by Irma Zaleski.
Adam and Eve had a choice. For, as our Tradition allows us to believe, even after they had sinned, had they trusted in God’s mercy and love, turned back to him and asked for his forgiveness—had they repented—they, like the prodigal son in Christ’s parable, would have been accepted and greeted with joy (cf. Lk 15:11-32). Their inheritance would have been restored to them.
But they did not repent; they were too afraid. Because they had lost trust in God’s love, they did not accept responsibility for their own sin. They did not ask for God’s forgiveness, but instead blamed each other.
The essence of our parents’ "fall," therefore, was not that they broke a specific commandment, but that they failed to love and trust God. They believed the devil rather than God.
As a result, they became afflicted, weighed down with guilt, and afraid. They became fragmented in themselves, estranged from God, from each other, and from the rest of creation. They hid from God and were banished from Paradise.
We, too, carry that same burden. We are the inheritors of our first parents’ sin—or rather, of its consequences. All our lives, we must struggle, not only with fear and guilt, but also with a compulsion to justify ourselves, to hide from the world and even from God.
Because we are unable to trust anybody or anything, and above all else we are not able to trust God, we are compelled to rely on our own resources, to attempt to find our own happiness and fulfill our own desires and needs.
We are imprisoned, stranded on the island of our own self. We are all exiles from Paradise.
But God cannot ever abandon us. God’s love is infinite—it can never be limited by any evil or sin on our part. God can never turn away from us and cease to love us.
We, however, can cease to love God. We can turn away from the Divine Love. We can convince ourselves that we are too sinful, too wicked, to be loved by God. This is the great sin of disbelief, a failure of trust in the truth of our salvation, the source of all sins, and the cause of our separation from God.
But it is from this sense of separation and alienation that true repentance flows. We repent because, when we catch even the tiniest glimpse of God, of his perfection and beauty, or of his love for us, we are filled with longing and with love.
At the same time, our hearts break with sadness, because we realize how far we are from this perfection and beauty—how far our world is from it—and how alienated from God, how bound by chains of blindness, imperfection, and sin the world is.
Above all, we are filled with sadness and regret because we realize more and more every day, that the source of our alienation does not lie somewhere outside of ourselves, but in our own hearts. The chains that bind us are the chains of our own self-centeredness, our preoccupation with self.
Yes, there comes a day when we become aware of our overwhelming compulsion to be centered on our own ego, to protect it at all costs, and to consider everything—including our relationship with God—from the point of view of our own self-interest.
There comes a day when we are face to face with our inability to love.
Without this realization, without this breaking of the heart, there can be no true repentance.
This is not an easy way. The saints who practiced it called it, "white martyrdom"—the way of true self-knowledge.
It is never easy to face our own inner confusion, our sense of alienation and guilt, our fear of being rejected, unloved. But sooner or later, we must.
As we attempt to embrace the Good News of salvation, as we try to live fully the life of love to which the Gospel calls us and at which we most often fail—as we all surely do—the truth of our condition begins to dawn on us, whether we like it or not.
We may find it at times excruciatingly difficult to resist the temptation to protect ourselves from such self-knowledge, to justify ourselves and blame others.
We may become despondent and tempted to despair. But as we resist this temptation and place ourselves again and again in the presence of God for whom we long, and as we remind ourselves of God’s inexhaustible mercy and power to heal, we learn to face the truth of ourselves without guilt or fear, without too much self-analysis or any self-pity.
Repentence can be for us a way to come to terms with ourselves and realize that we do not need to hide from our weakness and sins. For there is a way to face and bear them and to be freed from them.
That way is to bring them all simply and openly to God, not so that he will "punish" us, but so that he may forgive and heal us. Repentance is the way of forgiveness and love.
All of this, however, is not possible for us unless we have already experienced, even if only faintly, the great mystery of God’s love and his never-ceasing presence with us.
In order to "return" to God, we must not only become aware of our need to do so, we must also have learned to trust that God is there for us to return to.
Before we can find the courage to set out for home, we, like the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32), must believe that God is waiting for us.
We may not yet be able to believe that we shall be greeted with the same exorbitant joy with which the prodigal son was received, that a great party will be thrown for us when we arrive, but we must have at least begun to believe that God will welcome us and not send us away.
Christian Tradition proclaims the great truth that God not only loves, but that God is Love; that God’s love is infinite and can have no limitations; that nothing we do can make God stop loving us.
(As a holy nun I once knew liked to say, "God cannot help loving us, poor Darling.")
God is always present to us, always aware of us, always ready to welcome us back. This is the essence of our faith—our trust—and we must hold onto it—regardless of whatever emotions, fears, or doubts, we may have.
Irma Zaleski, a friend and neighbor of MH, is the author of several books and many articles.
—Adapted from Conversion of the Heart: The Way of Repentance by Irma Zaleski. Used with the permission of Novalis Publishing Inc., www.novalis.ca
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