How Do You Ask Forgiveness?

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How do you repent of your sins and ask forgiveness? Badly. Horribly. It’s par for the course. Repentance is turning away from the path you know, to take the path you don’t. You will necessarily look like a fool, and this is grace.

How do you do your prostrations, at Forgiveness Vespers, in a Latinized church with pews in front of you?

Badly, almost comically, making a fool of yourself, that’s how. You bow halfway. Or, you notice that the gentleman who always does everything precisely according to the rules has stepped out to the aisle to prostrate himself, and you do the same. As you do, your daughter, whom you prayed would stay drowsing, starts to whine again. And then you realize you’re standing over the heating grate, as you bang your head on a metal grille.

Before the vespers, Father mentioned that back in Ukraine, his father and his mother always used to ask him for forgiveness on this Sunday, “But now, my family is here.”

I looked around, expecting to see a new family from Europe sitting in the pews; then I realized that Father was talking about me– us, the congregation. He left his whole family in Ukraine, to come be a pastor in the burned-out wreck of a steel mill town in the chimney of West Virginia. His church is a little, Latinized building with an onion dome on the little, Latinized steeple, two blocks from an establishment known as the Go-Go Lounge in the town’s red light district.

“I ask you to forgive me,” said Father to the congregation.

I forgave him– for what, I didn’t know. He’s never been anything but nice to me. I hope he forgave me for taking so long to learn to keep my tongue down when I open my mouth for Holy Communion. I hope he forgave all of us for not showing up last year on the Feast of the Transfiguration, when he held the liturgy early Saturday morning and we just didn’t think to come. He sounded perfectly heartbroken about it that Sunday, even as he joked. “Sometimes there are only five people at Liturgy– me, the cantor and the Holy Trinity.”

We learned our lesson– we all made extra sure to come to Liturgy on all the other great feasts.  And Father was always glad to see us.

I’m told the Carpatho-Rusyn were brought to the Ohio Valley as scabs, to cross the picket line and take the jobs of the Irish and the African-Americans. The Irish and the African-Americans hated the Carpatho-Rusyn and the Carpatho-Rusyn hated right back– may God forgive us all. My great grandmother was Irish, born to immigrant parents in the slums in Franklinton in Columbus, Ohio; she grew up in abject poverty, a hated minority raised to be something of a racist herself because that’s what the culture demanded. May God forgive us. I fled Columbus to escape the spiritual abuse of my upbringing, fell into the bullying and abusive culture of the Latin parishes here in Eastern Ohio, ran away again and took refuge in the Byzantine Catholic Church. Here, I’ve stayed.

In sin was I conceived. I was born a fallen creature in a fallen world, to a fallen family in a fallen country brim-full of runaways, conquerors and refugees who hate one another and call it righteousness. I am an Irish Catholic brat, baptized with an English name in the Italian parish and confirmed with a French name in the Irish one, crying out “Otche Nash” in the Carpatho-Rusyn church in a steel mill town in West Virginia, and I don’t know how to do prostrations. May God forgive me. I resent everything that looks too much like my past, and I envy everything that looks foreign and unfamiliar. May God forgive me. I am unforgiving and vindictive. May God forgive me. I am impatient in my own suffering. May God forgive me. I don’t notice the sufferings of my neighbor nearly enough. My God forgive me. I have turned away Christ countless times. May God forgive me. I am prideful, I think I know about things and I talk too much. May God forgive me.

If Thou shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, O Lord, who shall stand?  For with Thee there is forgiveness.

I left the church without that good clean feeling I’ve associated with being forgiven– only confused, and embarrassed at my prostrations, and wishing I could do it again. And I will do it again–by the grace of God I’ll prostrate myself, bang my head on the grille, look like a fool and ask forgiveness tomorrow and the next day, and every time I sin.

I am on a path I don’t know, in a place I don’t belong, walking away from my past, and this is great grace.

This is how you repent of your sins and ask for forgiveness.

(image via Pixabay)

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