Repentance and Lamentation

Two responses to sin in the Church

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Since our first parents’ exile from paradise, two very important forms of prayer in response to sin have developed, which I believe have much to tell us about a Christian response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis.

The first is the prayer of repentance. Repentance is both a turning away from evil and a calling out to God for mercy and healing for wrongs that we have committed against the love of God and neighbor. In the Byzantine tradition, on the Sunday evening before the beginning of the great fast of Lent, there is a service of forgiveness vespers, where we seek to enter into the proper spirit of the season of fasting and repentance by extending forgiveness to others individually and corporately. In the hymnography of this service, Adam is depicted naked and standing outside of the gates of paradise, saying: “Woe is me! By evil deceit was I persuaded and robbed, and exiled far from glory. Woe is me! Once naked in my simplicity, now I am in want. But, Paradise, no longer shall I enjoy your delight. … Merciful and compassionate Lord, I cry to you, ‘Have mercy on me who am fallen.’”

Repentance is often represented as a “bright sadness” in which the soul in exile and death in sin turns back to God in the firm hope that he will heal and restore him or her to the paradise of God’s presence. Here it is noteworthy that in the Byzantine Christian tradition, St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), in his catechetical homilies, teaches that had Adam and Eve but repented and confessed their sin when God confronted them with their fall and nakedness without the garment of glory, we would still be in paradise today, such is his mercy and compassion for us! With this understanding, a soul turns to God, especially in penitential seasons, in tears of repentance, especially in confession, which is oftentimes referred to as a second “baptism of tears.” Psalm 51 is the model of such repentance.

But in addition to repentance, another form of prayer also developed in response to sin, which is called lamentation. If repentance is a way of crying out to God for mercy for the wrongs that we have committed, lamentation is a way of crying out to God in complaint for the wrongs that have been done to us. The notion that we should complain to God for wrongs done to us by others — even within our own limited view of providence, apparently by God himself! — strikes many of us as odd or even improper and impious. We have sometimes been taught that such complaining to God betokens a form of disrespect or even a lack of trust in God’s providential care for us?

There is the biblical form of lament — which fills many pages of the Old Testament, including the prayers of the Psalms — where there are three important steps in which we are taught through the inspired text on how to approach our complaining to God.

The first step is to cry out to God in complaint. This is where a soul calls out to God with tears and sorrow in the midst of the very real pain one is suffering and the weariness one is experiencing. One of the great Psalms of Lament is Psalm 22, which Our Lord referenced during his crucifixion: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46; cf. Ps 22:1). Very often those who are suffering due to the sin of others feel abandoned by God and have every right to complain to him. The psalmist, in laying out his complaint to God, details his feelings of abandonment and suffering of evil at the hands of others, despite his own commitment to keep the covenant. It is important to note here that this complaining may not only reflect one’s own suffering, but also our response to the suffering of others in compassionate solidarity with them.

The second step of lament is to pray to God to act. Lament is not simply a list of complaints, but in turning to God it is also a petition for help and deliverance from evil, especially given our standing as sons and daughters of God.

The third step of lament is to offer praise and trust in God. Here the one lamenting recounts the deeds of God’s faithfulness in the past in firm hope that he will respond similarly in the present and future resulting in our restoration and healing.

It is important to note that the whole world laments in sorrow for the structures of sin and the experience of the wrongdoings of others. But the world laments without hope because the world laments without God. The Church as the sacrament of God’s presence in the world needs to teach the world how to turn back to God and paradise through its own authentic acts of repentance and lamentation, most especially for the wrongs committed by her members and especially her leaders.

FATHER DANIEL DOZIER is co-founder and chief learning officer for The Center for InMinistry Development and an associate professor of Scripture and Catholic Leadership,

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