The Plea for Repentance

The Plea for Repentance

Michael Soroka

A few years ago, right at the beginning of Great Lent, a very dear friend opened up to me about his struggle with fasting. This is what he said.

“My entire life, the Church has been telling me what to do. When the Fast comes, there is always a sense of foreboding and gloom. All I hear is the Church saying, ”˜Eat these foods, don’t eat these foods. Strip yourselves of creaturely comforts.’ Never have I felt an uplifting sense of hope or consolation, just responsibility. ”˜This is what you must do. Take up this burden.’ The result has always been a sense of guilt, because the Church didn’t give me any other options. You either did all that was commanded of you, or it didn’t count.

fasting“What has the Church even given me in return for all this obedience? I have only ever done the best that I could, but the Church keeps demanding more.”

There were so many things about this conversation that troubled me. On the one hand, I wanted to take the side of the Church and say, “But that’s an oversimplification! The Church doesn’t always demand fasting, it calls us to celebrate the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection through its feasts. It recognizes all of our individual failings, and calls us to purify our bodies and minds so that we can more fully participate in our redemption that Christ has won for us.”

Well, okay, maybe I wasn’t about to say all that. I was caught up in the moment, taken off balance. I didn’t know what to say. I started by saying a dumbed-down version of that, and then stopped. I realized that all the fancy arguments and point-by-point rebuttals in the world would accomplish nothing in the end. Ultimately, the change in perspective had to come from my friend. He was the only one capable of changing his own mind. All I could do was point the way and lovingly suggest a change in perspective.

I don’t think my overly defensive impulse is all that uncommon. Too often, it seems the natural response of those of us actively involved in Church life is to become defensive, even combative, and deny that an opinion like my friend’s is valid.

But when we do this, we are very likely alienating our friends and fooling ourselves. After all, they are describing how they feel, and to dismiss their emotions is to dismiss their own struggles. Any discussion about fasting in the Church needs to acknowledge the fact that many people share my friend’s opinion, whether consciously or sub-consciously. We need to first ask ourselves, “Why do people keep drawing this conclusion?”

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I believe it’s because much of the time we only selectively listen to the Lenten services, or worse, we remember how these services can make us feel (there’s that word again, all these “feelings”!), and not what they actually say. And, in all honesty, I’ve had similar resentment of Lent and for fasting in general. These thoughts usually come in a grumpy haze as I sense the beginning of Lent starting to encroach on my personal “style.” My interior monologue on the subject:

””Uggh. Here comes the fast, with all its rules and regulations, with all the extra services. And it’s so penitential! Alright, I know I’m a lazy wretch, I know I’m a slave to sin, can we just get on with it already??

Take just one example of how easy it is to selectively tune in during Lent, and how our minds can play tricks on us when we just don’t want to take Lent seriously. Here is part of a stichera from Forgiveness Vespers:

When I think of my works,
deserving every punishment,
I despair of myself, O Lord.
For see I have despised
Thy precious commandments
and wasted my life as the Prodigal.

Christ revealed in the breaking of Bread

­””See? Look at all this negativity! All it’s telling me is that I’m an awful, worthless person.

We should never underestimate our mind’s ability to mis-remember, especially when it involves something that we don’t want to do. Here is that same stichera in its entirety:

When I think of my works,
deserving every punishment,
I despair of myself, O Lord.
For see I have despised
Thy precious commandments
and wasted my life as the Prodigal.
Therefore I entreat Thee:
cleanse me in the waters of repentance,
and through prayer and fasting
make me shine with light,
for Thou alone art merciful;
abhor me not, O Benefactor of all, supreme in love.

Note the logical progression of the point that the Church is making. We have done wrong, we have sinned; to believe otherwise is to delude ourselves. Therefore, cleanse me, give me repentance, and help me return to Christ by fasting and prayer. The Church does ask us to acknowledge our own fallenness, but not so that we can get depressed and down on ourselves, but so that we may return to the merciful Savior, who is “supreme in love.”

It is Christ’s love for us that is the highest and only “motive” that the Church has for bringing us the Great Fast every year. Christ does not devise devious guilt trips to trick us into participating in Lent. That is a trick of our minds. Or, to be more accurate, it is a trick of the devil.

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The other great fantasy that our minds conjure up, and that my friend expressed so well, is that we sometimes think the Church demands obedience from us. The Church begs, implores us to take up the fast, but it never demands. Here are just a few more snippets of Lenten hymnography:

Let us set out with joy upon the season of the fast   (Sunday Forgiveness Vespers)
Come, O ye people, and today let us accept the grace of the fast as a gift from God   (Canon from Monday of the 1st Week),
O Word of God, Thou hast given us the time of the fast, that we may turn again and live…   (Vespers from Monday of the 5th Week).

These are not demands, they are pleas, they are loving entreaties, that we might “turn from our sin and live” (see Ezekiel 18.23). Or, as the Church so wisely adapts Scripture, “that we might turn again and live…” We are in a continual process of falling and getting up again, of sinning and being forgiven by Christ.

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By making the free choice to enter again into the Great Fast, we acknowledge our own enslavement, our own addiction, to the passing things of this life””food, money, gossip””which in turn explains the Church’s unending call for our repentance through fasting and prayer.

Fasting isn’t fun, it isn’t easy. I have no doubt that I will continue to have times when I think, just like my friend, that the Church demands too much of us. But in those moments, I have to keep on reminding myself that the Church brings us Lent not to oppress us or to make demands on us; that is the tempting delusion of our minds. She brings us Lent so that we may break through that cycle of sin and cross over from the wilderness of our estrangement from God to the fulfillment of the promise of Christ’s resurrection.

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