Monday, February 15, 2010

Repentance: It Is Not Awareness of Individual Guilt

Here is one of countless wonderful passages from On Human Being: A Spiritual Anthropology, by Olivier Clement (New City Press, New York, London, Manila, 2000, pp.2-23).

3 Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, 4 they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses, in the law, commanded us ] that such should be stoned. But what do You say?" 6 This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.
7 So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first." 8 And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10 When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, "Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?" 11 She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said to her, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more."

An intolerable text! It is missing from several manuscripts. Our moral conscience, indeed our religious conscience, cannot admit that Christ refuses to condemn this woman who says nothing, who shows no repentance. She has been taken in delicto flagrante; the crime she has committed is one of the most serious known to the Law, not only because it undermines the patriarchal structure of Jewish society, but because Scripture describes the relationship of God with his chosen people in terms of marital faithfulness and unfaithfulness. Christ confounds her accusers by reminding them that evil is universal: spiritually, they also are adulterers; they also, in one way or another, have betrayed love. ‘Let him who is without sin…’ No one is without sin. And he concludes by saying, ‘Go and sin no more’, giving her a new start in life.

Being aware of our state of separation, while longing to end it, is a prerequisite of the breaking up of the superficial self, of the shattering of our stony heart. Without this breaking up, Christ cannot be resurrected in me. That is why the monks say that repentance is the ‘reminder of death’, making us personally aware of our state of separation.

St. John Climacus says, ‘To define repentance as the awareness of individual guilt is to risk emptying it of meaning (Sermons, ed. Constantinople, P. 118). Again, to define sin as mere individual guilt would be to do without God, since all we should have to do in order to quieten our conscience would be to keep the Law. But, as St. Paul reminds us, the law cannot ‘make alive’ (Galatians 3:21). We who are reminded every day of our death, that is of the daily murder of love, know that only the victory of Christ over hell and death can ‘make alive’.

Once we have made this great return journey across the flood, receiving presentiments of the nature of death, we are thenceforward filled with a sorrowful joy. Our whole being is pervaded by a tenderness which is not the denial of passion, but its transfiguration by the passion of the Lord. We become capable of receiving others no longer as enemies but as brothers and sisters – this is the mysterious ‘love of enemies’ of the Gospel – of welcoming them without judging them, and perhaps of finding the right words to enlighten them in their turn. Without any effort on our part, we become different in our most ordinary words and actions, and may succeed in conveying to others that there is a meaning to life, that death has not the last word.


Andrea Elizabeth said...

This and your next inspired by Monsieur Clement are a serendipitous coincidence! His words are healing balm.