Posted February 11, 2008 in Lent and Easter:
Repenting of Virtues

by Irma Zalesky.

About twenty five years ago during a visit to London, I met a great teacher and one of the most exciting men I had ever known, Anthony Bloom, the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan of Sourozh. I had several conversations with him.

I don’t remember how the first one began, but I must have been complaining about my spiritual problems and sins, for, at some point he became exasperated with me.

He threw up his arms and exclaimed, "Why are you making such a fuss over your sins? What are your sins to God? God says ‘poof!’ and they disappear like smoke. It is your virtues that he finds more difficult to deal with!"

I was quite taken aback by this comment and not a little shocked. No Western Catholic priest, I thought, would ever say something like that. And the good nuns who taught me religion in grade school, how shocked they would have been!

Every year, at the beginning of Lent, they presented each of us with a white cardboard heart and a large number of red and black stickers.

Each time we performed a good deed, we were to place a red sticker on the top half of the heart, and for each fault or sin we committed, a black one on the bottom half. We were to return our cardboard hearts to the teacher when we came back to school after Easter.

Red stickers were counted and prizes were awarded. I still remember how embarrassed we felt when our cardboard hearts were marred by too many black stickers, and how virtuously we glowed when the red ones were more numerous.

This was childish stuff, of course, but the message struck deep and was later reinforced by many catechism classes and sermons. Acquiring virtue, it seemed clear, was the aim of spiritual life.

Even now, after all these years, I still sometimes catch myself "counting the stickers," as it were. You know what I mean: the kind of thing we do before every confession or every examination of conscience.

"I have sinned," we might say, "I have been bad. I have done this or that. I am sorry and will try to do better from now on. There will be more "red stickers" on my heart next time. I shall try to be more honest, do all my chores, help my sister with her work, give a little more money to the poor, be patient with that silly woman next door, and say at least one rosary a day."

In other words, we may think of our spiritual life as a kind of gigantic paper heart on which we try to "stick" as many virtues as possible. If the road to hell is paved with black stickers, we may conclude, then the way to heaven must be paved with red ones. How then could the bishop say that God finds my virtues "difficult to deal with?"

Eventually, however, as I continued to struggle on the Christian path, I began to catch a glimmer of what Bishop Anthony had tried to tell me.

He did not mean, I realized, that I should not try hard to sin less or to repent more sincerely for my sins. He did not mean that I should not try to be good. He was only warning me against the illusion that I have achieved, or could ever achieve, goodness or holiness by my own efforts.

We can never succeed at being good—at achieving a permanent state of goodness—for, as Christ told us, only God is good (Mt 19:17).

We cannot possess goodness or faith or any other virtue and claim it as our own. Virtue is not a permanent possession but a momentary gift, a moment of encounter with the goodness of God.

We can embrace it, rejoice in it, hope that we may be vouchsafed it again and again. We can strive to be always ready to receive and embrace it when it comes.

And, when the moment of grace has passed, we should not try to hang on to it, but instead simply go back to just being our own small, weak and very fallible selves, having nothing holy of ourselves but always expecting it of God.

The goal of the Christian path is not acquiring virtue but emptying ourselves of everything so that God can fill us. It is a call to stripping ourselves of all that is not God.

Thus, it was not some new spiritual truth, some new spiritual path, that the bishop was introducing to me but the true teaching of Christ. Was that not what Christ meant when he said that it is harder for a wealthy person to get to heaven than for a camel to go through the narrowest of gates?

When he made poverty a condition for discipleship, surely he did not mean only material poverty—the giving up of our earthly goods. But also, perhaps even more urgently, he was talking about poverty of spirit: stripping ourselves of all claims to virtue and self-righteousness.

I wonder if this was not the real point of the story of the rich young man who wanted to follow Christ but had many possessions and could not bear to give them away. Perhaps it was his sense of righteousness, his being respected and admired by men, rather than his earthly goods, that this pious and righteous young Jew could not bear to give up.

Claiming virtue as our own is a dangerous thing. Christ made this quite clear in the story of the Pharisee who prided himself on his moral superiority over the repentant publican (Luke 18:9-14).

Most of us probably enjoy this story, as Christ’s listeners at the time must have enjoyed it, for most of us love to laugh at somebody else’s hypocrisy, to see the self-righteous reduced to size.

The king slips on a banana peel and we roar with laughter; a preacher is caught in some wrongdoing, and we giggle and smirk.

We resent and despise hypocrites in our midst, and yet, which of us is not a hypocrite at times? Have we never entertained the thought of how blessed we are to have been spared some of our neighbour’s faults? Have we never congratulated ourselves on our honesty, our superior faith, our being closer to God?

Or perhaps, without even realizing how ridiculous we were, we have even thanked God for not making us proud like the Pharisee, but humble like the publican!

Do we not feel hurt if our goodness is not appreciated, our piety not noticed, our humility not remarked upon?

One of my memories illustrates well my own need for approval. When I returned to Christianity after many years of being away, I experienced much happiness and joy. I had many beautiful thoughts and experiences that made me feel I was really getting very close to God.

I decided to share my happiness with Fr. Brière, my spiritual director from Madonna House. He would be very pleased with me, I thought. I wrote him a long letter telling him how wonderful I felt, how much I loved God, and how many spiritual insights I was receiving.

I mailed my letter and eagerly awaited his reply. When it came, I opened it with great excitement and anticipation.

There was only one sentence: "Do not worry about all that cherie," he wrote, "It will soon pass."

How disappointed and hurt I felt! "He does not love or understand me at all!" I thought. But, of course, he did. He was also right. It all did pass away, and I was left with what we are all left with: an empty self that only God can fill. And that is the greatest gift of all.

—The author, who lives in the village of Combermere, is a friend of Madonna House and the author of several books.


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