First, the pandemic came and we were flooded with information about hospital bed usage, potential complications, and mortality rates. Then, the derecho came, and we were once again confronted with the fragility of both our lives and human creations: buildings, cars, power lines… In these and other ways, 2020 has given us the opportunity to confront our mortality in ways that day-to-day life does not, at least in part because death is something that we, as a society, have grown increasingly distant from and uncomfortable with.
The funeral industry is a $20 billion a year business that ensures that between death and funeral the family does not do anything with the body of someone who has died. In many instances, even funerals have given way to celebrations of life. This can easily lead to our own death and, more importantly, our preparation for it can be far from our minds. But why should we think about death?
The Desert Fathers say to us.
"If a Christian," Abba Agathon said, "kept the judgment which follows death in mind every moment, he would not sin with such ease."
When you undertake to begin any task whatever," a certain elder advises, "conscientiously ask yourself this question: 'If I were visited by the Lord at his moment, what would I do?' Take care to listen well to what your conscience answers you. If it reproves you, immediately forsake what you had decided to do and begin some other task of which it approves and which, so as assuredly to complete it, is intrinsically rewarding. The virtuous worker must at every moment be ready to face death.
But what does it mean to be ready? How do we prepare? A hymn of our church says: I am lying on the bed of my indifference, O blameless Maid; * I am wasting my life away. * Therefore I am so afraid * of my final hour, * lest that wicked snake mercilessly like a lion snatch * my humble soul and with glee tear it apart. * O ever-blessed Theotokos, for this reason I pray to you: * In your goodness make me get up * for repentance before the end. (Octoechos - Orthros for Wednesday, Mode 3)
And again from the Desert Fathers
When Saint Sisoes lay upon his deathbed, the disciples surrounding the Elder saw that his face shone like the sun. They asked the dying man what he saw. Abba Sisoes replied that he saw Saint Anthony, the prophets, and the apostles. His face increased in brightness, and he spoke with someone. The monks asked, “With whom are you speaking, Father?” He said that angels had come for his soul, and he was entreating them to give him a little more time for repentance. The monks said, “You have no need for repentance, Father.” Saint Sisoes said with great humility, “I do not think that I have even begun to repent.”
And, from one of the most recently recognized saints, St. Paisios (via Abbot Tryphon’s Morning Offering): Ask for repentance in your prayer and nothing else, neither for divine lights, nor miracles, nor prophecies, nor spiritual gifts—nothing but repentance. Repentance will bring you humility, humility will bring you the Grace of God, and God will have in His Grace everything you need for your salvation, or anything you might need to help another soul.
Thus, the Church teaches that, in order to be prepared for death, one needs to have repentance. So, what is repentance?
I will start by saying a little about what repentance is not.
Repentance is not the same as feeling sorry. Sorrow is usually part of repentance, but merely feeling bad about something one has done does not reach the level of repentance.
Repentance is not the same as feeling guilty. Guilty feelings may be a part of repentance, but in and of their own, these feelings can easily become overwhelming or focused on the self, Guilt, in and of itself, also falls far short of repentance.
So, what is repentance and what does it look like? St. John the Baptist cried out to those who came to him: metanoeite, which, although usually translated as “repent,” would more accurately (though also rather more awkwardly) be translated as “be repenting.” And, since the word metanoia means a change of mind, repentance looks like a continual turning of our lives towards God. We may find ourselves twisted around and blown off course by things in life both expected and unexpected, but whatever may come we use our God-given will to turn back towards our Creator. Our thoughts, words, and actions are offered to God and we request His blessing on them all.
This already sets some parameters for life, for we cannot ask God to bless that which He forbids. But there is more to repentance than just doing, saying, and thinking the right things, because ultimately, repentance is about being united with God and, through God, to one another. In this unity we find that sorrow and guilt are transformed into impulses towards the restoration of communion and the healing of relationships.
And there is something to be said here, at the end, about the sacrament of confession. I remember an apocryphal story about a woman going to confession. This is how I remember it, so it may not be exactly as I read it. The woman told the priest, “Father, I am sorry. There’s this other woman and she makes me so mad. She does this and this and this…” At the end, the priest said “May God forgive her sins.” The woman asked “Her sins? I am the one going to confession” And the priest said, “Yes, but all you’ve talked about is her sins.” Sometimes, what we take for repentance is not the real thing. One of the things that the sacrament of confession can do is to guide us in the ongoing process of repentance, that is our preparation not just for death, but even more importantly, for eternal life.
And so let us pray again, with the hymns of the Church: Have mercy, O my Christ, on us who hourly commit sin against You manifoldly; * and give us means before the end to turn to You in repentance. (Sunday Orthros - Mode 2).
With love in Christ,