by Irma Zaleski.
We can never achieve perfection. We cannot really be “good,” for only God is good (Mk 10:19). We cannot achieve perfect prayer, perfect trust, perfect forgiveness, or perfect love. We cannot have one totally unselfish thought, emotion, or act.
The key to holiness lies in our realizing this fact and accepting it gladly, without fear. This is the true grace of repentance and a source of Christian hope.
We reach perfection, perhaps only for a moment, by repenting of our inability to reach it. As soon as we acknowledge our sin, as soon as we re-turn to God and beg his forgiveness for having been away, we are immediately forgiven, we are made “perfect,” whole, as we are meant to be.
Our inability to stay that way does not change this fact, but only means that we can never cease to repent. Repentance is our daily, moment-by-moment “shortcut to perfection.”
I once heard somebody say that it doesn’t really matter how often and how miserably we fail in our search for holiness; what matters is how quickly we realize that we have failed and are willing to return to God.
This, I think, is very true. When we become aware that, once again, we have failed to live out the call of the Gospel, we must not get angry at ourselves, hate ourselves for being weak, or try to justify ourselves by blaming others.
We must try not to think of ourselves at all. Instead, we turn away from ourselves, run back to God, throw ourselves on his mercy, and are forgiven, perfect, and whole.
We are not called to defeat all the evil that exists in the world. We are called only to small, daily acts of compassion, of forgiveness, of refusing to judge and condemn. We are called to a daily trying to love.
The perfection and holiness for which we long does not lie in our being as perfect as God, but only in being reunited, one in God. There is no “higher” or more perfect call and nothing else that can give us greater joy.
The joy of repentance cannot be proven by reason, experience in our emotions, or explained in words. When we begin to walk the way of repentance, we must simply believe that this joy is real, and that one day this gift will be given to us.
We believe this because it is the gift that Christ promised to give us and that has been witnessed to and taught by the saints. For the saints, however hard they repent, also have the grace to rejoice in God’s ever-present love. A joyless saint is an impossibility, a contradiction in terms, perhaps even a fraud.
The source of joy for the saints was not a conviction of having reached perfection and, therefore, of having nothing of which to repent. How absurd it would be to assume that!
Rather, their joy came from their assurance that their weakness or the most grievous sin could not separate them from the love of God.
The saints really understood what St. Paul meant when he said that strength was made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9), and they believed that it was in humbly carrying their sins and imperfections in repentance that they were brought closest to the perfection and holiness of God. Repentance was the saints’ life with God.
Through repentance we, too, can receive again and again the mercy of God and experience the reality of his presence. We, too, are able to break free of the chains of self-protection and learn that, before the face of God, not even the darkest corner of our being needs to be hidden or denied.
Although we may not be able to imitate the saints’ greatness or their works, practice the same discipline, or reach the same spiritual heights, each of us, in the measure given to us by God, can walk the same way of repentance and share in the same joy.
The way of repentance has been taught to us and lived by the saints. We know that we should repent for our sins. We know that it is a way not of guilt but of love. Yet, it may still not be clear to us how we must “work” at repentance. Is there a path we must walk, a discipline we must follow or prayers we must say? Is there anything at all that we must do to repent?
For those of us who belong to the Catholic Church, the most obvious, direct way of repentance for the wrongs we have committed, for our actual sins, is the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
It is, however, important to remember that sacramental confession, although it is—and must always be—an expression of our heartfelt repentance for our sins and a sign of God’s forgiveness, is not the only way we are called to repent.
The repentance about which the Church Fathers spoke is not an individual spiritual act, however sacred and necessary, but a way of constant, humble awareness of our weakness and sin, of our separation from God.
It is a ceaseless cry for forgiveness and love. We try not to be discouraged when we do not feel sorry, or by lack of any other emotion. We try not to worry whether we are “successful” at repenting. Most likely, we are not. It is these pitiful attempts at repenting that are, I think, our true practice of repentance.
The practice of repentance has been described as “weeding our patch”—the little piece of ground that God gave each one of us to cultivate. God has already sown on it the seeds of salvation, goodness, and eternal life. But we cannot prevent weeds of sin and self-centeredness from growing up on it again and again.
We must not worry and despise ourselves because of these weeds. This is the human condition, and we cannot be “cured” of it all at once.
We just keep pulling out the weeds, day after day. We should not pull them out too roughly, and should always be watchful lest we pull out the good with the bad (cf. Mt 13:29). We weed our patch peacefully and carefully, and do not get discouraged by the fact that our task is never-ending.
From Conversion of the Heart: The Way of Repentance by Irma Zaleski. Published by Novalis, St. Paul University, Ottawa, Canada (2003). Reproduced with permission of the publisher.
If you enjoy our articles, we ask you to please consider subscribing to the print edition of Restoration; it's only $10 a year, and will help us stay in print. Thanks, and God bless you!