As I’ve noted before, a word or phrase from the Daily Office sometimes reaches out and grabs me by the heart. Or rather, it can feel like the prayers of the Church grab me by the beard, as Joab grabbed Amasa, feigning familiar friendship but running me right through the gut (2 Sam. 20:8-10). And as a sharp, piercing sword that separates soul from spirit, the word true before repentance in the Office’s absolution caught me full stop one morning (1979 BCP, p. 42).
What would it mean for my repentance to be true, as opposed to some other kind with which I might be all too familiar? What does it demand of me?
True repentance demands my cooperation in the midst of God’s graceful work. The Office’s absolution begins and ends, and properly so, with God’s pure gift. “Absolution and remission of sin,” as I’ve written before, is something we cannot do or procure for ourselves. We come to God with filthy hands, greased with sin. Attempting to wash off “the sins that cling so closely” (Heb. 12:1) would produce much the same effect as when my youngest son, caked from head to toe in mud, tried to clean himself off with a hose. Each time he would clean one hand he’d use it to grab the hose and then it was soiled with the dirt from the other hand. In the end, he managed more of a spreading of mud than a real cleaning from it. He needed help.
Priests illustrate and live out this truth every time they celebrate the Sacrament, as an acolyte pours water over their hands in the ablution. I teach my acolytes that before I assume the place of Christ for the sake of the community in celebrating the Eucharist, they assume the place of Christ for me when they pour the blessed water of forgiveness over my fingers. It makes an impression.
In an even more explicit way, “the grace and consolation of the Holy Spirit” prayed for in the absolution is not something we can acquire or earn. Grace and consolation go beyond even the notion of a divine gift: they are God himself, made present in us. Appearing appropriately at the conclusion of the absolution, the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling and the concomitant indwelling of Christ himself is our goal. The Office guides us from the beginning of sanctification in God’s graceful action on our souls to sanctification’s end: moving from prison to freedom, from sorrow to joy, toward communion with the blessed Trinity.
But again, what of the middle part of the prayer of absolution: “true repentance and amendment of life”? This part demands our cooperation in what the Fathers called a synergeia with the Holy Spirit. We must be willing to see ourselves truly and with unflinching courage. This stage of repentance corresponds to the painful task of examining a wound: pressing on it, opening it, even inflaming it as one searches for foreign matter that could spark an infection later.
When I was young, my parents would use a needle and rubbing alcohol to dig out a splinter in my finger or foot. As one who seeks to leave childish things behind (cf. 1 Cor. 13:11), I must now have the courage to root out sinful thoughts and habits that will only fester if allowed to remain. God may reveal them for what they are, but I must confront and defeat them, exercising a will created in the image of God’s freedom.
True repentance means I must be merciless with myself — “judge yourselves, lest ye yourselves be judged” (1 Cor. 11:31) — to prevent a wound in the flesh or soul from poisoning my spiritual heart. What I watch, what I say, how I behave: all of it must be painfully examined by truth spoken in Jesus’ love. This is how one may construe the saying that one must “pluck out an eye” or “cut off a limb,” if it causes one to stumble (Matt. 5:29-30). True repentance is effected and demonstrated by amendment of life — real change in how one lives.
We must present even the best parts of ourselves for examination. Yes, Christ would have us amend even that which makes us “successful” in the world! We must examine what is precious to us, what is apparently our strength. Every part of us must be radically amended, pruned, amputated, if we are to be fruitful branches of the one true Vine (John 15:1-6).
True repentance takes such courage. I cannot say that I have it: we may witness it only in a few, such as the saints. But repentance requires us to acknowledge the depth of the painful interior martyrdom that cooperation with the Holy Spirit requires.
True repentance calls us to amend ourselves all the way down to where Christ dwells in us, all the way down to where the Holy Spirit groans in our agony with all the spiritual forces of wickedness. And if the truth should cause us to despair, if this sort of reckoning should seem to take us down even to depths of hell itself, if the amendment required proves beyond our power, the Church’s prayers do not leave us comfortless. The Holy Spirit himself will come there — especially there, always there — to console us and present us to Christ our Savior, that he may deliver us from where he has gone before. Even to the hour of our death and the end of the age, let it be so.