Fr. Lawrence Farley
(With the Dormition Fast upon us, August 1 – 15, the following article is offered as a guide to repentance and confession).
Everyone you meet and have ever met wears a mask. You do too. From the time we were children, we have been taught that certain things were acceptable and certain other things were definitely unacceptable. For example, when confronted with infuriating people or situations in which our will was thwarted, sarcasm was acceptable. Falling to the floor, flailing our limbs, and screaming (aka having a temper tantrum) was unacceptable. It took us a while to learn this (ask any parent about “the terrible twos”), but eventually we all figured out this distinction and now, when confronted with infuriating people or frustrating situations, we opt for sarcasm, not tantrums. Tempting as it sometimes is, we decide not to indulge our inner child and fall to the floor screaming. But (let’s be honest) often we want to.
That is, we have learned to wear a mask. On the outside of the mask we are adults, persons who can be sarcastic at times, but are still patient and long-suffering in the face of infuriating frustration. Behind the mask, somewhere safe deep within, we are still two years old, and we fall to the floor when provoked. There are many other things we have learned to keep behind the mask besides feelings of rage: lust, disdain, hatred, contempt, and a host of other passions which would cause us endless mortification if anyone knew about them. Our lives are studded with thousands of petty hypocrisies which mar our hidden souls, but few people know about them. Perhaps canonizeable saints who have reached apatheia and passionlessness have no such dramatic differences between their inner man and their outer behaviours, but most people reading this post suffer from this spiritual split-personality, and hide it behind a mask.
That is what makes the Last Judgment so fearful. It is not just that Gehenna and hell-fire await some and the Paradisal Kingdom of God await others. What even the saved should find fearful is the fact that on that day the full light of truth will flood the world and sweep away all the shadows in which we have always lived. Then it will be time to remove our masks, to discover how our voices really sounded, how our actions really looked, and what sort of persons we really were. As the Lord’s parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 shows, there will be surprises for pretty much everyone.
When we reach that judgment and the time for the great unmasking arrives, it will be too late to re-write our past and attempt to present a better face behind the mask. Life has no rewind button, and what’s done is done. If we have lived a life of heedless hedonism and spent our time running away from God and toward sensual pleasure, it will be too late then to do anything to fix it. We will be like Esau, who after selling his birthright for a single meal, “found no place for repentance, though he sought it with tears” (Hebrews 12:17). Now is the time to begin fixing our face, so that when the mask finally falls, it will cause us less grief.
But how do we fix our face? By daily examination of conscience and private confession to God in our prayers. Before stumbling into bed at night, we should spend some time remembering our day, noting the things we did well and the things we did badly. As we confess the latter and find mercy with our compassionate Lord, we cultivate a habit of inner watchfulness, of paying attention to the little twists which mar our souls. That allows us to untwist them, and try to do better the next day. Life has a way of rushing us forward heedlessly at break-neck speed, and of being so preoccupied with The Next Exciting Thing that we have no time to look back over the day just past. It is not simply that we rush through life too quickly to smell the roses—we also rush through it too quickly to smell ourselves. We need to stop and smell, and examine, and confess. Of course, we will still suffer from blind-spots and miss things. But we will catch things too, and have the opportunity to find healing and create some inner beauty behind the mask. None of us know when the Last Judgment will come, or even when death will take us away and deprive us of the opportunity to repent and reform ourselves. There is no sense in waiting. The time for repentance is now. Let us drop the mask for a bit and examine our faces tonight.
(Fr. Lawrence Farley is a graduate of St. Tikhon Orthodox Seminary and the author of many books including the Bible Study Companion Series; Let Us Attend: A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy; and A Daily Calendar of Saints)