Syncletice of holy memory said: “Men endure sore travail and conflict when they are first converted to the Lord, but later they have joy unspeakable. They are like men trying to light a fire, the smoke gets into their eyes, their eyes begin to drop tears—but they succeed in what they want. It is written: ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ [cf. Exodus 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:24, 9:3; Hebrews 12:29]: and so we must kindle the fire of God with tears and trouble.”
Continuing my series on the four forms of prayer, I come to supplication. As I mentioned in my first post, according to Abba Isaac, supplication is “particularly suitable to beginners, who are still smarting under the recollection of their sins.” In the course of exploring what supplication looks like, I would also like to examine contrition, since that is the affective state that corresponds to it. I find Amma Syncletice’s statement to be a helpful counterbalance to Abba Isaac. After all, spiritual wisdom is often aimed at the concrete. The principles apply in typical cases, not absolutely. In this case, I find a reciprocal relationship between contrition and supplication. Supplication is the appropriate response to contrition, Abba Isaac is correct, but it also helps to cultivate contrition in those to whom it does not come so easily.
What differentiates contrition from grief, or more accurately from despair, is that contrition is a sorrow aimed toward virtue, a sorrow not without hope. It is as St. Paul writes to the Corinthians,
Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter. (2 Corinthians 7:9-11)
The suffering and sorrow of the world leads us on the destructive cycle of the way of death. But “godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation.” Salvation, in this instance, ought to be understood in the present continuous sense. The Corinthians are already Christians. St. Paul is concerned, rather, with the continual salvation of their souls, with the cultivation of virtue and good passions that tend toward virtue (“What diligence it produced in you,” etc.).
Along with contrition, because of contrition, and for the sake of contrition, the Christian prays prayers of supplication. Perhaps the most famous such prayer comes from the Psalms, Psalm 50 (51 in most English Bibles). Before examining it, however, a little background is needed:
St. David, the king of ancient Israel, once, when drawn by desire for comfort, stayed at home while his army went to war. Having shirked his responsibilities to follow his own desire for pleasure, he then finds such temptation more difficult to resist. He sees a woman, Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of his “mighty men,” his most trusted warriors, bathing on the roof of her home. He requests her to be brought to him, and who could refuse the king (really, this is the sort of consent that is barely consensual, if at all)? Having now fallen to adultery, he discovers that Bathsheba is pregnant. So like many politicians before and after him, he tries to cover it up. First, he invites Uriah to return home from the battle, thinking that he would spend some time with his wife and no one would be the wiser. But Uriah is an honorable man and does not wish to rest and enjoy marital intimacy while others must fight—precisely the opposite of what David had done (in more ways than one). Seeing that this would not work, David sends Uriah into battle on the front lines, where he is sure to be killed. From desire for comfort, to covetousness, to deceit, to murder: one passion, one vice, one sin, led to another. After Uriah had died, David marries Bathsheba and she gives birth to a son. In wonderful biblical understatement, the story concludes by noting, “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord” (2 Samuel 11:27).
The Lord responds by sending the prophet Nathan to David:
Then the Lord sent Nathan to David. And he came to him, and said to him: “There were two men in one city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had exceedingly many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing, except one little ewe lamb which he had bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and with his children. It ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like a daughter to him. And a traveler came to the rich man, who refused to take from his own flock and from his own herd to prepare one for the wayfaring man who had come to him; but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
So David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:1-7)
It was with this as the background that the following words were written by David:
Have mercy on my, O God,
according to thy great mercy;
according to the abundance of thy compassions,
blot out all my transgressions….
If you had desired sacrifice, I would have given it;
you will not be pleased with whole burnt offerings.
A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit,
a broken and contrite heart—
these, O God, you shall not despise…. (Psalm 50:1, 16-17)
David has messed up in a big way, much worse than most people will, thank God. He knows that, in the context of the religion of ancient Israel, there is no sacrifice provided for someone who commits such an intentional, mortal sin. The only command is that the offender be cast out from the community and executed. Yet David, seeing past the letter of the law to the spirit, sees the great mercy and abundant compassions of God—something many who only fall to far smaller temptations too often fail to see. He mourns, and rightly so, but he does not despair. Rather, he shares a great insight about contrition: “A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart.” This statement anticipates the beatitude of Christ, his descendent according to the flesh: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
As the first of the beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” sets the stage of Christian spirituality, as Abba Isaac and Amma Syncletice note, with contrition. Prayers of supplication, like Psalm 50, are the means by which we cultivate contrition, and the means by which we express sorrow and regret with the very hope that heals all sorrow and regret. Through fervent supplication, we “kindle the fire of God with tears and trouble.”
As a matter of practice, Christians traditionally prayed the “Our Father” several times a day, which includes the supplication: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and Psalm 50 itself is a major part of many liturgies as well as personal rules of prayer. It is a wonderful way to start each day, refusing to ignore our shortcomings, yet refusing to despair because of them. Indeed, rather than a constant pessimism with regards to our humanity, true contrition, as evidenced and shaped by supplication, is about hope: hope that no tear is ever shed in vain, that no cry of the heart ever goes unheard by God, who is rich in mercy and who loves mankind.