I had a wonderful meeting with Fr Patrick yesterday afternoon. I cannot adequately express my joy at having a spiritual father whom I consider both wise and safe. In addition, I never feel I’m receiving spiritual advice that has not first been hammered out in his own life. Fr Patrick is a trustworthy fellow sojourner on the path to salvation and life in Christ.
Yesterday, he reminded me of a very simple truth that has been resonating in my mind all night and morning. He said that the place of personal transfiguration is where God’s divine energies and our personal repentance meet. This “equation” for spiritual formation is neither a magical formula nor an instantaneous event. It requires both the discipline of an ascetic life and an abundance of time as we cooperate with God’s grace. But this simple equation basically summarizes the life of the Orthodox Church. The life of the Church through its Scriptures, services, sacraments and stories of the saints, is aimed at helping us by both developing personal repentance and exposing us to God’s divine energies.
I’m particularly captivated with Orthodoxy’s focus on repentance. Frankly, constantly hearing about repentance when we first began attending the Orthodox Church rubbed me the wrong way. Repentance is not a popular concept in American Christianity. It’s often associated with the “Woe-is-me-Beat-myself-up” mentality of abusive and destructive religion. It took some time for me to purge that image out of my head.
But that’s not repentance at all. Repentance literally means “to change one’s mind.” It’s used during the New Testament time in a similar way as our modern phrase, “Think about it.” To repent is to hear an alternative to one’s agenda or course of action, to carefully weigh the consequences of both, and ultimately to recognize the wisdom of the alternative and lay down your inferior agenda. Repentance isn’t just changing one’s mental perspective but it’s the actual transformation of one’s mind and subsequently, one’s life. When you embrace the superior alternative, it begins to transform your values, perspective and behavior. It’s a complete shift of worldview.
St. Isaac the Syrian correctly defines repentance as “to be transformed in the renewal of the mind.” While it can include remorse or confessing to breaking a law, repentance is ultimately the process of becoming one in heart and mind with Christ. Therefore, it is something we do through the rest of our lives.
So spiritual formation in the Orthodox Church is to be constantly confronted with the superior way, truth and life that is Christ himself, to be encouraged and urged to weigh the consequences of my self-destructive patterns of thinking, behaving and relating in light of the better way of Christ, and to lay down my way and to take up my cross and follow Christ. And this entire process is soaked in God’s divine energies.
“But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the lord, who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:16-18
It is this way that the Church is therapeutic, healing and repairing us of our brokenness and distortion. It is this way that the Church is like a gym, training and honing us into holiness.