Repentance is impossible without encountering God. Therefore God goes out to meet man. If repentance were simply an examination, rethinking, the rearrangement of one’s powers, it would be a reordering, but not an essential change. The sick man, as St Cyril of Alexandria says, cannot heal himself, but needs a healer – God. What is the illness? The deterioration of love. Love should not be one-sided. Love should be at least two-sided. For the fullness of love, strictly speaking, one needs three: God, neighbor, and I. I, God, and neighbor. Neighbor, God, and I. This is perichorisis, interpenetrating love, circularly revolving love. This is eternal life. In repentance man feels that he is sick, and searches for God. Therefore repentance always has a regenerative strength. Repentance is not simply feeling sorry for oneself, or depression, or an inferiority complex, but always the consciousness and feeling that communion has been broken, and right away the search and even beginning of the restoration of this communion. The prodigal son came to himself and said; “Look what a condition I am in. But I have a father, and I will go to my father!” If he had simply recognized himself as a sinner, this would not yet have been Christian repentance. But he went to his father! From Holy Scripture one can assume that the father had already gone out to meet him, that the father took the first step, and that this served as an incitement for the son to return. One need not analyze, of course, which was first and which was second: the meeting was mutual. Both God and man, in repentance, enter into the activity of love. Love seeks communion. Repentance is sorrow over lost love.
Only when man begins to repent does he feel his need. It would seem that first man should feel that he needs repentance, that it is salvation for him. In fact, paradoxically, it is only when man experiences repentance that he feels the need for it. This demonstrates that the unconscious heart is deeper than the conscious mind, that God gives to those who desire. Christ said: “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” St Gregory the Theologian asks: who can receive it? He answers: anyone who wants to. Of course, the will is not simply a conscious decision, but much deeper. Dostoevsky also felt this, and Orthodox asceticism knows that the will is much deeper than the human mind, that it is rooted in the core of man, which is called the heart or spirit. It is like in Psalm 50: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” This is parallelism: a clean heart – a right spirit; create – renew; in me – within me, that is, it only reaffirms in different words that which had already been said in the first part. The heart or spirit is the essence of man, the depths of the divinely-imaged personality of man. One can even say that love and freedom are contained in the very center, in the core of man. The love of God called man out of non-being. God’s summons was realized, and received an answer. But this answer was personal! That is, man was the answer to God’s summons.
St Basil the Great said (and this was included the service to the Holy Angels) that all the angelic powers strive in love irrepressibly towards Christ. Even though they are angels, even though they are great spiritual beings, almost gods, they too are empty without Christ. Dostoevsky put into the mouth of Versilov in The Adolescent the image that mankind has implemented social justice, love, solidarity, altruism, but had expelled from the earth the great idea of God and immortality. When Christ appeared in His Second Coming, then everyone suddenly felt – they are all happy, having realized the kingdom on earth, “heaven on earth” – they felt that they had emptiness in their souls, the emptiness of the absence of God. That means that there was no love. Dostoevsky was right to say that love for man is impossible without love for God.
The two commandments of love are connected. Love of God, fully, with one’s being, and love for one’s neighbor, fully, as oneself. They cannot exist without one another, and only together do they create the Christian cross: vertical and horizontal. If you take one away, then you will not have a cross, and there will be no Christianity. Love for God is not enough, and love for one’s neighbor is not enough.
Repentance immediately excites both love for God and love of neighbor.
Theophan the Recluse, in The Path to Salvation, says (and this is the experience of all the Fathers) that when someone wakes up to repentance he immediately feels that he loves his neighbor. He does not feel proud, does not feel big. Everyone wants salvation. This is the mark of true Christian life. So repentance opens for us, who are in an abnormal condition, in sin, in an alienated condition, the path that leads to a normal condition, leads to God and to correction before God. It reveals the full truth about the human condition. Repentance immediately leads to Confession. Confession is the disclosure of the true person. Even we Orthodox Christians sometimes think of repentance as a certain human “obligation,” that we “need to fulfill.” No, this is too low an understanding of Confession. Confession is like something an old Russian lady, who was taking care of her young grandson, told me. For some prank she paddled his hand; he went into the corner and cried with hurt feelings. She paid him no further attention, and went on working. Finally the grandson came to her: “Babushka, I was beat here, and it hurts here!” This appeal moved Babushka, and she began to cry herself. The childish approach had conquered the Babushka’s approach.
He opened up to her. So, too, Confession-repentance is a disclosing of oneself before God. Like those words from the Psalm, which went into the irmos, “My prayer will I pour out to the Lord” … it is as if you have a pitcher of dirty water and you just pour it out in front of God… “And I will tell Him my affliction, for filled with evils is my soul, and my life unto hades hath drawn near.” He feels as if he had fallen to the depth of hades, like Jonah in the whale, and now he offers himself to God.
In true repentance everything is open, and sin is easily visible. One hermit, living on Athos on the rocks, where there was no one, went down to a monastery for Confession, and when the spiritual father asked what he would like to confess, he answered: “I have a big sin on my soul. I keep dried bread in a jug, and a mouse comes and eats it. I am very angry at it.” He was silent, then added: “This mouse really brings me harm, but my anger at it is greater than the harm it does me.”
Confession, as a continuation of repentance, is a true self-revelation of man. Yes, we are sinful, and therefore we disclose our wounds, sicknesses, and sins. Man sees himself in a desperate, inescapable situation. He truly looks not only at himself, as St Anthony the Greek said: put your sin before you and look at God on the other side of sin. Through sins look at God! Then sin will not bear the competition of meeting God. God conquers all: what is sin? Nothing! It is nonsense in the sight of God. But this is before God! By itself it is for me an abyss, evil, hell. As the Psalmist David says: “Out of the depths have I cried until Thee – raise my life from the pit!” Our soul thirsts for God, like a deer in the desert craves running water.
It is as St Augustine felt: nowhere does the heart of man rest, except in God. It is like when something happens to a child, he runs and searches for his mother, and no one else, and does not want anyone but his mother, and as soon as he falls into his mother’s embrace he calms down.
Therefore the Gospel is namely a book of basic relationships: we hear about children, about a father, about a son, about a house, about a family. The Gospel is not theory, not philosophy, but an expression of existential relationships: we amongst ourselves, and us with God.