December Newsletter 2020
Repentance is a wonderful virtue. It is the beautiful act of humbling oneself in front of others to ask for their forgiveness. To the world, however, this practice is disgusting. This is a time where being the “alpha” or “the man on top” is portrayed as desirable, or where witty retorts and hateful comments outweigh humility. Because of this, repentance is generally frowned on. Moreso, humility and “lowering oneself” are seen as embarrassing or weird. Of course, as Christians, such modest behavior is encouraged, as it always has been. To prove this, let’s turn back the clocks, and go to 600 A.D., where St. John of Climacus has just finished his greatest work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. When we reach, we see that St. John teaches repentance. In it, he speaks of a place where monastics would live in extreme repentance. In this place, men are filled with utter abasement, absolute humility, and complete contrition. To better understand the virtue in question, let us journey deep within “The Prison,” and see how such marvelous asceticism applies to laymen.
The first “Prison” to explore is that of the monks. Saint John Climacus wrote the following, “Coming to this abode of penitents and to this true land of mourners, I actually saw… such deeds and words as an incline God to mercy.”(Climacus, 5.4) He goes into detail about men who would “stand in open air all night until morning,”(Climacus, 5.5) or “lift up their eyes to Heaven, and with wailings and outcries implore help from there.”(Climacus, 5.6) This was not all the prisoners would do, however, and Saint John tells of how some would punish themselves as if they were criminals, or how some would weep in sackcloth and ashes, all remorsefully pleading for forgiveness from on high. Saint John narrates how some would cry out like beasts, and others would drive themselves to the edge of human capability to entreat God for mercy. One thing that stood out to the saint was how there was no sign of anger, laughter, joy, or any worldly frivolity. This was a place of perfect sadness and remorse. These monks would righteously despair, without falling into the slough of despondency.
This final point, that they would be “resiliently sad” so to speak, is something that is key in our own prisons as laymen. On the one hand, we must escape the clutches of the world, and shun all immorality and wickedness, but on the other hand, we must turn to the prison of Christ, and heap disgrace on ourselves so that we may become holy. This is a wonderful mystery, and perhaps there is none like it. We must leave behind all worldly filth, and embrace the “filth” of Christ. When we do this, the world scoffs at us and laughs at our seemingly miserable state, but we know of the reward to come, and we are overjoyed, even in death, so that Christ may be glorified in us, and so that our repentance may be made complete.
With the prison of the laymen, and the prison of the monastics, it may be confusing for some. To dispel any muddlement, I would like to compare the two prisons, so that we can see how alike they really are. With the monastic’s prison, the inhabitants are filled with extreme humility and disgrace. This is something that is slightly similar to the the prison of the laymen. In it, the “prisoners” are disgraced in their own way by not conforming to the norms, or perhaps fasting and praying, even if it brings about embarrassment for the prisoner in question. Another likeness between the two is the way the world sees such places. This “crooked and depraved generation”(Phillipians 2:15) sees the prisons as awful places that should be avoided at all costs. The inhabitants are seen as worthless, odd, and gross. This is a harsh reality, but it is to be expected when we accept the way of the Cross.