Repentance and Autonomy in the Spiritual Life

His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah served this morning at St Matthew’s where I am serving as interim pastor through mid-February. When we were both priests in California—he as the abbot of St John’s Monastery, me as the pastor of St George Greek Orthodox Church—we would served together when we could and so it was a great joy to serve with the Metropolitan this morning.

In his sermon, Metropolitan Jonah spoke about spiritual warfare. Reflecting on Paul’s words in Ephesians (“we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places,” 6:12) he highlighted a paradox of the spiritual life. I can only be free from sin—I can only be victorious in the spiritual life—to the degree that I accept responsibility for my own sinfulness.

Frequently, I think of myself as a victim of sin rather than its more or less willing collaborator. To be sure, there is many areas in my life where I am not free—where I am, if not precisely a victim, then the object of the malicious intent of human and demonic others. True though this is, it does not however mean that I am a victim in an absolute or ontological sense. In fact, as his Beatitude pointed out, when I think of myself as merely the victim of sin, I rob myself of my own autonomy relative to sin—mine and yours. Central to the spiritual life is the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own sinfulness. When I reject my responsibility, I don’t absolve myself of sin but enslave myself every more fully to the “darkness of this age” and the “wickedness in the heavenly places.”

This brings to mind one of my favorite themes—the necessity of autonomy in the spiritual life. Wholesome autonomy in the spiritual life is not a matter of doing whatever I want. Rather true autonomy is characterized by my willingness to accept responsibility for my own sinfulness. True freedom means acknowledging the myriad ways in which I have sold myself into bondage to sin. Autonomy in the spiritual life doesn’t mean the ability to sin but rather the ability to repentant of my sin.

And this act of repentance not only reveals my freedom from sin, and paradoxically my culpability for sin, it also is the door way through which I must pass to enter personally into the life of the Most Holy Trinity. Without prejudice to divine grace my personal sharing in the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:4), beings with accepting responsibility for my own sinfulness. It is my acknowledgement that I have given myself over to the passions that frees me. And it is this freedom that allows me to pass from “glory to glory” (see, 2 Corinthians 3:18).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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