“If only I had known…”
These are, not infrequently, the words of an apology. They are also an explanation of why we are sometimes the way we are. Ignorance is, in the mind of the Fathers, a major cause of sin. Of course, if sin is understood in a legal/forensic framework, then ignorance would be nothing more than a form of innocence. Not knowing is excusable in most cases. But the teaching of the Church does not describe the world in legal/forensic terms. The world is not about who and what is right or wrong. It’s about what truly exists and what does not. Existence and being (ontology) are what matter, not what is legally correct. God is the “only truly Existing One,” and our salvation in Christ is a movement towards ever more true existence. This is the meaning of “eternal life.”
True knowledge changes us. “If only I had known,” can also mean, “If only I had been a different person.” Knowledge, in this biblical sense, is much deeper than the collecting and management of facts. In biblical terms, we know by participation or communion. When Christ says of his detractors that they do not know God, he dismisses their mastery of the facts (“And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me.” John 16:3) Those who accused Christ and urged the Romans to crucify Him, not only knew the facts of the Jewish faith – they were experts. Had the “facts of the case” been an issue, then Christ would have engaged in argument and debate. As it is, He only engaged their taunts and questions with answers that put them off – and put off His crucifixion until the time was ripe. But the disciples, and those who sought true knowledge from Him, received very different responses – not always easily understood – but always leading them towards the true knowledge that transforms and saves.
Knowledge is deeply problematic. It takes a variety of forms (few of which have much to do with the biblical notion of knowledge). We ourselves are also the constant target of those who market various forms of “knowledge,” most of which are nothing of the sort, but feel like knowledge. The knowledge to which Christ refers can also be called “saving knowledge,” for it requires and involves the transformation of the person who has it. And that transformation is in the direction of true existence – conformity to the image of God.
The door to true knowledge is repentance. Of course, for most people, repentance itself belongs to the category of legal and forensic things. It means not doing bad things, promising not to repeat the ones I have done, and, perhaps, feeling sorry. This is both inadequate and misleading. The Greek word used for repentance is metanoia, literally a “change of mind (nous).” It can be described as a movement from one form of knowledge to another (true knowledge).
The path to such knowledge passes through humility. And the path to humility involves shame (yes, I’m writing again about shame). Shame is more than a significant emotion (painful at best). It is described by the Elder Sophrony as “the Way of the Lord.” It is at the very heart of repentance. Shame has to do with “who we are.” Guilt is about “what I have done.” It is important to understand the distinction.
Guilt generally belongs to the legal/forensic world. Our minds are filled with all kinds of subtleties about what we have done. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad. Perhaps it’s just the sort of thing everybody does. Maybe I just didn’t try hard enough. We break rules all the time and, in large part, have become somewhat hardened to that reality.
Shame, however, is quite different. When what I have done spills over into who I think I am, then shame has supplanted guilt. The awareness of shame can be devastating. If who I am is truly very dark, we can become suicidal and plunged into despair. Shame is painful (and so we run from it). Repentance, however, involves confronting shame. St. John of the Ladder says, “You cannot escape shame except by shame.”
It is often the habit of the demons to persuade us either not to confess, or to do so as if we were confessing another person’s sins, or to lay the blame for our sin on others. Lay bare, lay bare your wound to the physician and, without being ashamed, say: ‘It is my wound, Father, it is my plague, caused by my own negligence, and not by anything else. No one is to blame for this, no man, no spirit, no body, nothing but my own carelessness.’
“Confessing another person’s sins…” This is a subtle move of the mind and heart to avoid the pain of shame. It also avoids the possibility of metanoia. In the struggle of confession, we need to make the greater journey to the place of the heart. And, strangely, at that place, when we confront the truth of sin, we find shame. It is necessarily the case that we find shame because, when we confront the truth of ourselves, the “who I am” of our existence, in the light of Christ, it appears broken, darkened, filled paradoxically with emptiness. We may very well confront that place and feel that we are, in fact, nothing at all.
When we confront the “nothing at all,” we instinctively draw back. It is a place of fear, or of loathing. The loathing is the sound of pride. We confront the nothing but demand to be something. But at that precipice, at the edge of the abyss, when what we see is the nothingness of the self, we also stand in the presence of Christ. He has entered into the nothingness of our being (death and hades) and meets us there. And it is there that we receive the gift of our true self, formed in the image of Christ Himself. For the emptiness of self, that we experience as shame, is also the birthplace of the life in Christ. So, St. Paul prays and asks that he might “be found in [Christ], not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith…(Phil 3:9)
The “righteousness of the law” is the false self, imagined in a legal/forensic mode. What I’ve done, what I’ve accomplished, what I know, what people think of me, etc., are all nothing more than legal “noises.” They do not constitute the true self. They are not the stuff of eternal life. They do not carry us into the knowledge of the true and living God.
Fr. Serafim Aldea, the founder of the Monastery of All Celtic Saints on the Isle of Mull, has a wonderful podcast on Ancient Faith. He recently spoke profoundly about the discipline of confession. He related how his spiritual father encouraged him to always bring something to confession that would make his confessor not think well of him. It is a mild exercise in being a “holy fool.” I have often heard people express a fear about confession, noting that their priest will think less of them if they are truly honest. But this is nothing more than our fear of shame. A priest should expect to hear such things. If he judges people for their confessed sins, he himself engages in a much worse sin. He should rejoice that he accompanies someone into the bright presence of God where shame is transformed into true being.
This practice is important not only in confession, but in our prayers as well. We do not always press the point of our shame to a place that is unbearable, but we do well to learn how to go to that place when we stand before God and pray. It is not simply that we rehearse a list of our failures. This will often only take us into the noise of our legal/forensic false existence. It is by standing honestly before who we are, and what we are not (that proper reflection on our actions can produce) that also allows us to stand face-to-face before Christ Himself. He is a good God, and loves mankind. He has no desire to crush us or drive us into nothingness through our shame. Rather, He meets us there, and comforts us with the truth of ourselves and the compassion of His company. In St. John’s vision of the New Heaven and Earth he says:
They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. (Rev 22:4)
That name of God was made known to Moses, after he had removed his shoes (the false self). The name is: ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν. “I am the Truly Existing One.” All icons of Christ have this name inscribed on them. At the world’s end, God will write this name on us.