Those who do not see their sins will not possess repentance, and those who do not acquire repentance will never draw near to contrition of heart. Those bereft of contrition will never become humble, and those who are not crushed and made tender by the grace of radiant and quiet humility will never see Who Christ—the most meek and humble of heart—really is. Those who do not see God will never know Him, and those who do not know God will never be able to be exalted by insuppressible love for Him. Without this divine love a man can not enter the Kingdom of heaven, or rather, he is already cast out by his own ungodly state on account of his not sharing in God’s qualities of eternal life.
So what is the gate to this truly divine and eternal life of God? The awareness of our sinfulness before God. Such an awareness of sin came to St. Mary whom all Orthodox Christians commemorate today as a lofty standard of true, life-transforming repentance. However, as we see from her life, an awareness of our sins is often brought about by a seeming misfortune, or impasse, or perplexity in our life—whether in our daily life of bodily activity or in our interior life within our spirit.
St. Mary was caught in the deep pit of fleshly passion and carnal sins—fornication, gluttony, drunkenness and every sensual pleasure and thrill. Yet, when she saw many running to the Church to behold the most holy and precious Cross of Christ being exalted, she also ran with them. She does not tell us why she ran with the rest of the people. Maybe she was still gripped by lawless passion, and desired to be with the crowd where she could find more lovers to satisfy her unquenchable passion. Maybe she ran because of curiosity; she may have been caught up by the great zeal of the crowd, and so strongly influenced by them that she too wanted to share in the commonly-perceived expected joy of all. Maybe she ran to see the Cross because there was still a small spark of piety hidden within the depths of her soul which was planted since childhood but greatly buried and stifled from 17 years of godlessness and filthiness. As she relates about her life, after her conversion she straightway received the Holy Mysteries, showing that she was raised a Christian and baptized as an infant, having the divine and irrevocable grace of the Holy Spirit implanted within her soul. This small spark planted within her, though very small, and almost quenched, this was enough for her to have it fanned by the piety of the crowd and to be transformed into a great, heaven-reaching flame of unconquerable divine love which even to this day illumines us by its purity and beauty.
St. Mary stands with the choir of the pure virgins as is depicted on holy icons. She is seen in her normal appearance—a dark-skinned body half-clad—amidst a choir of virgins; she alone stands distinguished from them. The hymns praise her as having been graced with the purity of angels—and this is no poetic over-expression but a glorious and wondrous revelation of the great power of God to transform souls so much.
We started out by saying that the awareness of our sins is the only true beginning to repentance and a godly life. Such an awareness usually comes about by a certain occasion in our life. For St. Mary this particular event and occasion which opened up the door of awareness of her sins was the fact that she could not—even after many attempts—enter within the Church where that great crowd was pressing into; she was barred by an invisible force from entering within, and she finally perceived that she alone was held to be unworthy to enter the Church and venerate the Holy Cross of Christ. This did not happen so easily, as she confesses:
“Having repeated my attempt 3 or 4 times [to enter the Church], at last I felt exhausted and had no more strength to push and to be pushed, so I went aside and stood in a corner of the porch. And only then with great difficulty it began to dawn on me, and I began to understand the reason why I was prevented from being admitted to see the life-giving Cross. The Word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart and revealed to me that it was my unclean life which barred the entrance to me. I began to weep and lament and beat my breast, and to sigh from the depths of my heart. And so I stood weeping when I saw above me the icon of the Most Holy Mother of God…”
So we can see how her awareness of her own sinfulness first came about, that awareness which led by the grace of God to such a transformed life. This awareness of her sins came about by a divine dispensation: she could not enter the Church to kiss the Cross.
Some of us might remember a certain event in our own lives which led to the beginning of our conversion. Some of us have seen countless times certain events which have opened our eyes. Whether we have had a major life-changing event or not, if we look into it with spiritual eyes, we all have certain smaller opportunities to remind us of our sins, and to awaken us to repentance.
Abba Isaac says that the shortcomings of those who watch over themselves are the guardians of their righteousness and are permitted by God so that their sins and failings should be a cause of humility. It might be that one who is constantly humiliated by a sin which is seen by all is better off than someone who appears to most to be watchful, discerning and upright but who has a hidden cancer of some dark passion gnawing away at his heart. Of course, there are those who—because of their inward purity and sobriety—are also manifestly temperate, righteous and merciful in the eyes of all. Even so, God will always take care of both of them by allowing certain slips and falls to happen which make us realize that we can never rely on past deeds nor think ourselves safe from falling away from God while we are in this world.
St. Mary could not enter the Holy Church—maybe we find ourselves unable to enter within that quiet harbor of prayer within our hearts where our senses fall silent and peaceful and bright thoughts christen our mind and instill within our hearts a deep yearning for God. Or maybe we find ourselves always having temptations because of some person—whether or not they mean any harm. They just might be the best mirror for us to see ourselves as we are, and an occasion to notice within us some passion which has been hiding from our spiritual vision. Or maybe we find that no matter how much we plan certain things, we are always being hindered and something always gets in the way. Each and every one of us does not have to look very far in order to find some seeming misfortune or difficult occasion in our own life which makes us more aware of how much we do not have love, or patience, or mercy, or prayer, or humility, or some other virtue.
Like St. Mary, these occasions will not be necessarily easy to come to grips with. She confessed that it was only “with great difficulty” that she realized why this hindrance was occurring. Nonetheless, she humbled herself, and this is the secret. After she humbled herself interiorly, and came to grips with the fact that she herself was the cause of her difficulty, only then did Christ the “Word of salvation gently touch the eyes of [her] heart and revealed to [her] that it was [her] unclean life which barred the entrance to [her].” So it is with us: when adversity comes upon us, we must—maybe with great difficulty—always understand that the cause ultimately lies within us. After this acknowledgment and confession, Christ will grant us the grace to perceive more clearly the exact reasons for our adversities. He will illumine us and show us a certain sin that we have, or an unrepented disposition, or a certain amount of self-trust of which we were unaware. However, He will not just show us, but heal us also.
Most beautiful are those words which express the most-merciful action of Christ’s grace: St. Mary says that He “gently touched the eyes of [her] heart” and granted her the perception of how sinful she actually was. Maybe only St. Mary noticed her inability to enter the Church. She says that the crowd was very pressed and full. So maybe no one else really noticed her humiliating situation. See again how merciful God is in His dealings with us. He is able to humble us and to bring us to our senses so that we might find His gift of repentance even without being humiliated in the eyes of all—although this awareness is so powerful that we might truly feel our sinful soul to be nakedly exposed to all; and this is a great grace: it is the experience of the shame which will be known at the Last Judgment. If we embrace it now, we will not know it then. Even so, sometimes God sees that we must in actual deed be humiliated in the eyes of all in order for a serious sickness of soul to be rooted out by pain, awareness and humility. God knows.
Abba Isaac shows us that whether we are humble or proud we will have trials from God—though their quality will differ depending on our soul’s state. But God’s trials and His chastisements are never from vengeance, never from hatred, even if they are very painful and dreadful. God desires the restoration of His image within us. However, if we stop humbling ourselves, God will never stop humbling us. Yet this is not a threat, but a great testament to and revelation of God’s eternal care for us, that He might cleanse us of all demonic pride and pleasure which is not in Him.
All these things Abba Isaac tells us. Therefore, when we find ourselves in humiliating circumstances—whether noticed only by ourselves or open to the eyes of all—we must meet this humiliation with humility. God, we can be sure, will provide humiliation for everyone that all might have an opportunity to repent; but not everyone who is met by humiliation meets it with humility. Abba Isaac lightly chastens us when we do not accept humiliation humbly—and I will end with his words:
“Do not be angry with me because I tell you the truth; you have never sought humility with your whole heart. But if you wish, enter into its realm, and you will see how it disperses your wickedness. For in proportion to your humility you are given patience in your woes; and in proportion to your patience the burden of your afflictions is made lighter and you will find consolation; in proportion to your consolation, your love for God increases; and in proportion to your love, your joy in the Holy Spirit is magnified. Once men have truly become God’s sons, our tenderly compassionate Father does not take away their temptations from them when it is His pleasure to ‘make for them a way to escape,’ but instead He gives His sons patience in their trials. All these good things are given into the hand of their patience for the perfecting of their souls. May Christ God deem us worthy by His grace with a thankful heart to be patient in evils for His love’s sake. Amen.”