Originally Published: March 4, 2021

I received several replies from catechumens in this group on the topics presented last time, all of which were wonderful to receive and were written with evident love of God and seriousness toward the subjects. Rather than barrel ahead into the next parts of Genesis, we're going to dwell on the topic of sin and redemption, so that questions that arose for those who replied can be addressed to the benefit of everyone, and since we are approaching the Sunday where we remember our expulsion from Paradise, the day before the Holy and Great Lent begins.

Thy Sins are Remitted

Here is an excerpt from Alexander Kalomiros' work Nostalgia for Paradise: Guideposts on the path to the true Fatherland through our life in Christ, which I hope illuminates several points related to our previous topics on the relationship of God and man, and man's path to redemption in Him. It also addresses some misunderstandings about the mystery of Confession in the Orthodox Church.

"Thy sins are remitted."

Remission of sins and the healing of the soul are one and the same thing. Our repentance of sins is also our remission. Repentance means the change of our heart and mind, and our coming close to God, instead of living far from Him. Remission of sins is the overturning of the consequences of having been far from our Father's House. In other words, it is our return to His House and His embrace, and to living once again as His children. Our departure from Him was our illness and death, and our return to Him is our cure and our eternal life.

Often, like the paralytic man in the Gospel, we, too, need the help of others, of our brethren in the Church, who will lift us up to the roof and lower us before the feet of Christ. Only God can give remission of sins and healing if we ask for it, as the paralytic man did. When we confess our sins, whether before the brethren in the Church as in the early centuries, or today before a priest, "we confess to Christ Who alone has the authority to forgive sins." (St. Hesychios, Philokalia, vol. 1, p. 142) And why does Jesus Christ alone have authority to say, "I forgive your sins?" Because He alone is the salvation and cure of our souls.

Forgiveness of our sins is not a human, legal procedure that can be assigned to this or that judge. It is our personal reconciliation with God through His Body, the Church. Remission of sins is when our repentance has admitted the Holy Spirit to dwell in us and illuminate and warm us, casting out the darkness, the cold, and the illness of our soul. That's why the Lord spoke about both things at the same time, the receiving of the Holy Spirit and the remission of sins, because they are two aspects of the same thing.

"There is no unforgivable sin except the unrepented one."

Remission of sins is our path to the life and immortality of the Holy Trinity according to the measure of our own repentance and return to God and His House. And in each of its mysteries, His House imparts remission of sins and union with Him, but most of all in Holy Communion. The entire liturgical life of the Church and of our worship and participation in it look to the remission of our sins, to our cure, the cure of our passions and our falls. Because when we truly worship God and are united with Him, our passions melt like ice in the sun.

We do not fully understand that God uses the saints and the fallen, corrupt languages of men to speak to us. Human language is altogether incapable of expressing the unspeakable mysteries and divine reality. Nevertheless, as long as we have not yet attained His language, He uses ours to help us begin to understand some of the things He wants to tell us so we can know Him and turn to Him. The language of the Scriptures, the language of men, is an introduction to the mysteries of God so we can begin to draw closer to Him. Only if we draw close to Him does He begin to speak to us in His own language which others do not understand. The saints spoke with God in a language that is direct and does not have the flaws and poverty of human language. We should not be fixated on words. Even though the Holy Scriptures are words, the words are not themselves divine. No, they are human, just as our flesh is human, the same flesh that the Logos of the Father took upon Himself out of love. Originating from paganism, the words are imbued with pagan ideas. From those words laden with pagan thought, innumerable misunderstandings and cacodoxies arise and continue to plague us. Consider, for example, the enormous pagan legacy that burdens the words soul and forgiveness.

The Scriptures and the Fathers use words flexibly, something unknown to the hard and rigid rationalistic human spirit. If we fail to enter into the mind of the Scriptures, we will continue reading them and imposing rationalistic and pagan assumptions on them, and we will never properly understand what we actually believe as Christians. This difficulty has always existed, but with the inroads made in Orthodox lands by the West's scholasticism in recent centuries, the evil has assumed frightening proportions.

The Keys of the Kingdom (which Christ promised to Peter and later gave to His entire Church) and the Holy Spirit are the same thing, and we all receive it in baptism as a seed within ourselves. And we are invited to water it and to cultivate our "soil" so the seed will germinate in us and bear fruit and cleanse and illuminate us, rendering us children of God. The Holy Spirit is given to all Christians, not only to those who are successors to the Apostles through ordination. The Keys of the Kingdom, then, are not the private property of anyone, or a gift given exclusively to one part of the fullness of the Church and denied to others. St. Symeon the New Theologian does not say that the Holy Spirit is called the Keys because through Him and in Him the successors to the Apostles are alleged to have authority to erase sins, but because "through Him and in Him we are brightened of mind and illuminated and reborn." (Catechism 33) And how could it be otherwise? For the Lord said, "It is expedient for you that I go away. If I do not go away, the Paraclete shall not come unto you. If I go, I will send Him to you." (Jn. 16:7) After the Lord departed, He sent the Comforter at Pentecost, and only then. If it were the case that He was to impart the Holy Spirit even before His Ascension, the Lord would not have said, "If I do not go away, the Comforter shall not come unto you."

When a bad teaching enters men's souls they become blind. And being blind, they desire to become the guides of others who are also blind. Indeed, they become guides of many blind men and fall into the pit of perversion, and it is the Scriptures and Orthodoxy that they pervert.

Someone asked a saint, "When will I know that my sins have been forgiven?" And the saint replied, "When you know you have been cured of your passions." Remission of sins is the healing, the cure of the soul, which begins with repentance and continues through the struggles of the life in Christ. The words of absolution, "I absolve you of your sins by my power as a priest," were copied from the Roman Catholic rite of confession (ego te absolvo...) and inserted into the Slavonic rite in the 17th century by Peter Moghila, the Latinizing bishop of Kiev. Remission is not an exoneration of guilt pronounced by a presumed representative of God. The powerless declaration, "I absolve you," leaves behind the passions, the cause of sins great and small, to continue to live in our soul. "Forgiveness of sins is freedom from the passions. He who has not been freed from them by the grace of God has not yet been forgiven." (St. Thallasios the Lybian)

According to the Orthodox Church of Christ, evil is a non-entity; that is to say, evil does not possess a substance and existence of its own. Only the Good has true being and substance. Evil is a departure from God just as darkness is an absence of light. Light has real existence; it is the sun and its illuminating energy. Darkness is a departure from the light, and it has no source or energy. If we depart from the light or block it from shining upon us, we will then be in darkness, which is simply the absence of light. If we are to partake of the Good and the light, or of evil and darkness, depends entirely on our free disposition. If we wish, we can turn to the light and our faces will be illumined, or we can turn our backs to the light and our faces will be darkened. This is the Orthodox teaching: forgiveness, the remission of sins, and our cure are our turning toward God, our return to our Father in repentance and the turning of our face toward the light. In other words, it is our entry or return to the Church.

There is a notion that evil and sin have real being and their own objective existence and substance. In this scheme, our simple return to the Church is not sufficient to remit sins; evil and sin are recorded or "written" and, therefore, "bound." Thus, a special kind of action is needed, an action by men who possess supernatural power to wipe away sins, to loose them and exorcise them. In order for the evil in each specific sin to be struck down, those sins, one by one, must be thrown before the feet of men who possess the special power and authority to annihilate them by a supernatural priestly act. Every sin that is left unconfessed or unexposed remains unloosed and unforgiven because it was not placed before those who have the authority to wipe away men's sins. For this reason, those sins remain "written in the books" of the Just God. We see, then, that this entire perception of God, the Church, and sin is contrary and alien to Orthodoxy.

This perception became implanted in our midst through a scholastic influence that had been shaped earlier by an ancient pagan idea of sin as the center and axis on which rotate not only men and angels but God also. According to this false teaching, the entire divine economy of our salvation took place so that sin would be confronted. The Logos of God became incarnate because this alone could oppose sin. In other words, God's descent to man and the world was caused by sin. If sin had not existed, the Incarnation of God would not have taken place. God was forced to become flesh. It was necessary in order to confront sin face to face. Thus, sin leads, and God follows in pursuit, forced by necessity, according to the pagan expression, "Constrain, and the gods obey." In the West's idea of "original sin," the fall of Adam had consequences far beyond the universe, giving rise to necessity in the divine essence itself. Thus, the Logos became flesh and died on the Cross in order to save us from sin by paying its debts, restoring the honor of God, and satisfying the requirements of divine justice. In other words, sin is not only something that has real substance and being; it is an invincible power that set necessity into irrevocable motion in the very essence of God. This scheme also prompts the question, what is the need of the Son of God remaining incarnate eternally, beyond the general resurrection and Judgment?

While the fall of Adam and Eve is an episode even of cosmic consequences, for Orthodox theology it is of relatively small importance in relation to God's eternal will and economy. God allowed the fall in order to teach us humility, which is so indispensable for the true life. Humility is not learned from words but from experience. With the fall came our separation from the life-giving power of God, and our resulting decay and death. The living experience of mankind's fall to decay (corruptibility) and death taught us and the angels that, regardless of how perfect God made us, in our nature we are creatures and dust of the earth. It taught us that we came into being from total and absolute nothingness and that we are kept in existence only by the will, providence, and energy of God. Salvation is not only a return to God from sin. Salvation, as God has willed in His fathomless divine love, is when we transcend our creatureliness and partake of the life of the Holy Trinity by grace as equals among equals, as sons of the Father, as brothers and sisters of the Son and Logos, and as co-inheritors with Him.

The Incarnation of the Logos was not needed for our return from disobedience to obedience. True salvation for us means ceasing to be mere creatures, as it were, and become gods by grace. It is more than the assurance that we will not return to nothingness, an assurance that we have even now, for our person is not annihilated by death but exists in the hand of God. Salvation is the binding of our creaturely nature with the Uncreated Divinity in an unmixed but indissoluble way. It is the way for our nature to receive within itself immortality by grace and other properties of the Divinity. Theosis, of course, is by the divine energy and grace, which will be conjoined and co-inhere with our own nature because of the Incarnation of the Logos and the union of two natures in His Person. This is what the "God of every grace" (1Pet. 5:10) willed from before the ages. It was for this purpose alone that He created all that He created and "calls us to His eternal glory in Christ Jesus" (1Pet. 5:10) to become "partakers of the divine nature." (2Pet. 1:4) This was the will of God eternally, "from before the ages." (Col. 1:26) Before He created us, it was His perfect and ultimate purpose in His love, by which He made all things. He created us according [to] His image so we may attain the likeness, that is assimilation, to Himself and His immortality. This was always the essence of salvation, which means preservation. And Adam, a creature made from the dust of the earth, had need of it even before he sinned, precisely because he was made from dust.

When the Lord said of the sinful woman, "Her sins, which are many, are remitted because she loved much" (Lk. 7:47), He was not referring to an absolution of sins but to the woman's return to God. The greater the distance from which one returns to God, the greater one's love for Him. (Lk. 7:42–43) Her love for God and her repentance and return to Him were simultaneously the remission of her sins. Her sins were not remitted only when Christ said, "Thy sins are remitted." They had already been remitted when she arose and ran to the house of Simon the Pharisee clutching the alabaster bottle of perfume, because she had already repented and returned to God, awaiting only the opportunity to throw herself at His feet.

We need to learn that God speaks with a divine meaning that is not always the same as the human meaning of language. Let us finally understand St. Isaac the Syrian's 30th Homily where he says, "There is no unforgivable sin except the unrepented one," not unconfessed but unrepented.

Curing the Heart

If repentance, this change of life and turning back to the Light, is critical to our salvation, what does real repentance consist of?

Here is an excerpt from Orthodox Psychotherapy: The science of the Fathers by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos in a section entitled Nous, heart and thoughts that goes into detail regarding the heart. For those unfamiliar with the term nous, it is a Greek word with several translations; the one I keep coming back to and that Metropolitan Hierotheos focuses on is "the eye of the soul."

Curing the heart

The highest aim of man is to attain knowledge of God, for this is his salvation. Naturally when we say 'knowledge of God' we do not mean knowledge in the head, but 'communion in being.' That is, knowledge of God is communion with God. Where this communion is attained, there is salvation. But this communion takes place in the depths of the heart. There God meets with man, there He imparts His knowledge, there man gains a sense of His being. In order for this communion and vision of God to come about, the heart must be pure. The Lord affirmed this: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8). The heart which has fallen ill and been made dead needs to be cured and purified in order to offer man knowledge of God. The pure heart is the organ of knowledge, the organ of Orthodox epistemology.

In what follows we shall concern ourselves with how the heart is cured.

Repentance is the first healing medicine. The heart has to repent and come to its natural condition. If a life of sin has led it to the unnatural state, a life of repentance will bring it back to its right state, will give it life. St John of the Ladder offers precise definitions of repentance: "Repentance is the renewal of Baptism. Repentance is a contract with God for a fresh start in life. A penitent is a buyer of humility. Repentance is ever distrustful of bodily comfort. Repentance is self-condemning reflection, and carefree self-care...Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord...Repentance is the purification of conscience..." In another place the same saint tells how all who have been defiled after Baptism must be purified and must remove the pitch from themselves with the unceasing fire of the heart and the oil of divine compassion. God's compassion and the heart's fire heal a man of his sickness.

The deeper the repentance, the more contrition increases. A heart which lives in repentance is literally broken. The prophet-king David says: "A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit, a broken and humbled heart God will not despise" (Ps. 51:17, 50:19 LXX). God dwells in a contrite heart. Everyone who comes to the King to receive remission of his debt needs to have "unutterable contrition". According to Nicetas Stethatos, the distinguishing marks of truth are not in faces, gestures and words, nor does God reside in those things, but truth as well as God repose "in contrite hearts, humble spirits and in souls enlightened by the knowledge of God."

In speaking of contrition of heart we must describe how the heart is made contrite and what this contrition is. St Mark the Ascetic, beginning by saying that it is impossible for someone to be rid of evil without contrition of heart, defines precisely what makes it contrite. "The heart is made contrite by threefold self-control: in sleep, in food, and in bodily relaxation." Bodily relaxation produces self-indulgence, which is receptive to evil thoughts. Contrition is also created by "wise solitude and complete silence." And St Mark the Ascetic, coming back to this theme, emphasises that vigil, prayer and patient acceptance of what comes constitute a breaking that does not harm but benefits the heart. Bodily labour and being deprived of necessities produce a pain in the heart which is useful and salutary. St Philotheos of Sinai, who lays stress on the fact that we must do all we can to humble the arrogance of our heart, underlines ways to achieve this. The heart is crushed and humbled by remembrance of our former life, that is Adam's life before the fall, and by recalling all the sins we have committed since childhood, except of course carnal sins, "for the remembrance of these is harmful." The memory of sins engenders tears and moves us to give heartfelt thanks to God; and perpetual and vivid mindfulness of death gives rise to godly sorrow. Likewise the soul is humbled by the recollection of our Lord's Passion and the many blessings we have received from God. The carnal man, that is the man who is far from God, is distinguished by the hardness and coarseness of his heart. The man of God, who receives the Holy Spirit, is distinguished by the refinement of his heart. The heart is sensitised and softened when it has been purified of passions and is contrite.

The Fathers also describe harmful contrition. According to St Mark the Ascetic, "There is a breaking of the heart which is gentle and makes it deeply penitent, and there is a breaking which is violent and harmful, shattering it completely." The good kind of breaking happens in a spirit of compunction and in an atmosphere of prayer. That is to say, a contrite heart prays unceasingly to God. It does not despair but hopes in God's great love for man. So it is marked by hope. St Symeon the New Theologian, an experienced spiritual physician, recognised that excessive and untimely contrition of heart "darkens and troubles the mind," it banishes pure prayer and compunction from the soul and creates pain in the heart which results in hardness and extreme callousness. This is how the demons bring about despair. Thus a breaking that is not accomplished with compunction and prayer brings more darkness and is a favourable climate for the devil's injection of despair and hopelessness. Genuine contrition, which, as we said, is not injurious to the heart, is marked by the presence of prayer, compunction and hope in God.

A broken heart comes about through prayer and has very many results. An anonymous hesychast presents the benefits of this salutary method:

"1. Break your heart with prayer, oh monk, so that the power of the devil may be completely broken away from your heart...
7. Just as a man fears to take hold of a fiery and sparking iron, so the devil fears the breaking of a heart. For the breaking of the heart breaks his cunning completely.
8. In the relaxed and unbroken heart, as soon as it is confronted with the devil's fantasy, the heart accepts it at once and is deeply impressed by the idea of the fantasy, but in a broken heart there is no room for any fantasy.
9. Where there is contrition of heart all satanic evil is put to flight and every demonic action is set ablaze...
14. Break your heart with prayer so that sin may be broken away from your heart...
25. As soon as the devil sees a heart wounded by the contrition of prayer he remembers the wounds which Christ endured for man's sake, so he takes fright and loses courage.
26. My friend, break the devil with the contrition of your heart so that you may enter triumphant into the joy of your Lord.
27. Break your heart with prayer so that Satan who deceives you may be completely shattered."

In order in some way to interpret the heart's contrition we must speak of pain in the heart. We must say from the start that when we speak of pain in the heart we are mainly referring to the spiritual heart. The spiritual heart aches, is in pain. When this arises by the grace of God it has not tragic consequences for the physical heart. That is to say, while the spiritual heart is breaking, is crushed, is suffering from the joyful sorrow of living in repentance, the physical heart continues its natural course without any ill effects. In most cases cardiologists cannot detect the illness, for the simple reason that the physical heart of someone with heartache is not sick.

Heartache is necessary because even the strictest ascetic life is bogus and fruitless without it. And certainly in order for this heartache, so essential for the spiritual life, to exist, one must not fully satisfy bodily hunger. For "just as a sheep does not mate with a wolf, so suffering of the heart does not couple with satiety for the conception of virtues," says St Mark the Ascetic. All the virtues are conceived through heartache. A Christian life without pain is bogus.

I hope the words of these two teachers of the Faith provide a deeper glimpse into the beautiful ascetic life of repentance that is the Orthodox Christian life. As we progress through Great Lent, each of us should participate in the reality of this life as much as possible through increased prayer, fasting, giving of alms, attendance at divine services, and deep personal reflection that leads us to recognition of our sins in the face of God's immeasurable love for mankind and to persistent, hope-filled repentance. If we apply ourselves, then at the arrival of Holy Pascha, by His grace we will experience a foretaste of the true happiness, blessedness, and inexpressible joy that the Saints enjoy in His Kingdom.