Not long ago I spoke with a transformed man. Yes, you’re right. I’m overstating the case. Let me back off and rephrase the proposition less extravagantly and more accurately. Not long ago I met a man, newly baptized and chrismated, in the process of transformation. This revised statement, while less flamboyant, points to a state of affairs which is both more interesting and potentially more volatile.
I have to admit my initial skepticism, because this man’s reputation preceded him and made quite an impression on us—several decades of opiate addiction and a decade of prison time, various maneuvers on the wrong side of the law, stealing, transporting and trafficking, lying and manipulation, and interspersed with all this, voracious reading of books on spirituality and the Orthodox faith and a self-directed program of asceticism that veered off toward extremes. He wanted to become a monk.
What immediately caught our attention when we met him, though, was all the mannerisms and body language and ways of speaking that characterize an old junkie, con artist, and jailbird. We could easily have written the guy off.
Yes, my spontaneous response was to look out for myself. My thoughts went toward self-protection and a suspicion that the man wanted to cheat me or deceive me or sucker me with a scam of some sort. But then it occurred to me—hey, wait a minute! I’m a monk—nobody can cheat me out of what I have already renounced! I can relax. The essential freedom of monastic life consists in this very state of affairs—I have divested myself of all the things in life that would otherwise be at risk, so I don’t have to approach others with suspicion and judge them in order to guard myself from danger.
Then I noticed something really interesting—expressions of humility and gratitude from this guy that didn’t lead into an attempt to extract money, goods and services, or favors. In fact, he talked about how grateful he was toward people who weren’t present but who had helped him over the years. I’ve known plenty of lowlifes in my time—lushes, dope fiends, slick dudes, hustlers, fallen women, three-time losers, the desperate and the disoriented, people like me, bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh—and one pattern I have witnessed over and over is how statements like “I’m not worthy of everything you people are doing for me” or “thank you so much, it’s really nice of you to do that” often get followed immediately by a pitch for more goodies. We kept waiting, but it didn’t happen. Could it be that the man was sincere? Wonder of wonders. Imagine that.
This brings us to an important point. We could be led astray if we suppose that repentance comes to a complete fulfillment instantaneously. What St. Paul and a lot of the Fathers say about the old man and the new man can put us on the wrong track if we don’t apply it with discernment. In real life as we know it and live it, the old man and the new man sometimes have to carry on a struggle, duking it out until one of them prevails.
Several times in my long conversations with our pilgrim he told me how worried he was about the possibility of slipping back into his old ways. “I know myself,” he said. Of course that’s partly true and partly untrue. The true part is that he knows the old man and all his ways, all his self-willed schemes, and all his self-destructive habits and attitudes. The untrue part is that he does not yet know the new man who lives in the sunlight and glory of God’s love.
Out of the vast collection of a lifetime’s events, we pick out a sequence that makes a good story. If someone asks me who I am, or if I try to figure it out for myself, it all boils down to the events and themes and the plot of the story I tell myself. My ego is the narrator of that story and my identity is a description of the main character. Sometimes we live out a pretty sad story. It can mean that a man drags his sorry carcass through a life that seems like death because nothing lies on the dim horizon except further darkness and nothing presents itself in front of him but a hopeless and pointless search for today’s hustle, today’s con, today’s angle, today’s maneuver, today’s gimmick. It becomes tired and empty. As the old song says, is that all there is? Can these dry bones live again, O Son of Man? Can the Spirit of God breathe new life into them? Can the sinews be restored? Can warm flesh cover them once more? Or does a man resign himself to lost hope, abandoned dreams, memories of some other, better time? Does he settle for a repetition of meaningless events?
Repentance can happen when the old story line has completely played itself out. Why not? What else is left? When nothing remains but the same thing over and over, the heart can yearn for a change, even without knowing how to imagine that change.God loves us so much that He gives us a second chance—if we have the willingness to take it. And so begins a new story line. In a sense, we could say it’s like an actor who finishes one role and takes on another. That is, the old man and the new man are the same person, but during the transition period—however long it may last—the actor can throw himself fully into the new sequence of events or backslide into the old failed mess. During that transition, the actor may go back and forth between the two roles. Or—what can prove even more confusing for those around him—he can mix up aspects of the old man with aspects of the new man in such a way that people around him have no idea what’s going on.
Mine eyes have seen the glory, I do believe. It seems that God is at work as ghostwriter of a new plot, or as advisor behind the scenes, or as continuity editor. But He respects the freedom of His creatures, and so the man being transformed needs to continue his struggle. Sometimes it may even seem that God has withdrawn His presence and allowed the fighter to continue alone. Remember what happened in the life of St. Anthony?—the saint wrestled with the devil and only afterwards did Jesus appear to him, telling him, “I was here all along, but I wanted to see what you could do.”
And what about us? How do we receive our pilgrim? Well, we always face the choice between saying, “Lord, I thank Thee that I am not like other men” and saying “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We must always choose to keep our eyes on our own sins and our own shortcomings and our own struggle so that we can then see the similarities and not merely the differences between our own battle and the contest being waged before us by the man newly joined to us as a member of the Body of Christ.