myself to be good and no longer in need of redemption?

Yes, this is the heart of it. In order to address this tension, let us consider first what it means for God to remember our sins no more versus what it means for us to remember them no more.

For God to say to us, “Your sins I remember no more,” (Isaiah 43:25) is not to say that He is incapable of recalling them. God does not have memory deficits.

But, in His mercy, God can and does choose to never bring them up again, to not “call them to mind” (the meaning of “remember”, from Latin “rememorari”). Hence, our joy lies in our trust that, having confessed and received forgiveness, God will not be confronting us at the end of our lives with a list of these transgressions. They are gone, as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103: 12).

However, the meaning – and consequences – are quite different if we consider our forgetting or failing to remember our sins. There are two ways in which I might fail to remember my sins (aside from memory impairment).

One is that I make no effort to remember and I literally forget that I did these wrong deeds or cultivated these sinful attitudes. While surely this can happen, I suspect that it is the second route that is more common and perhaps more pernicious.

This second route is when we can, with effort, call to mind our wrong-doings of the past, but they no longer seem like a particularly big deal to us. After all, they have been forgiven, the past is the past and I’m better now.

I was a sinner but I’ve been saved.

The problem here is the past tense. “I was a sinner.” And this is why I think it is probably the more pernicious of the two possible modes of not remembering.

It is unlikely that someone without memory impairment is going to literally forget every sin they ever committed, even if they make little effort to remember. And I don’t think what is essential is that we remember every sin we’ve ever committed – or even most of them.

What is vital is our recognition that we are still sinners, even if we have not knowingly engaged in serious sin in recent times. Without this knowledge, we drift away from that watchfulness (“nepsis”) which keeps guard over our purity and humility.

In other words, without awareness that I am a sinner and must be ever watchful, pride creeps back in.

I am reminded of Fr. Stephen’s writing on the disease model of sin (click here). This forgetting of ours is not unlike the “forgetting” of many people who have a chronic physical or mental illness. Once my symptoms have been in remission for a good while, it is easy to believe that I am no longer ill. “I’m not sick. I don’t really need this medication anymore.”

In our spiritual lives, if we do not make an effort to remember (“call to mind”) our sins, we can easily forget that we still have a disease. Not recognizing our diseased state is extraordinarily dangerous – even more so than in the medical world, because so much more is at stake.

Terrible as it is to have an unnecessary episode of physical or mental illness – or even to suffer bodily death, it is far worse to cut ourselves off from God through pride, blindly believing ourselves to be “good Christians”.

The question might arise in our minds: why am I still diseased if the Lord Jesus has forgiven me and blotted out my sins?

On a practical level, it is usually easy enough to recognize that I am still a sinner – because I sin. However, if pride ever tempts me to think otherwise, I need only ask myself if I am experiencing theosis. After I finish laughing at myself, I must again acknowledge that I am in sin, even if momentarily I do not see the symptoms of my disease.

The broader question of why I am still diseased if Christ has saved me, is both simple and complex. I will leave the complex discussion to the theologians. The simple answer is because the battle is still being fought.

Christ is undoubtedly victorious over sin and death. There is no question. However, for reasons known only to God, the evil one is still at large and will be until time in our world is brought to an end. Our full communion with God will not be complete until the resurrection of the dead (see p. 107).

Hence, except by special gift from God, we cannot expect to be fully healed from our disease while fighting a toxic presence. This would be like expecting a cure from lung disease while actively handling asbestos.

Or perhaps more aptly, while smoking cigarettes – because we still crave our poison and are often ambivalent about getting well.

So if indeed I must remember my sins and “scorn” myself, what does this mean? Am I called to dwell on everything I’ve ever done wrong and hate myself for my failings?

Expressed in this way, no. But there is a truth here that we do not want to miss.

I need to remember always that I bear the disease of sin, not forgetting it for a moment. If I have confessed, my contrition shines with humble gratitude – for I know I have received a great gift. If I have not, I am preparing myself with both deep sorrow and eager anticipation.

If my sins stand constantly before me, wracking me with shame, I pray for the grace to bear my symptoms until God sees fit to relieve me of them. If I cannot see my sins, I pray for the grace to know them, that I might repent more genuinely rather than become proud.

I do not despise myself as does the depressed person, wishing I had never been given life. Rather, I lay my broken, diseased self before the living God with words such as these:

o my Father,

when You made me,

You gave me a heart

that was pure and clean,

holy and beautiful.

and now i have ruined it.

You designed it to find

its joy in You.

but i sought my joy

in everything but You.

You created me for love,

yet i love only myself –

which is no love at all.

i have destroyed

this beautiful heart

and i am ashamed.

i am nothing before You.

i have no right to ask You

for anything.

but they tell me that

a broken, humbled heart

You will not spurn.

and so I bring You mine.

i need a new heart,

o my God.

create for me

a new, clean heart

and put a steadfast spirit

in me.

i am nothing,

but You are mercy,

o endless Love,

my mercy, my joy.

amen.

 

(Comments and questions are always welcome as we pray this book together. Peace to all, in Christ’s love.)

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4 thoughts on “Chapter 6 – Sayings of the Fathers on Contrition of the Spirit, pp. 151-157

  1. A helpful reflection, Mary. It is good hear your thoughts on such a difficult topic.

    Reading this, I was reminded of how important Psalm 50 has become for me. Trying to read or listen to it every day, I often pause and wonder about two passages: “For I know my iniquity, and my sin is ever before me” and “For behold I was conceived in iniquities, and in sins did my other bear me.” Of course if this is understood as only David speaking, that let’s me off the hook. However, the psalms in general have a far deeper appeal than as mere historical poetry. And since this one is in so many prayer services and traditional individual prayers, I am sure that its voice is meant to be mine as well. That is, it should speak for and to me. And most of it does because of the optimistic tone throughout, especially lines like “Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, and with Thy governing Spirit establish me.” (I have tried more contemporary versions, but this one has become so familiar that I almost have it by heart.) But the two that I referred to above keep me a bit off balance. They raise old questions. I still have trouble with the idea of inherited sinfulness. I’m pleased that you left that part out of your concluding prayer poem. I could easily substitute it for Psalm 50 if I needed to.

    Your explanation of sinfulness as a disease is one I have heard, or read, in other contexts. Somehow that doesn’t explain things for me either. I keep thinking that the idea of free will is at the heart of the matter. A choice involves at least two options, and often one of them is bad (I think); otherwise we wouldn’t be free to respond to God’s love– we would do so automatically. And so it may not be a matter of a disease, or even an inherited tendency. Perhaps it is even necessary to consider evil in order to choose good. (Strange thoughts. I apologize for my homemade theology.) Anyway, your writings bring these things to the front my mind, so Im taking you up on your invitation to share them.

  2. Sorry, it’s not “theology,” is it. More like an attempt at philosophizing, however limited and incomplete. Still, I can’t help thinking . . .

  3. You raise more interesting questions, Al, and I don’t pretend to have answers to them, of course. But I’ll share a few more thoughts – then pray for God’s mercy. I enjoy the exchange of ideas but feel free to ignore me if I go on too much…

    Regarding the disease model of sin…of course, nothing describes perfectly this pulling away from God that we as individuals or we as a race have done. But there are some things here that I think are helpful to consider. Most of us raised in any kind of religion were taught a very black-and-white standard of right and wrong – and that sin is purely about choice. This is consistent with the “forensic” model of sin. Commit the crime, do the time.

    However, I think that many things in life are not so clearly defined. We do have free choices to make, of course, or there would be no sin. We tend to think of “disease” as being a purely involuntary experience and “sin” as a purely voluntary one. But my body and mind and spirit are not unrelated entities. Also my individual actions seldom if ever occur purely in isolation from the sinfulness of the rest of humanity.

    To illustrate, let’s suppose I’m an alcoholic (this is fictitious) and I come from a long line of alcoholics. Picking up a drink is a voluntary act, right? Most people at least try alcohol at some time in their lives so I do too. But my body is predisposed genetically to process alcohol in such a way that I readily become dependent on it. Once physically dependent, I will become sick and perhaps even die if I go without a drink and don’t have medical intervention.

    Now it has started sounding more like a disease because my body is so involved. Let’s suppose further that I know I’m an alcoholic and that I know there’s treatment available but I don’t go because I’m afraid. So I keep drinking and I injure someone while intoxicated.

    I seem to have a psychological-medical-spiritual condition that has both voluntary and involuntary components. I am clearly not healthy on any of these levels (thus “diseased”) And the “evil” that I do is partly my own individual wrong choosing. However, some of it appears to come from somewhere else. I may have been raised in an unhealthy alcoholic environment that has affected my development. I inherited a vulnerability to this condition. Thus, I’m not in this diseased state alone and purely of my own choice – there is an “ancestral” component to it.

    How did these ancestral components come to be? I don’t know – but our faith suggests a couple of potential answers. There is an evil one loose in our world that not only tempts us, but has tempted all of our ancestors as well. Some teach that the presence of illness, genetic abnormality, etc. in our world is a result of the first sin. I do not know, limited person that I am, if that is a literal truth – but the link between sin and disease makes complete sense.

    If nothing else, the disease model is supported by the Lord Jesus Himself. When the Pharisees complained that He was eating with sinners, His famous response: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

    He is my Physician. He is my healing. I need Him. Even if my “symptoms” seem better for the moment, i.e. I’m obeying the commandments and doing good works, I still need Him. My healing is not complete until the end – which is the true beginning of our new life in Him.

    May He have mercy on me.

  4. Another comment…something that occurred to me recently.

    Not only should we have “constant remembrance” of our sins, but we should also have constant remembrance of our salvation. Now perhaps this seems obvious but to me it was not immediately so, oddly enough.

    Perhaps because I grew up with my first confession at the age of 7, I sometimes unintentionally take for granted God’s forgiveness of my sins. In other words, I don’t think of myself as having one big redemption experience where God rescued me from the clutches of the devil. Just a bunch of little (and occasionally bigger) sins that God always forgives when I ask Him.

    It has disturbed me at times that this experience has left me with too meager of a sense of contrition. So I have asked God to help me with this.

    What I have found fascinating (and very wonderful) is that if I begin reflecting on the whole of my life, I am overwhelmed with all that God has saved me from. Many of those times in my life I would have labeled as periods of deep confusion or profound anxiety; I would not have called them sin. But what matters most to me now is that God SAVED me from them.

    He was with me through every step of them. He kept sending me the right person to help me over each particular hurdle. Even when I thought I was well, He led me to others who helped me see my blind spots so that I would grow further – and be able to recognize my sin for what it was.

    He’s still doing it. Every day. If I have this constant remembrance of Him saving me, I am truly humbled. And perhaps God, in His gentleness, has helped me to see it THIS way because He knows my weakness. I get too lost if I start with “what I did wrong”.

    He alone knows the cure for my particular brand of pride (with all of its guilt and scrupulosity) and thus leads me, saves me in a most loving way. How good and gracious is the Lord our God.

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