The Prodigal’s Prayer and Repentance: A Single Movement

Sunday of the Prodigal Son, February 4, 2018
2 Corinthians 6:12-20; Luke 15:11-32

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

When I was on the Holy Mountain of Athos over the past couple of weeks, I asked the question and heard others ask the question of what we are to bring back with us when we return to the world in which we normally live. And I also asked how I could understand why I was blessed to make the journey while so many others—including most of you here—were not.

The response I received was that I brought you all with me in my own person, but that I must also as much as I can try to bring to you the Holy Mountain in my own person. I am still processing all that I experienced and probably will be so for a long time to come, but I want at least, on this first Sunday after our return, to give you something of what I received so that we can process it together. And I think it is particularly beneficial for us to do so together today, which is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son.

In this well-known parable, we hear again the story of the son who has everything but who chooses to take his inheritance and to leave his family. He goes into a far country and wastes that inheritance. Finding himself at the bottom of despair, his life having been fragmented and distorted, sitting literally among pigs and admiring their food, he finally comes to himself and decides to return home. And at his homecoming, his father rushes out to meet him, clothes him in the best robe, places a ring on his finger, and holds a great celebration to mark his return.

This parable is for us a model of repentance and also of prayer. We may think it more obvious how it is a model of repentance—the prodigal son sins and then turns away from his sin. But it is perhaps less obvious to us how it is a model for prayer. But we will see how these two are really the same thing when considered in the light of this parable.

One of the things taught to me while on Athos is that there is a difference between simply turning away from sin, saying that I am sorry, and true repentance, which is communicated by the Greek word metanoia. Metanoia means “a turning of the mind” or perhaps more deeply, “a turning of the eye of the soul.” It is one thing to feel sorry for your sins and want to sin no more. This is good, of course. But it is another to turn yourself in another direction.

In the parable, the prodigal not only sees his sorry state and wants to change it, but he rises and returns. He makes a change not only away from sin, but toward his father’s house.

During my time on Athos, a figure whom I came to know a little better and to become more interested in is a modern holy man named Elder Aimilianos. He was for many years the abbot of Simonopetra Monastery on Athos and also the spiritual father for Ormylia Monastery, a women’s monastery not far away from Athos. He is still living, but is in deep decline and living mostly in seclusion at Ormylia. Because we met so many of his spiritual children during our time there, even though we did not meet him in person, we received some of his teachings and got some sense of him.

So you may imagine that, when I returned home, I pulled the one book of his I have off my shelf and finally decided to read a little of it, which I had never done. Here is something of what I read. He is speaking of Holy Communion, and he says that it is a necessary prerequisite for true prayer. He then says:

Why is Holy Communion a necessary prerequisite? Because when we say ‘I pray,’ we mean ‘I address a petition to someone,’ which is what the word proseuche [the Greek word for prayer] means. But when we speak of the inner prayer of the heart, we don’t call it proseuche but rather euche, indicating (by the absence of the prefix pros) that the progression of prayer ‘to’ or ‘towards’ a person, with a view toward union with that person, has in a sense been achieved. Thus [inner] prayer is a kind of stasis, so to speak, a resting in and enjoyment of the place where God is. There is a distinction here, you see.

“Prayer, then—proseuche—is turning towards a person. And thus for prayer to exist, this person must also exist. And for me to say ‘I pray’ means that the active presence of that person is a reality for me. I must be able to realize a certain degree of intimacy with that person’s presence and his existence. Christ, who is the presence within all things, and present everywhere, becomes present within my life through my participation in worship, and especially through my participation in Holy Communion. (Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, The Church at Prayer, 12.)

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, therefore, we see how the prodigal begins this motion of prayer toward his father. He is not merely “changing his ways” in the sense of moral improvement but changing his direction in the sense of moving toward his father. This is an action that is about the communion of persons. He has broken communion with his father, and now he returns to his father, and communion is reestablished.

And what is more, when he arrives back home, that is not the end of the story. His father clothes him anew and celebrates with him over the return. So we may say that he is gone from proseuche, the prayer of turning toward his father, to euche, the prayer which is the enjoyment of the communion that has now been established.

I want to share one more pearl I received this past week. One of the last places we stopped was Ormylia Monastery, which is on the next peninsula over from Athos. Serving at Ormylia is a priest-monk named Fr. Serapion, who is a monk of Simonopetra and who had been with Elder Aimilianos for many years. We got to have coffee with him on Tuesday morning, and of course coffee at these monasteries was never some idle chat.

One of our pilgrims asked him how we could retain what we had received in our pilgrimage, and he gave a beautiful answer for the next twenty minutes or so. But the one thing he said that stands out for me at least right now was this: “If you live in repentance, then the Kingdom of Heaven has already come.”

In this we see the key to the parable. For what is it that is represented by the father’s house? It is clearly the Kingdom of Heaven. So the prodigal has come to the Kingdom of Heaven. But what does it mean for him to “live in repentance”? Does he come to the Kingdom only to be sorrowful for his sins forevermore, to try to make up for them for all eternity?

No, that is not what is meant by repentance, at least not in its full sense. To repent is really the same as this initial movement of prayer, the prayer toward a person, the person of Christ. For the prodigal to abide in his father’s house means a continuous movement toward his father, and for us to abide in the Kingdom means a continuous movement toward Jesus Christ. And this movement toward God and His movement toward us—that is the Kingdom of Heaven.

So we see in the parable a teaching deeper than simply going from a bad life to a good life, from betrayal and abandonment to reconciliation and return. It is the movement toward a person, toward the presence of the father, toward the presence of Jesus Christ and toward enjoyment and love in that presence.

Elder Aimilianos summarizes this all by asking what happens in worship, especially in Holy Communion. He says: “And so God, through worship, stretches out towards me, and I, through prayer, stretch out toward him, until our total union comes about” (Ibid.).

In this coming Lent, I pray that we will make this movement of repentance and prayer toward our heavenly Father, through His Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit, and that we will deepen our enjoyment of the presence of the Holy Trinity in us, through God’s reaching toward us in worship and through our reach toward Him in prayer.

To the God Who seeks us and Whom we seek in return, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.