By Abraham Ghattas
In the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil, the Church prays to God to “cleanse us from all blemish, all guile, all hypocrisy, all malice and the remembrance of evil entailing death.” It is a given to pray and prepare for future evil that is to come and we pray to God always to “lead us not into temptation” as per the Lord’s Prayer. However, many times the great fall in our spiritual lives is that of remembering past experiences of sin, and the guilt that dwells therein. Often the remembrance of past evils and guilt can lead us to despair and despondency. It can lead us to confess the same past sin over and over again and shake our faith in the mercy and forgiveness of God that is bestowed upon us in confession and the Holy Eucharist.
This article seeks to meditate and evaluate further the remembrance of evil entailing death and how a life of thinking of the past and guilt can suffocate one’s spiritual and mental well-being. It is very fitting that this phrase in the liturgy comes during the prayer of reconciliation. The Church teaches us that a life of remembering past evils leads to a lack of reconciling properly with God and ultimately death, the antithesis of what true repentance should entail.
St. Paul the great apostle and martyr had a past that was marred and filled with much sin, and evil. Even consenting to the murder of the first martyr and deacon St. Stephen as written in the Book of Acts Chapter 7. Aware and cognizant of his past St. Paul says, “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9). But knowledge of his weakness and past sin did not lead him to a life of obsessive ruminations and dwelling on the past, but rather propelled him to the life of repentance and moving forward to his potential in Christ for which he was chosen. He writes in Philippians 3:13, “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead”. Thus, teaching us that healthy knowledge of one’s past is needed to maintain humility and not fall again in past evils. But with true repentance comes the act of moving forward to the things which are ahead for us for a complete life in Christ.
This is why the angels rejoice when an individual repents because the penitent moves forward to a life closer to Christ where past things are left behind. “Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).
Likewise, David the Psalmist provides a great example of moving forward healthily while also remembering his general weakness and not dwelling on the adultery he committed. The famous psalm of repentance points out the lovely juxtaposition of acknowledging one’s sinful past but understanding the mercy and love of God after one repents and is absolved. “Have mercy upon me oh God according to your great mercy…For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:1,3).
While crying for his past sins and repenting of his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder he committed against her husband, the Psalmist acknowledges the hope he has and the acceptance he can receive once more into God’s bosom.
He says, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit. Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee. Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness. O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise” (Psalm 51:12-15).
Here again, we see a healthy approach to managing guilt and sins of old. Acknowledgment of one’s sins but moving forward in hope, joy, and a renewed salvation; even to the point of calling other sinners to the way of holiness and being an example for them.
St. Anthony the Great also teaches us, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, and do not worry about the past” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Anthony). Again, we see the repeated theme of avoiding pride and staying humble, acknowledging your weakness, but also to cast away anxiety of things that have passed. “Cast your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
Often times, we have a misconstrued view of what repentance is and view the past as something to dwell on and always think about. Surely thinking about past evils and ruminating on your faults without the mercy of God is not a healthy way to repent. Rather, this can lead to despair, guilt, depression, or anxiety which affects many of us today. Earthly sorrow is to be differentiated from godly sorrow as St. Paul mentioned. The latter being the only form that Christians should have, and this is the sorrow mingled with repentance and hope. Remembrance of your weakness differs from dwelling and consistently reviving repented sins and past events.
St. John Cassian describes this in his writings discussing the demon of dejection and despair,
The only form of dejection we should cultivate is the sorrow which goes with repentance for sin and is accompanied by hope in God. It was of this form of dejection that the Apostle said: ‘Godly sorrow produces as saving repentance which is not to be repented of (2 Cor.7:10). This godly sorrow’ nourishes the soul through the hope engendered by repentance, and it is mingled with joy. (St. John Cassian, On the Demon of Dejection)
As Christians, we are called to live the dual life of abandonment and progression. Abandoning the things of old and progressing to the things that are new. This is why St. Paul affirms this to us when describing our life in Christ as he says “that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Satan however tries to disrupt the proper progression and order of repentance and stagnates us in despair and the mud of the remembrance of evil things.
St. John Chrysostom says,
Do not be ashamed to enter again into the Church. Be ashamed when you sin. Do not be ashamed when you repent. Pay attention to what the devil did to you. These are two things: sin and repentance. Sin is a wound; repentance is a medicine. Just as there are for the body wounds and medicines, so for the soul are sins and repentance. However, sin has the shame and repentance possesses the courage.” (On Repentance and Almsgiving: Homily 8)
Here, St. John Chrysostom teaches us to possess courage and not be ashamed. Repentance eradicates shame, guilt, and the melancholy that plagues us after dwelling on sin and past evils. The Church always teaches us to approach the next steps in hope, in truth, and in the light, which is Christ. This in fact is the opposite of the remembrance of evil entailing death rather the hope of goodness entailing a renewed beginning in Christ our Lord.
Let us meditate on Scripture, the desert fathers, and the Church fathers who all collectively teach us of the meaning of true repentance and moving forward in Christ. Let us avoid despair and guilt and overthinking of past sins that have been repented. Let us run with joy to receive absolution and partake of his Body and Blood. Let us flee from despair, guilt, and anxiety which paralyzes us in remembering evil which has been eradicated by his life-saving blood, and let us embrace Christ and remember the good things he has bestowed upon us. May God cleanse us from the remembrance of any evil which leads to death and that we may be fully reconciled to Him.
Glory to God in all things.