Reflections on repentance - Printable Version
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Reflections on repentance - John Charmley - 30-03-2010
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I have been absent from the Forum for some time; a combination of personal crises within the family and work commitments has tended to keep me away. But during that time I have been pondering something which Kyle's question in the 'Questions' section brings vividly to the forefront of my mind: that is the question of mercy and repentance.
Kyle's question, about the attitude of the Church to aspects of what might be called personal sin is one which I suspect many in our modern world would raise, for few there are, indeed, who go through it without encountering some of the things Kyle mentions. One of my friends recently commented, apropos his own position, that it was a good job he was not a Christian because the Church would condemn him.
Now he is no great sinner, he's a divorced man who lives with a woman with whom he has a 'committed long term' relationship. He was convinced, from his experience (ex-Catholic) that the Church would ave nothing to do with him. Perhaps because I said nothing at the time, his words have been on my mind, and they set me to thinking about the theme of repentance and mercy.
I was recently looking at St. John VIII: 1-11, the story of Our Lord and the woman taken in adultery, and, in compiling a collection of passages from the Fathers, I was struck by how unlike the stereotype of my friend they were. I'd like to share the passages with you in a second post here, and then see what, if any, your views might be.
Widsom From the Fathers; St. John VIII:1-11 - John Charmley - 30-03-2010
From the Fathers
This Gospel reading offers us a chance to reflect upon the nature of sin, repentance and God?s judgement. This passage is omitted from most early MSS., although the 5th century Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis includes it. St. Augustine explains this by saying that those of a weaker faith may have omitted in because they imagined it would encourage adultery. St. Augustine was the first major commentator.
St. Augustine (Sermon 16A.4) tells us the Jewish leaders were trying to trap the Lord: ?The Lord had come not to destroy the Law but to fulfil it and to forgive sins.? They reasoned thus: ?If he says ?Let her be stoned,? we shall say to him, ?What has become of your forgiving sins? Aren?t you the one who says ?Your sins are forgiven you?? But if he says ?Let her go,? we shall say, ?What has become of your coming to fulfil the Law and not to destroy it??? When Jesus turns away it ?is as though he were saying: ?You bring me this sinner, you who are sinners yourselves. If you think I ought to condemn sins, I shall begin with you.? In his Harmony of the Gospels 4.10.17, St. Augustine comments that in writing on the ground, the Lord was indicating that their names would be written in sand and not in that heaven where the names of the disciples were written. That same finger of God which wrote the law on stone, writes it in our hearts.
He suggests that if, in response to the Lord?s challenge to them in verse 7 any had cast a stone, he would, as it says in St. Matthew 7:2, have thereby brought judgement upon himself. But it is as the Psalmist wrote (Ps. 14.3): ?They have all turned aside, all alike have become unprofitable; there is not one who does good, not even one.? St. Augustine concludes that his answer was ?the voice of justice. Let the sinner be punished, but not by sinners. Let the Law be carried out, but not by transgressors?.
St. Bede (Homilies on the Gospels 1.25) says that the fact that ?both before and after he have his opinion he bent and wrote on the ground admonishes us that both before we rebuke a sinning neighbour and after we have rendered to him the ministry of due correction, we should subject ourselves to a suitably humble examination, lest perhaps we be entangled in the same things that we censure ? People who bring an accusation against a fornicator may ignore the plague of pride with which they congratulate themselves for their own chastity ? God is greater than our heart and he knows all things.?
In his Tractate St. Augustine says that in the end the ?pitiful and the Pity? were all that were left, and that she would have expected to be stoned by the one who had no sin. Her words to Him are her confession of guilt and repentance, for she acknowledges Him to be Lord.. He condemns her sin, not her as a repentant sinner. But she is admonished and told to sin no more
St. Augustine concludes: ?They were hoping to find an occasion to accuse him as a transgressor of the law so he too would be stoned with the woman ? But Our Lord in his answer both maintained his justice without leaving out gentleness. They laid the snare for him, but they were the one caught in it.?
- Fr Gregory - 02-04-2010
John?s (as always) insightful comments on sin raise important and difficult questions.
How is the Church to deal with those who, apparently, break the rules? For example, by living together in a loving relationship that is not blessed by the Sacrament of Matrimony.
In Orthodoxy, Church law can be applied in two distinctly different ways: to use the technical terms, these are oikonomia (Î¿á¼°ÎºÎ¿Î½Î¿Î¼á½·Î±) and akriveia (á¼ÎºÏá½·Î²ÎµÎ¹Î±). The latter refers to the strict application of the law: Church law says this is wrong and therefore in every case it is forbidden and excludes the person from the life of the Church.
Economy (oikonomia) refers to a ?generous? or pastoral application of the law, taking into account the specific personal circumstances of those involved. It does not make exceptions and does not create precedents, but is based on the assumption that it is God?s desire that all should be saved through participation in the life of His Church.
Let us take two (in fact, real in my pastoral experience) cases. In one case a man and a woman were married in the Church. He is a violent man who routinely beats up and rapes his wife. Church law says that they are legitimately married, entitled to participate in the life of the Church and to receive the Sacraments. There may well be no basis upon which she can obtain an ecclesiastical divorce from her violent husband.
In the second case, two people live in a loving and mutually caring relationship but happen not ? for person reasons ? to be sacramentally married. They are therefore, according to Church law, ?living in sin?.
How should the law of the Church be applied? Is a relationship, characterised by violence and brutality, legitimate and therefore blessed because it complies with a legal technicality, but one that is gentle and loving to be condemned because the technicality has not been met?
If the law is applied with strictness (akriveia) the answer must be ?yes?.
When courts interpret civil law they are often required to consider what was the intention of the parliament when enacting the law, not just what does the law literally say. So, too, in Church law we must ask what is God?s ultimate intention in inspiring laws to govern His Church.
Many who call themselves Christian seem not only to assume that the ?let him who is without sin cast the first stone? rule does not apply to them, but carry large baskets of rocks for use on every possible occasion. We cannot, in Christian terms, judge others by our own standards, but must seek to understand them from the divine perspective.
In applying the law with economy (oikonomia) we must seek to understand the specific circumstances of those involved and to seek, by compassion and healing, to draw them closer to the Church, and to God. Harsh condemnation will bring judgment not upon them, but upon the one who is casting stones.
This is not to say that every sin is acceptable for pastoral reasons! It is to say that I cannot make any judgment until and unless I understand those involved, and prayerfully and compassionately seek to guide them on their journey of faith.
Our Lord was consistently harsh in His judgment of those who applied strict legal technicalities but failed to show compassion, who ?weighed out tithes of mint and anise and cumin, and neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.? [Matthew 23:23].
- John Charmley - 02-04-2010
Some very wise words, Fr. Gregory. Here, at least to me, is the voice of the Lord whom I have encountered.
I wish I had had your words about eight years ago. My closest friend, who became a Catholic, found his journey almost derailed by akriveia. His belief, which despite all his efforts I have never been able to share, that the Pope is indeed the rock upon which the Church is founded, drew him to the RCC a few years before my own journey brought me to the BOC. His local Catholic Church welcomed him and everything was lined up for his reception. Then, in a casual conversation with his priest the latter discovered that his 'convert' had been married, divorced and remarried; everything, to my friend's distress, was called off.
I spent hours, indeed in sum many days, trying to do what I could to help. He was in a very bad place. He showed me the letter he wrote to the local diocese and his priest. I will not break his confidence, but he is quite happy to let me say that he wrote to say that since he believed that there was no salvation outside the Church, and since his past sin was now keeping him from the Church, he felt his soul was in danger; it was as though he had committed a sin which could have no forgiveness. How I wish I had had the post which you have put here, back then.
In the end it was all resolved. He had married thirty years ago and divorced twenty years ago. With the help of the local diocesan official who dealt with these things, he was, as they put it, able to 'find a loophole' and to annul that first marriage. This meant further upset to his first wife, but she agreed so that he could do that which he felt he had to do. The whole thing left a sour taste for some of his friends.
How much better is the approach you outline. Of course we are not God and cannot judge as He does, but we know He is love, and we have, as you point out, enough examples of His impatience with those who carry around big baskets full of rocks (I love the way you put that ).
What made it all the sourer was the fact that a notoriously unfaithful friend of his was declared to be 'Catholic in good standing' when he also approached the RC Church - because his long-suffering wife had never actually brought herself to leave him.
All of this left me looking on, and to this day he cannot understand why, despite his best efforts, I cannot follow him. It is not just that I don't share his conclusion about the Pope (although I am happy with the concept of a primacy of honour) it is the mindset which the actions I have described seemed to betoken. That seemed legalism taken to extremes (as it usually is).
Of course, it takes time to get to understand the circumstances of the individuals, and to come to an inner understanding takes prayer and discernment, but if the priest is to bind and loose as the Lord does, He must surely strive to acquire these things? The mindset you describe seems to me the path down which the truly penitent can travel. I shall never forget my friend's distress for the year and a half it took to resolve his 'irregular' situation; nor the charity of his ex-wife in accepting what she felt was an entirely unfair verdict on her only marriage.