Image from Ted on Flickr
“Thank God, that I am not like this tax collector.”
Man, that Pharisee sounds kinda dumb, doesn’t he?
That’s always–God forgive me–one of my first thoughts when I hear the Gospel reading of this Sunday. “You knucklehead! How is it a good idea to thank God for not making you like another one of God’s creations? Dude!”
This really is one of the most extraordinary weeks that the Church gives us. A fast-free week–not following any feast day–but rather that we may “fast from our fasting,” if you will. That we may step away from the works and practices that we so often and so easily substitute for “faith,” and investigate rather our faith in God.
That’s what the publican had that the Pharisee lacked–or rather, that with which the Pharisee struggled. Faith in God.
The Pharisee still believed in God, I believe–but as the Gospel says, the Pharisee stood at the altar and prayed “with himself.” He didn’t pray with Christ, or with the saints, with the Theotokos, as we as Christians are called to do.
The Pharisee prayed with himself because he had faith in himself–not in God. He had faith in his tithes, so he prayed to his tithes; he had faith in his fasting, so he prayed to his fasting. He gave his tithes and fasting and church attendance–his works–praise. He sanctified his works in the temple with his words; he exalted them, because he believed through them he had been saved.
The publican, as we know, had faith in God. He didn’t turn to the liturgical services, the hymnography and the psalms, the works of fasting and tithing as the source of mercy. He spoke from his heart, plainly to God, beseeching that God save him. The publican was only interested in that which mattered: being with God by being saved through Him. He didn’t have works; he had faith.
The parable of the publican and the Pharisee is so powerful, and thank God we use it to begin our fasting period. But when we hear it, we must be wary, less fall into the Pharisee’s very trap:
“Thank God, that I am not like the Pharisee.”
“Thank God, that I am not like the Pharisee. I really have a relationship with God, I speak to God directly–like the publican–and I don’t get caught up in making sure I pray every day, making sure I fast when I should, making sure I attend church. I feel spiritual–I feel a connection with something divine–and I don’t get all caught up in the trappings of the Church.”
We forget, sometimes, that the Pharisees are/were the “good” guys. At least, they weren’t actively bad–they were men of faith in God, but often too entrenched in the faith they knew to recognize the New Testament and the coming of the Messiah. The Pharisees modeled good behavior to the faithful: things like church attendance, fasting, and tithing fall squarely under that category.
The traditions of the Church and practices taught by the fathers aren’t bad–they’re good! They’re powerful and necessary and rejuvenating, but only when they serve their purpose: bringing us closer to God, that we may be saved by Him. When they are done for their own sakes–or worse, for the sake of our self-assuredness and pride–they become noxious distractions.
Avoid this week and this Lent the Pharisee’s trap–do not find yourself judging or boasting in either direction. The publican is our example: in humility and without fear, doing whatever he could to draw closer to God.
Oof. Just the word is scary. Confession.
Look, as far as the sacraments go, I can’t really speak to marriage or unction, and to be honest, my memory of baptism and chrismation might be a little fuzzy, but I feel pretty secure in saying that up to this point, the toughest sacrament with which I’ve dealt has to be confession.
It’s on my mind today because I had the opportunity to go this past week. It was…well, it was what it always was. Gut-wrenching and embarrassing, exhausting and renewing, rife with uncertainty and doubt and faith and repentance. I hope.
When I was younger, confession always made me cry. Now that I’m older…okay, so confession still makes me cry, but I think it’s for a different reason. When I was younger, I was so scared of confession, so mortified at listing all of the things that I had done poorly, that I cried tears of fear at the impending lightning bolt that was, no doubt, hurtling its way down to earth to wipe me from the face of the planet. I did not have a full understanding of what confession was, the purpose it served: I thought it was a listing of my sins.
I still don’t have a full understanding of what confession is, but I think I’ve got a better bead on the purpose it serves: it is, of course, about forgiveness. About wiping the slate clean. About washing away the muck. And now after confession, I don’t cry out of fear of the God that is far away, trembling with anger over the sinful man who dared come before him, but I cry out of fear as I run to the God who is close by, awaiting me with open arms as I flee the sins that I allowed to enter my life, that starting pulling me away from Him. I don’t cry because I’m afraid of God–I cry because I just came to understand what my life looked like away from God, and I’m afraid of that.
Fr. Noah Bushelli of St. Philip’s in Souderton, PA likes to remind us that repentance is inexorably linked to the Greek word metanoia, which means a change of mind, a conversion of thought. Fr. Noah likens repentance to an about-face, a turning around of the heart to face God. And no matter how far down we have gone on the incorrect path, if we turn around to face God, suddenly, we are on the right one.
During my confession this past week, I was very impatient. I didn’t understand why I was struggling with the same nonsense that had plagued me for years. I wanted to know what I was doing wrong and how I could fix it.
I think that’s the easiest thing to do to confession: think of it as an exam, one of those weekly quizzes teachers use to “check your progress”–ugh. We have to go to confession and recap our old problems, talk about our solutions to those problems, and then come up with new ones to share. If we didn’t evolve, if we didn’t grow from that past confession, no matter how long ago it was, to this confession, then we just flat-out failed.
Well, yeah. That’s why we’re at confession.
Confession isn’t an every-so-often check-in with your priest/God. It’s not a progress report. It is a turning-around, a wiping away of the muck–it is the prodigal son in the pigpen who stood up, got out of the dirt, turned to face his father’s house, and began walking. And we fool ourselves into thinking that this is a one-time deal, that we better stay upright and on the path, at least until we get to the next pigpen, because if God sees us in the same pigpen…
See, it’s even weird to finish that sentence. If God sees us in the same pigpen, He’ll grow angry that we haven’t changed? We are sinful creatures stuck in a fallen, mucky world, and we all have our individual crosses to bear. Some will bear great doubt; some great pride; others great lust; others still great envy–but all will bear it and fight with it over long expanses of our life. To overcome great sin one must have great confession–and that means regular, heartfelt confession–great prayer, great sacramental life, great service, great worship, great love, and probably roughly five hundred other things I neither know nor understand.
We don’t get mad at a dish for getting dirty again, having worn it after we washed it! Nor do we wear a shirt out into the world, full of dirt and grime and body odor (looking at you, fellow college boys), and expect dirt to bounce off of it because we’ve already washed it once for that reason! And of course, we mean far more to God than a shirt means to us–how the more then will He care for us. “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me, I shall be whiter than snow,” the Psalmist says. Where was the ‘good for only 30 uses over lifetime’ disclaimer? Where was the ‘only works on each sin one time’ limit?
I don’t want you to think confession is a trial, where you squint your eyes and clench your shoulders, bracing for the fury that God may unleash. I don’t want you to think confession is a check-in point, where you’re supposed to have taken great leaps and strides since your last time around (of course, there is nothing wrong with being a better man, with new battles to fight–it just doesn’t happen every time). I don’t want you to think anything about confession at all, really. There’s nothing quite like it, in human terms. It’s you, turning and facing God. How can that possibly be circumscribed in human terms?
So go. Go to confession. Write down your sins before you go so that you don’t forget any. Stand in the church, facing God for what may be the first time in months, in years. That’s okay. You’re on the right path, now.
As we have seen, the first two callings of “come and see” are both directed toward a new disciple. First, to come and see the place where Christ dwells and then to come and see for oneself who He really is. The third “come and see,” however, is different.
As Jesus nears His own crucifixion, His friend Lazarus dies and is laid in a stone tomb. Lazarus’ sisters come to Him, weeping over the death of their brother. They doubt that His presence will do any good at this point because Lazarus has been dead four days and the sweet smell of the spices that were used to anoint his body have worn off revealing the real stench of death. They weep at His feet and reprimand Him for not coming sooner.
Jesus seemingly remains unconcerned as he gets nearer to the tomb, continually reminding Mary and Martha of who He is.
Finally, He asks them, “Where have you laid him?” and they respond, “Lord, come and see.”
The third “come and see” of the gospels is an invitation for the Lord to come and see the wages of sin, to confront the death and corruption that plagues humanity–that plagues each of us.
It is an invitation we must extend to Jesus knowing that we are Lazarus, dead four days and stinking from our own sins within the stone tomb of our harden hearts. Experience (the first come and see) and knowledge (the second) of Christ are gifts of grace, freely offered by Him to those who will receive Him.
What is required of us is to respond.
And we respond by asking Jesus to come and see the sins that bind us like Lazarus in the grave no matter how foul we may think they have become. What is asked of us is that we weep bitterly, like Mary at her brother’s tomb, over the death that is within us.
When they reach the tomb, Jesus, confronted with the death of His friend and the end result of humanity’s fallen state, joins Mary in her lament. And then, incredibly and in spite of the doubts and disgust of the crowd, He asked for the tomb to be opened, and He calls the rotting Lazarus out of the tomb and into Life.
So too it is with our hearts when we truly and honestly invite Jesus to come and see what lies within. He takes away the stony hardness of our hearts, and He does not flinch at the stench of the dead man who lies therein. Instead, He weeps with us, His own heart breaking to know what tragedies we suffer at our own hands, and then He calls forth the real man saying, “Loose him, and let him go,” freeing us from the grave clothes of our the sins which bind us and offering to us True Life in Him.
If there’s one thing that can be said for the demons, it’s that they are persistent. They never rest from their attempts to get us sidetracked from the Way, and they’re relentless in bombarding us with distractions of every type, anything to keep us from focusing on Christ in our hearts. If we’ve been decently formed by the Church and are earnest in our pursuit of Christ, we’re often quick to notice the big temptations they hurl at us, even if sometimes in our weakness we still fall prey to them. So, of course, the demons get all the more tricky (have you read The Screwtape Letters?), and find ways to worm their way into our hearts and minds disguising their nonsense as “normal” thoughts or even “godly” thoughts.
One of these demons I noticed running around at College Conference this year was what I like to call the “What-If” demon. This annoying beast spends his time making us ask ourselves, “What if this thing I want to have happen never happens in my life?” “What if I had done this one thing differently?” “What am I going to do if some-thing-in-the-future-that-hasn’t-happened-but-could happens to me?” It seems he especially likes to pester young Orthodox Christians with all sorts of what-if’s about dating, relationships, marriage, and monasticism. Illustrative to this point are some of the questions we received from students in our question box:
What if we do not come to the realization to be married or enter the monastic life?
What if I don’t know by the time I’m 25 if I should get married or be a monastic? Does that mean I should automatically become a monastic if there is no one I can marry by 25?
Likewise, many young people who do feel called to marriage wonder, “What if I don’t meet the right person? What if I never get married?” Now, this is not to say that it’s not important to answer questions of how one should go about discerning one’s vocation. But the nasty What-If demon twists this necessary and spiritual undertaking into an anxiety-ridden, paralyzing question filling us with guilt, worry, and fear.
The What-If demon does his best to keep us looking anxiously to the future or mulling over the past, and this murky cloud of what-has-been and what-might-be is his greatest weapon. It swirls around us, becoming so encompassing, dark, and ominous that we can’t see clearly–we can’t see the present moment. And it is only in the present moment that we can meet Christ, hear His calling, and answer obediently.
In fact, C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters (really, you should read it) says it perfectly. Coaching his nephew on the ways of temptation, the demon Screwtape writes:
The humans live in time, but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone, freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him), or with the Present–either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.
The present moment is the place where time and eternity meet and where God enters into our lives. In an important way, the present moment is the only moment for the Christian. Do you say “yes” to Christ in this moment with this breath? Are you listening for His call in your heart right now? Can you see Him in the person or situation that’s right in front of you?
We must do battle with the What-If demon as we do with all temptations. First, we have to recognize him for what he is. We can’t confuse his what-if’s with repentance for the past or discernment about the future. Don’t let him convince you that his imaginary situations where he replays your past with anguishing regret are the same as contrition or the images he throws before you with terrorizing anxiety of futures that haven’t happened need to be addressed to find God’s will.
His cloud is just that: a cloud. A cloud that is blown away by the Holy Spirit when we call upon the name of Jesus Christ. And once we have recognized the What-If demon for who he is and called upon Christ to banish him away, we can be free to see clearly the present moment in which Christ dwells.
If the What-If demon becomes too strong in our lives, he can wreak all sorts of havoc on our hearts, giving rise to anxiety, fear, and depression. If he is pulling too strongly, it’s important that we bring to light this struggle in the sacrament of confession. Confession is a time to be open and honest about the demons that pester us, especially when we feel convinced by their nonsense.
And watch out because just as you start to name the What-If demon and try to escape from his distractions, he’ll send in his cousin the Don’t-Repent demon who will try to convince you that you should feel shame for your anxiety, you are helpless, and you don’t deserve God’s love and forgiveness. Don’t listen. He’s lying.
The best thing we can do when we are tempted by the What-If demon is to remember that he is actually powerless as long as we refuse to give him any of our time and energy. When he comes to distract us, instead of letting him drag us away from Christ in the now, we can answer with the Prophet,
Behold, God is my Savior and Lord. I will trust in Him and be saved by Him. I will not be afraid, for the Lord is my glory and my praise. He has become my salvation. –Isaiah 12:2, OSB
Well… it is cough and cold season again in America and the steady hacking of the afflicted provides a staccato soundtrack to daily life in schools, offices, and public places. I wouldn’t have imagined it possible to become so easily brought low by the so-called “common cold” in this place (Arizona) of palm trees and citrus groves but the cold virus is no respecter of persons or places.
I made the classic mistake this autumn of waiting too long to visit my doctor since I didn’t want to be a big baby about something as ordinary as a cold and thought it would surely abate in a few days. Weeks later and chronically ill, I belatedly exited the doctor’s office with a fistful of prescriptions to combat my ailments which if treated sooner would have required less stringent remedies!
King David’s Repentance. Image from Wikimedia
Kinda like confession… Physical ailments cannot be ignored for long without escalating into more serious conditions, and spiritual ones seem to linger and linger if we don’t exercise the same care for our souls as for our bodies. “Routine” physicals are scheduled to assess the overall well-being of the patient as the vital signs (pulse, blood pressure, temperature, weight, etc.) are checked for potential issues and abnormal readings often prompt further rounds of testing.
And we accept this as necessary to promote and maintain health and vitality. But how eagerly do we embrace spiritual assessments of our souls through the ministrations of Holy Confession? How often should we go and how specific should we be in describing our spiritual maladies to the Physician of our souls? The answer to this depends on admitting to ourselves how healthy or unhealthy we want to be in our spiritual lives.
Health and Well-being expenditures in America run into the billions of dollars. A broken fingernail can be the ruination of an otherwise calm and peaceful day. Diets are tightly monitored to avoid sugar, HFCS, gluten, wheat, antibiotics, hormones, etc., and all for good reason. Yet we ingest numerous spiritual, emotional, and psychological substances which are as lethal to our souls as the above listed are to our body.
Holy Confession enables the penitent (that’s us!) to be cleansed from within of our sins and to be made well. The impurities to which we have been exposed, spiritual viruses like lust, envy, pride, anger, bitterness, etc. are flushed out through the grace of the Holy Spirit and our souls are detoxified of these lethal influences which, if left unchecked, can bring about spiritual death.
As a rule, I believe it is helpful to come to confession whenever the Church is fasting, e.g., Great Lent, the Apostles’ fast, the Dormition fast, and the Advent fast. However, inasmuch as Holy Confession is about wellness and not judgment, there may be periods in our lives when more frequent confession is needed. God’s grace flows into the hearts of the humble along with clarity and wisdom. There really is no downside here!
Likewise, the degree of specificity of what we confess correlates to how well we want to become. We ought to be at least as honest in confession as we are in the doctor’s office. Hence, one who has embezzled vast sums would be ill-advised to mutter a word or two about greed! And because God is a righteous and merciful Judge, He stands ready to forgive and to heal and (this is important) strengthen us to wage war against those temptations that threaten to wreck our spiritual health!
So as we approach the Lenten Spring together, may we all take advantage of the spiritual wellness “program” offered to us in our parishes through the Holy Mystery of Confession!
Love and blessings,
Fr. Apostolos Hill
About the Author
This is a guest post from Fr. Apostolos Hill at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, AZ. Fr. Apostolos has been active in OCF in a variety of areas; hosting regional retreats, leading OCF Real Break trips to Greece, Guatemala, and Skid Row, and in the College Conference West.