If not for Loukas we wouldn’t go into the church last Sunday, even though we were nearby at the car park. When we drove to the church of St. Philip and St. John in the Hague it was already a few minutes past 11 and it suddenly occurred to my mind that we might be late for the Prayer of Penitence. Already a long time ago I noticed that it is difficult for me
to go the way which the liturgy is (more about the liturgy as a way) without… without what, actually?
Some time ago I asked the members of the discussion group “Questions of Life, Questions of Faith” which I moderate in Amsterdam, what does the moment of penitence and absolution in the liturgy mean to them. To my surprise they answered unanimously that it doesn’t mean much. For God sees what we are and we don’t doubt that he forgives us. We don’t need the priest’s proclamation. It was one of these moments when I feel like an alien, an outsider with regard to the way I experience the faith and liturgy, and that even despite the fact that all the members of the group belong to the same church I do as well. But what is so important to me? The prayer the priest says is significant, of course, like for example:
Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and keep you in life eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
But in the first place it’s not about the absolution itself, but about what comes before it – the moment of focusing even not on what we call sins, but on the state of human, and in this case my own, sinfulness. In the Anglican liturgy it is expressed, inter alia, by the following prayer of penitence:
Most merciful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we confess that we have sinned in thought, word and deed. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be; that we may do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you, our God. Amen.
I appreciate about it that although there is a clear reference to the Double Love Commandment of the Gospel, which doesn’t allow us to forget that it’s all the time about concrete deeds committed before the face of God against others, at the same time it emphasizes not what we have done, but what we have been, are and should become. I frequently ask myself the question why people have such enormous problem with the concept of sin. There is a very simple answer: no one likes to be reminded of their dark side, be confronted with their shadow. I think, however, that the point is above all that (especially the Western) Christianity has lost the awareness that when we say “sin” and “sinfulness” (in the New Testament Greek the word used is “ho hamartia”, which means missing the aim, for example in archery), we don’t have in mind so much what we do but who we are. Over time the emphasis was put on deeds and their moral qualification. Some where good, some were bad. One should avoid the bad ones, and when that doesn’t work confess them with regret, repent and accept the absolution. And one should practice and strengthen oneself in the good ones. But in my opinion Jerzy Nowosielski is right to say:
Until the people and the church realize that human empirical existence itself is the primary sin – the first to notice it in an existential way was Luther – the whole penitentiary discipline in the church will be false, defective, in the process of development, but it won’t be understood by people in a fundamental way. It seems to me that we should realize the tragedy of our existence, that we are sinners cast out of paradise and that everything we do is a sin, because our very existence is a sin. And then our whole approach to normative ethics will suddenly change, our approach to the so called sinners, who are barely tolerated in the church, to the church rigor. Only then we will learn who we actually are and what situation we are in. And only then we will stop judging our neighbours, because all such prayers as for example the one of St. Ephrem the Syrian, that he might see his own sins and not judge his brother, are pious wishes of the ascetics who had some spiritual vision, but lacked the intellectual vision of the true situation of the human being. But when the human being sees his situation as a dead-end situation of a sinner, a sinner who sins not only by violating some norms, but by the very fact of his empirical existence, only then will he stop judging his brother and will be able to take a truly non-judgmental approach towards his neighbour.
The question which should be asked in the light of these words is: Is there any way at all to “amend what we are”? Nowosielski answers it in the negative:
We can only regret, we can repent for our sins. We have to be aware that we are the last, the worst sinners. And that’s all. We cannot be better. For a human being who wants to be better becomes, in effect, even worse.
Nowosielski doesn’t believe in amending or improving the human being, nor the whole reality. No matter if it is attempted for the sake of religion or secular humanism. Besides his own tragic experiences (for example his many years’ futile struggle against alcoholism), in his approach is manifested his encounter with the ideological utopias of the past century. I myself like reading old socialists. Their faith in humanity, its capabilities, makes me dizzy. I would like very much to be able to affirm words like the following:
The socialist idea is a struggle against the capitalistic system, a struggle for the new socialist system, a struggle against hatred because of class, nation, religion or race, a struggle for common good, culture, justice. I hate omissions, I hate hypocrisy.
But the thing is that I too hate omissions and hypocrisy, and at the same time know that when the undoubtedly honest and devoted Polish Socialist, Boleslaw Drobner, wrote these words in 1948, thousands were imprisoned and murdered in the name of his luminous ideas. I don’t hold him responsible for that. I have no doubt that he believed in what he wrote and wanted to persuade only by the force of his arguments. Not to a small degree it was thanks to the idealistic pre-war Socialists like him that the reality of the so called “Real Socialism” didn’t become unbearable hell, retained something human in itself. But it is Nowosielski and not Drobner who is right, I think. Man does the worst things when he wants to be good, when his intentions are best, when he fights for “common good, culture, justice”.
Ethics means deluding oneself. We can only love, show mercy and be aware of our own burdensome sinfulness. But we cannot, not for a while, have the illusion that we can arrange this world ethically, that as human beings we can be ethical, that we can be so called “decent people”. There is no such thing as a decent human being. For a Christian this is Pelagianism.
Nowosielski doesn’t believe in amending the world or the human being, but he belives in their metabola. He is not an optimist, but a man of hope. Hope that we will finally realize the most difficult of truths. The truth, which seems to contradict his own conviction about the sinful human condition.
The point is that we should experience that there is no guilt, and this is horribly difficult to believe. A human being who would see the obviousness of the fact that there is no guilt, would be a saved human being …
That is what the mystery of his vision consists in. Although he doesn’t have the slightest illusion about the condition of the human being, he believes that the human reality can be transfigured.
I think that the fallen reality can be redefined, that we can make a metabola, a transposition happen.
The instrument of this transformation is human consciousness. A few days ago one of my Facebook friends posted a link to his blog post, where he shared his conviction that:
… the appearance on the earth of the energy of coexistence, only a few years ago imperceptible, means that also in the history of the earth we have a turning point, that is after the period of the Absolute exiting from itself and continuous individuation of particular beings, now there takes place a turn toward the source, toward the unity with the whole and with other beings, braking the barriers separating them.
Under the link a priest, whom I, by the way, respect very much, wrote the following comment:
It seems to me that stupidity has no limits. Stupidity expands, exiting from itself and moving beyond itself, and then comes back to itself. Despite some of its characteristics having been proclaimed a heresy (…)
I hope that these are not the last words which the author of the comment has to say about this. For if they were, I would have to call him a blasphemer. If this is the only thing he has to say about this, every time he celebrates the Eucharistic sacrifice he expresses something he actually doesn’t believe in. In the liturgy we express and celebrate a certain fundamental conviction. Dutch Reformed minister, Carel ter Linden, who has been for years “the royal court preacher”, described it like that:
We have to trust that in the world justice will always prevail over injustice, that true love can unmask and reconcile people. From this reality, which we call God, flows great power. But people have to remove their blockades and open themselves up for that reality.
The liturgical way leads from acknowledging our sinfulness towards removing these blockades, towards change, towards metabola, towards transformation of everything. Oliver Clement wrote once that “the true nature of things, which children and poets sense, and saints confirm, are miracles”. For Fr. Teilhard de Chardin “Cosmos is becoming a host”. The French Jesuit wrote:
We have to say that the first, embryonic body of Christ is contained in the elements of bread and wine. But may Christ be satisfied with that embryonic body? Certainly not. For since he is above all the omega, that is the common ‘form’ of the universe, he can achieve … fullness only when he assimilates mystically … everything that surrounds him.
That is what we experience in the Eucharist, even if only in embryonic form, if we experience the Eucharist at all. That is why I share the conviction of the foundress of Mariavitism, Mother Maria Franciszka Kozlowska that the last rescue offered to the perishing world is the “Veneration of the Most Blessed Sacrament”. The conviction that in the world it is mostly human stupidity that expands may be simply a sober assessment of our situation, but a Christian, and particularity a priest has to choose his words very carefully here. The churches too often act like grouchy aunts who don’t like anything and who have lost their hope for a better future a long time ago, even if they claim otherwise. But celebrating the Eucharist is the opposite of any kind of grouchiness. Perhaps this is why we concentrate on our own dark side and the shadow of reality at the very beginning, in order to free ourselves from this persistent inclination to complaining and grouching, and believe in the unbelievable – that, once again quoting Carel ter Linden:
… in and beyond this world and our life acts a hidden force towards good which desires our life and not our death. Not enslavement and fall.
I was lucky that Loukas was with me last Sunday and persuaded me to leave the car. For it turned out that due to a large number of announcements the Prayer of Penitence was still ahead. The rest also…