He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Love it to Death: The Repentance of Love

When I was a child, I really despised repentance.  To repent was to feel bad, often very bad, whether that was because I was switched with a small tree limb or because I was genuinely sorry for hurting someone in my family.  This did not change much as I grew taller and more educated; I remained dedicated to the avoidance of feeling bad, to slipping away from the difficult confrontations and sincere remorse required for true repentance.

Little did I know at the time that I was starving my relationships of love.  I noticed that my relationships were often strained and lacking in the depth I would want, but in my selfish pride I clung to the assumption that this could not possibly be my fault, to the premise that I had nothing for which to repent.  I learned that without repentance, our love is the superficial affection of a spoiled child who insists that they need not change, that their missing the mark is good enough, and perhaps even best.

Without repentance, the distance remains between the lover and beloved, not yet bridged by building upon our failures and shortcomings to create something strong, something to support us as we draw closer to our beloved. Without repentance, the love we offer to our beloved is the love of the admirer who never draws near enough to their beloved to develop true intimacy with them as they both desire it.  Without repentance, the love we offer to our beloved is the love of leftovers; we give them what love we have left over after we so assiduously protect our egos from painful exposure to the raw vulnerability of repentance.

An unwillingness to repent is not just an unwillingness to turn fully toward our beloved; it is, perhaps more importantly, a persistent devotion to the careful maintenance of our hamartia, that tragic flaw which inevitably leads us to our downfall, to falling far short of the mark of living out truest love for those we love most dearly.  An unwillingness to repent is a sign of dedication to coddling our ego, so attached to fulfilling each transient desire of our brain stem as if it were the source of our most noble virtue.  An unwillingness to repent is an affirmation of our selfish pride, a comforting acceptance of that sweet voice which whispers seductively, "I am perfect as I am."

This rejection of repentance is necessary for the preservation of our hamartia; as we tenderly protect our ego, it grows ever larger and more voracious, consuming our energies and leaving little for those we love.  Repentance would have us expose our hamartia, allowing our tragic flaw of selfish pride to be chipped away by life as we encounter over and over again the difficult truth of our own weaknesses.  Oh how we despise the pain that comes with the consequences of metanoia, that inescapable process of changing ourselves from a creature of selfish pride to an active participant in the creation of selfless humility!

Inevitably, the avoidance of the pain of repentance leads to a lesser love, a love on the surface of the ocean of love, a love in which we dabble our toes and drag our hands, creating tiny ripples on the surface close in to the shore.  In this superficial love, we are free to continue to breath in the sweet air of our comforting pleasures with no danger of the ego being affected by our love for others.  On the surface of love, the ego can still float comfortably while it descends from its flights in the airy heights of pleasure.

Once we experience our metanoia, that bold crossing of the boundary between the air of pleasure and the water of love to completely submerge ourselves in love, that abandonment of selfish pride in order to strike out into the depths and be transformed by an encounter with a new world seen through the substantial and forceful lens of truest love, then the ego begins its devastating suffocation.  Repentance leads us to drown our ego in the crushing waters of the love that calls us to expose our selfish pride for what it is, to let it gradually perish beneath the waves of the sacrificial love that, often unknown to us, sustains our very being.

In the deepest love, the ego gasps for the air of transient pleasure as we dive ever deeper into the ocean of love, so full of wonders we could not see while flying in the insubstantial air breathed so easily by the ego.  It is in the depths of the ocean of love that we learn to breath the more substantial water of life, the Living Water whose essential purpose is a sacrifice for those He loves.

With repentance, the distance between the lover and beloved is bridged by joyfully building upon our failures and shortcomings to create a stronger relationship, a bridge of humble selflessness to support us as we draw closer to our beloved. With repentance, the love we offer to our beloved is the love of the persistent suitor who never ceases to develop true intimacy with their beloved as they both desire it.  With repentance, the love we offer to our beloved is the love of first fruits; we give them the best and brightest of our love, delighting in offering all that we are, offering more each day as we grow ever greater in love than we were before we chose to repent.

With repentance, our love is transformed into the deepest affection of a mature master of the selfless art of loving deeply, a lover who commits their best to accomplishing the good of their beloved and strives always to hit the mark of highest virtue.  Love inevitably draws the lover to repent, to change their life so as to turn away from all that separates them from their beloved and turn toward all that draws them into the most profound unity with their beloved.

If we would love deeply, then we must love to death the hamartia which ever draws us back to the placid and easy love on the surface, diving by way of metanoia into the powerful currents of the dynamic and difficult love in the depths.

The above is a picture I took of an icon of St. Mary of Egypt, known for her radical repentance.

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