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                     REFLECTIONS ON REPENTANCE

One of the tragedies of our human condition is the tendency to view the grace
of repentance in a negative light. The fact is that, far from undermining a healthy
self-esteem, authentic repentance is the way, in which God leads one to a more
profound appreciation of one's true dignity. Repentance is only possible when one
is willing to become accountable to the whole sanctifying mystery of divine truth.
There can be no personal dignity without personal accountability to the truth.

   Sadly, though, In our weak fallen human condition, there is a strong tendency to
avoid an authentic encounter with the truth of God. And such avoidance leads to an
even more serious avoidance of the fidelity of God to the truth of His Word, whereby
He committed Himself to form humanity in His image and likeness. As a result, It was
so easy for our first parents to seek seductive shelter from the truth of God in the
bushes of equivocation, ambiguity, relativism, excuses and resentments (Gen 3:8).
They sought to develop a false and vapid sense of security, whereby they could
excuse themselves from the awkward struggles required to become truly pure of heart.
   In this regard, we need to remember that sin is first of all a choice to distort one's
perspective, even before it perverts ones actions and attitudes. In the Garden of
Eden, the woman had to first choose not to believe that she was already "like God"
and to view God as not gracious, but greedy and resentful. Only then was she able
to give herself over to the seductions of sin. Likewise, after our first parents sinned,
they chose to further distort their perspective of a compassionate and merciful God
so as to view Him as a threatening Presence to be avoided. By hiding from His pure
mercy, they compounded their commitment to live by a spirituality of excuses and
resentments (Note how Adam blames the woman and God for his sin - "The woman,
whom You put here with me - she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it." - Gen 3:12).

   Repentance, then, is primarily a gracious gift of God, whereby the soul becomes
docile to its need to be held accountable both to the integrity of truth and to the
reconciling mystery of divine intimacy. Without this major purification of perspective,
repentance merely moves the soul from one state of despondency to another such
state or to a state of resentful self-righteousness. This reality is reflected in the
wisdom of the Church in urging her children to make an act of contrition, and not an
act of guilt. Guilt is based upon a subtle self-centered pride ("How could I have been
so perverted, cruel, stupid, etc. to do such a thing?"). Contrition, on the other hand,
is based upon a deepening reverent appreciation of the gracious mercy and love of
God ("How wonderful are Your mercies, O Lord. Even after I have given myself over
to such despicable behavior, You preserve my life, enlighten me with Your truth, and
offer me forgiveness, healing and strength!"). Authentic repentance must thus always
be focused on God's gracious love, not on one's own perversion or on the power of
one's will to overcome sin.

   One aspect of authentic repentance, though, which is often overlooked, is that such
repentance must be directed to reconciliation in spirit and in truth. i.e., in attitude and
in action. Thus the soul must be drawn to realize that God's mercy is a dynamic mystery,
not merely a stagnating gift. We most profoundly share in the transforming mystery of that
mercy by ministering it to others - giving as a gift, what we have received as a gift. This
is why those growing into a mature spiritual life are drawn by the Holy Spirit to bear the
consequences of others' sins by sacrificial acts of reparation. Committed to avoid the
dangers of subtle forms of self-righteousness, they seek to suffer in communion with Christ
crucified for the salvation of others. At the same time, they come to realize that their own
conversion to the integrity of truth was made possible through the prayers and sacrifices of
others in the Body of Christ. Thus no one can boast, except in the gracious love and mercy,
by which we are saved and renewed in Christ.

   All this is highlighted by Lord Jesus Himself. In obedience to the will of the Father that
it was "thus fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness" (Matt 3:15). Jesus humbly received
John's baptism of repentance, thus enabling that baptism to lead to the forgiveness of
sins (Lk 3:3). Since the repentance of those coming to John was grossly inadequate
(Lk 3:7-9), Jesus had to lead humanity out of its imperfect repentance, based on sorrow
for the painful and tragic consequences of sin, into that true repentance, which led
sinners into God's sanctifying righteousness, even as it led Him to the agonizing death
of crucifixion. Thus, no one of us can enter into salvific repentance without the grace of
being in communion with Christ or without that docility to the Holy Spirit, Who guides
the soul to authentic righteousness.


October 2013

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