Hearing the hymns for Lent, one is continually urged to beg God for tears of repentance. These verses often cite as an example the repentant harlot who wept on Jesus feet.
I find it very difficult to weep in repentance. I think part of the reason for this is that I share my culture’s tendency to see repentance as the turning away from sin, and sin as a violation of a rule. Certainly I have violated rules, but not much recently, and no recent violation of a rule (that I’m aware of) is of such a nature as to make me particularly sad. Sure, I’m sad that I don’t fast or pray or give alms enough. And I’m sad that I do not have complete control of my thoughts, so that I often have to catch myself thinking things I ought not think. And I am sad that I often do not love my neighbor (or even notice that my neighbor needs loving). But these are areas of on going repentance and growth. Nothing new. The same struggle--which I have gotten better at over the years--but the same struggle nonetheless. Nothing to cry about.
But what if tears of repentance are not so much about sadness over the violation of rules, and more about the sadness of separation?
Certainly God is far away from my thoughts. Certainly I do not keep guard over my heart. God comes to me in moments of grace and fills me with an awareness of His Presence; and then I allow distractions of all sorts to lacerate my heart. Awareness of His Presence leaks out of my heart, like the lost oil of the foolish virgins, and I am left with no reserve, no extra oil, only distracting thoughts and fleeting (and foolish) longings.
I know from experience that I can watch over my heart--even if only for ten minutes. I know that it is possible to work, to write, to clean, to teach even with my inner eyes guarding my heart. It is possible. I just don’t do it. Is that the laziness and faint heartedness that St. Ephraim’s prayer warns us about?
I think the lenten prayers put in our mouths the supplication for tears of repentance because we do not see how far from God we have drifted, or rather, how near to God we could be. We ask God to grant us tears of repentance because they do not come automatically. Just because I want to turn to God doesn’t mean that I realize how much I really do need to turn to God.
I am reminded of the story of the farmer who a stepped on a nail and refused to go to the doctor until his whole foot was swollen and full of infection. By the time he went to the doctor, he didn’t realize how late it was, how radical the remedy would be. As the doctor explained to the farmer the seriousness of his condition and that he would have to amputate his lower leg, the farmer then began to cry tears of repentance: “Why didn’t I go to the doctor right away as I was told to do? Why did I procrastinate so long?”
In the same way, we beg God to reveal to us our true condition, to show us how radical the treatment is. Like the farmer, we will lose something; and also like the farmer, we will gain life.
And yet God is also not like a physician. Whatever we lose in this life, we will gain a hundred times more in the next. And not only in the next life after we die. The next life begins now. The Kingdom of God is within you: Christ dwells in your hearts by faith. How can we hold on to tin when silver is offered to us? Why do we insist on paying attention to the corrupting and petty angers, jealousies, lusts, and past regrets that fill our hearts when the Master of the Universe wants to make His dwelling there?
Perhaps it is because we are blind. We do not see how we let everything but the Master fill our hearts. Perhaps that’s why we pray that we be granted tears of repentance.