God saw that the human being was weak and gave repentance while still in the body, until the last breath.

Let us take good care to remain in the protection of repentance, and let us receive nourishment from her holy breasts so that she will nourish us. 1

Throughout my reading, I’ve found repentance and confession described in various ways: healing, cleansing, renewal. In fact everyone who has experienced the sacrament of penance can probably provide their own personal description of what actually takes place. For me, experiencing repentance as gift and nourishment, as described by Isaias of Sketis, is very powerful.

For several years I worked as a doula, a person who helps a new mother to care for her newborn baby. The word comes from the Greek and is defined as “slave” or “servant.” This word has a significant place in our Orthodox liturgical life in that as one approaches the chalice to partake of the Eucharist, the priest will say, “the servant of God.” I always felt the work of a doula to be the work of God.

While working as a doula, I would frequently provide breastfeeding instruction to these women. I found that the mother who had a few weeks of breastfeeding experience under her belt had discovered one of the best ways, not only to feed, but to comfort her child. Very few things soothe a baby better than picking her up and putting her to the breast. Regardless of how long one wants to shake a rattle in the baby’s face, or stick a pacifier in her mouth, nothing replaces that breast. Instantly the wrinkle marks on the baby’s face disappear and the child will calmly suck. No more crying, no more fussing.

I can only suppose that St. Isaias did his share of observing nursing mothers with their children. He uses the image of repentance as mother, and I can’t truly think of a more appropriate representation. Going to confession is like being picked up and fed. Walking into the Church reminds me of being held, feeling protected. Usually the Church is dimly lit and warm. Very few candles are burning and the atmosphere is one of solemn serenity. When I was younger I would have conflicting feelings of anxiety and excitement; as I grow older, I seem to long for the sacrament, “My soul thirsts for God, the living God.” As I give my confession, my concerns seem to vaporize. And regardless of how often I tell myself I won’t say too much, I seem to continue on and on. Once the floodgates open, they are difficult to close. It is as if I am at the breast, drinking the milk of life—the ability to pour out my heart to my God. The longer I drink, the more I enter into the sacrament, and the easier it is to allow Jesus to come to me and release all my fears and troubles. It is a paradox, the more I say, the more I receive. It is only when I allow myself to drink from the well, to eat from the table of the Lord, can I begin to feel the tender mercy of our Savior. While I find my private prayers, weekly Divine Liturgy and other services, especially during Lent, to be absolutely necessary for daily peace and comfort, very few things open my heart to God like the sacrament of penance.

Note.

1. Isaias of Sketis, Logos 16, 25, from John Chryssavgis, Repentance and Confession in the Orthodox Church (Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1990), p. 40.

Addendum: The author would like to clarify that there is no sacrament of penance in the Orthodox Church but of confession.