[Just when I thought I was out of recyclable articles, I found another one! Just in time, too, since my brain is in need of recharging.]
That may be the title of a popular ‘60s song, but it also expresses an essential element of the spiritual life, one which must be engaged in repeatedly, or rather, continuously. That would be repentance, of course. Repentance is meant to result in conversion, which literally means a “turning around” (also a “transformation”—both of these meanings are important for our present reflections).
If I’m going to say something about repentance—and I don’t mean a superficial acknowledgement or confession of sin, but something profound and life-changing—perhaps I ought to ask the greatest preacher of repentance, St John the Baptizer (more often referred to in our tradition as the Forerunner.) It was his mission, as described by no less a luminary than the holy Archangel Gabriel, to turn. The Forerunner would “turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God,” and he would “turn the hearts of fathers to the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just” (Luke 1:16-17).
The immortal human soul is not a mechanical thing, a mathematical thing, a biological thing, a material thing, or even a simple thing (in the non-philosophical use of the term). It’s not something that can easily be “fixed” once it is damaged, nor is it something that a “user’s guide” can adequately explain. Therefore when something negatively affects the inner life and dynamics of the soul, a radical solution is necessary for its restoration.
The souls of Adam and Eve were created perfect. They were wholly turned toward God, bearing the fullness of all possible human faculties and capacities, no defects, no a priori evil inclinations, no weaknesses—except the potential vulnerability that necessarily accompanies free will. As we are painfully aware, that vulnerability was thoroughly exploited by the evil one, resulting in the Fall of Man. The consequence of this was not merely our first parents’ expulsion from Paradise, with its attendant hardships, but a profound turning away from God within the human soul. This severe alteration within the soul has affected every human soul since then (with the glorious exceptions of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin, who are therefore called the New Adam and the New Eve).
According to C.S. Lewis, what happened at the Fall had so tragically disfigured what God had originally created, that it made of man a kind of sub-species of himself, in a certain sense different than what he was before. (The Greek Fathers also say that to sin is not to act according to human nature, but that it is beneath our nature, rendering us “sub-human” in its effects.) So the issue of the hereditary transmission of what came to be called “original sin” is not controversial for Lewis. After all, a species can only reproduce itself. It’s not a matter of passing on a personal sin through human generation, but of reproducing beings that are inescapably and woefully defective: prone to sin and subject to death.
After millennia of sinful beings inhabiting the earth, exacerbating the primal turning away from God by countless deliberate turnings, God decided that it was high time to turn souls back to Him. So He sent the Archangel to the priest Zachariah to tell him that he would have a son who would initiate God’s work of turning, a work that would be completed by the Only-begotten Son of God. John was to set the stage. He was consecrated and anointed to turn hearts to God, to turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous. This is quite appropriate: since the original sin was one of disobedience, all sins retain something of that character, and so all must be turned back to obedience.
But as I said, the turning away of the human soul from its Creator is not a small thing, nor are its effects minor. So when the Forerunner cries out, “Repent!” it is not enough merely to say “OK!” and then stop doing the bad things you had been doing. That part is indispensable, of course, but it is only the beginning.
I would like to share here a bit of poetry in order to help us get a better grasp on this mystery of the inner turning away that is deeper than any individual sin or sum of sins. It’s a sonnet written by Kathryn Mulderink, and is taken from her book of poetry entitled, To Sing You Must Exhale. The sonnet is called De nocte, that is, “Of night.”There’s a dark that illumines the darkness we are In the subterranean chambers beyond sin, Where subtler poisons deface, debar, And unravel every hard-won discipline. Below repentance’s smoothly finished frame Lurk nature’s will and inward contradictions Though we’ve immolated sense in puring flame And submitted to our cleansing benedictions. More contrariety with God have we Than sin which once we chose but now reject; He is more than sinlessness and we Cannot sublimate through force or intellect. We must let go of us, arms cruciform, To expose our hearts to Fire that transforms.
What she’s saying is that what Scripture calls “the mystery of iniquity” goes so deep into the human soul that no superficial or even standard treatment can fully turn toward God that which was first turned away by original sin and later through numerous sinful choices. The remedy must be a radical one.
But this turning from sin and turning to God is, in its fullness and depth, a rather complex and profound matter. That is precisely because it is a spiritual, profoundly personal matter and not a merely legal or ritual one. It’s easy enough to say “I repent,” and even mean it, and then receive absolution, but after that we might still not be wholly turned toward God. It’s not enough simply to perform the proper ritual, even sincerely. If you repent and honestly confess, you will be forgiven the guilt of your sin, but it may be that the necessary conversion (read: transformation) still has not taken place. It may be that the will itself has not yet been sufficiently affected by grace, for the will has not sufficiently reached out to grace. It still keeps, to some extent, its self-ward orientation, still is somewhat turned away from God, not entirely turned toward Him. That’s one reason the Church insists that along with confession the penitent must have a “firm purpose of amendment,” because the heart newly turned to God still has a tendency to turn back away from Him.
This is why the prophetic mission of the Forerunner is so important, so crucial. His work of turning hearts to the Lord, turning the disobedient to the way of wisdom, is not a mere correction of a few faults. It is preparing the way for God to reach down into the depths of the human soul, to the hidden place at which we are all still connected to the primordial rebellion of Adam and Eve, and to turn it back, uniting to the obedience of Him who became man for our salvation, who humbled himself unto death on the Cross in radical obedience to the will of the Father. To the extent that we all thus turn radically back to the Father, the power of the devil is utterly vanquished in this world.
To have our hearts wholly turned to God is not a matter of our simply saying “I’m sorry,” and then God saying, “Don’t worry, it’s OK.” That is not salvation; that is not transformation. Rather, to truly turn is to cry out from the depths, “O God, save me! I am lost!”—as He reaches down and pulls us from the jaws of the dragon. It is being willing to mount the altar of the Cross and to allow Fire from Heaven to consume the sacrifice. If we don’t know how evil sin is, we can’t know how marvelous mercy is. If we don’t tremble at the prospect of damnation, we cannot adequately appreciate salvation.
To be continued…