The Sweet Relief of Repentance

The end is approaching, O my soul – it is approaching! So why do you not care or prepare yourself for it? Arise! The time is short! The Judge already stands at the door. Life is vanishing like a dream – so why do you continue living in vanity?
Arise, O my soul, and reveal the evil things you have done. Ponder them well and allow your tears to flow. Then confess your deeds and thoughts openly to Christ, and He will make you righteous.

There has never been a sin, a deed, an evil act which I have not cherished, O Savior. I have sinned in my thoughts, my words, and my deeds – and no one has sinned more than I.
-from the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

At tonight’s service, The Great Compline with Canon from St. Andrew of Crete, which is traditionally prayed during the first week of Lent, I had an experience unlike I have ever had while chanting and hearing the strongly penitential prayers and verses of instruction. I felt a sweetness and comfort at the harshest of verses, verses that in years past have been convicting (as they should be), perplexing, or just difficult to swallow. As I do not have any righteousness to speak of, I can only attribute this experience to my age. By that, I mean, I’m older. Older than I was when I first came to know Christ, at Sunday school classes in the basement of Yountsville Community Church. Older than I was when I first felt serious regret for sin, as a teenager waking up the pastor at midnight, asking if I could go to the church to pray for forgiveness. Older than I was when my dad died, leaving me, a still young father myself, fatherless. Older than I was when I first experienced the prayers of penitence during Lent in the Orthodox Church. Older than I was when I was ordained a priest six years ago. Older than I was last year.

You see, life gets hard, even bitter sometimes. As you get older you just know it more acutely. I was reminded, right in the middle of the service tonight, of the words attributed to King Solomon in Ecclesiastes:

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them””- Ecclesiastes 12:1

Tradition informs us that Solomon most likely wrote Ecclesiastes late in his life. He spends much of the book explaining all that he had indulged, attained, consumed, accomplished – and then says it is all meaningless. When he does speak of meaning, it has to do with being content with one’s daily work, and remembering God. That’s it. Solomon had much that he regretted, and he wishes to spare his readers the same meaningless pursuit.

I wondered why Solomon came to mind tonight, in the midst of prayers that say things like “no one has sinned more than I” And why was there a sweetness that came with these thoughts? I realized, that as an older man now the prayers of the Church have become even more poignant. The words of forgiveness, of hope, of resurrection have always been a source of comfort and renewal. But now the penitential words became something not just to hear seriously, to cause self-examination and effort to let light shine on the places still dark in my heart, but they were also relieving.

Maybe I’ve had more years to sin, more times of being hurt, and of hurting others, more losses of loved ones, than I had as a young man. Perhaps that’s it. But there was something so soothing about being able to come before God and even say things like “no one has sinned as I have”and feel a great weight lift from my shoulders. Its easy to feel like a wreck in life. To be able to come before God and just say, I’ve been a wreck, and yet you still receive me, after all of this, is a relief. It doesn’t feel like groveling, or getting beat up (as I used to struggle that the penitential language was). No, groveling and getting beat up is what life has often reduced me to. So it feels freeing, like ‘coming to my senses’ and being honest, naked before the One who created me. I do not have to be anyone but who I honestly am before Him, even in my brokenness.

In the darkness of night has my whole life passed, amidst shadowy delusions I cannot escape. But, O Savior, make me now a child of the day – from the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

So while I’m certainly not one of the older folks in our parish yet (there are others with much more experience and wisdom than I do), I think I can safely step out and give a word for our younger folks. It’s the words of Solomon, with a “Lenten” twist:

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, do not despise or ignore the prayers of the Church, even when they do not yet resonate with you or are hard to understand. For the days of trouble will come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them” It may be then that you will find the prayers and security of the Church to be a great sweetness, a great relief, a place where you can stand honestly before Our God. This is worth cultivating throughout your life.