“Until a man is completely changed by repentance, he will be wise always to remember his sins with sorrow and to recall the eternal fire which they justly deserve.” – Evagrios the Solitary, On Prayer, chapter 144
Eternal fire. Judgment. Hell. Not the most attractive part of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
The monks whose writings comprise the Philokalia, however, recommend meditating on judgment. “Recall the eternal fire” which your sins deserve, admonishes Evagrios. Why? To provoke deeper repentance and more complete conversion within us. To induce humility. To remind us of our great need for salvation and increase our thankfulness for the cross and resurrection of Christ. And the people for whom they recommend such mediation aren’t the heathen sinners of the pagan world. They recommend this meditation for people like themselves: those seeking the path of holiness, those whom we now consider saints, whom we might think least deserving of eternal fire.
This is actually, I think, how Jesus talked about judgment. Unlike the street-corner fire-and-brimstone preachers of today, Jesus preached about judgment and eternal fire to the religious elite. He partied with sinners, showed compassion to prostitutes and tax collectors and touched the unclean. But when it came to the scribes and the Pharisees – who on the outside looked as righteous as righteous could be – Jesus gave words of woe, condemnation, and judgment. Such saintly people as the monks of the Philokalia knew how easily they could step into the Pharisees’ shoes. So they chose to meditate on their own judgment and the punishment they deserve, lest they too be filled with self-righteousness.
But how? How would one actually meditate on the “eternal fire” which our sins justly deserve? Perhaps one way to do so is to focus on the way Jesus talked about judgment – to let Jesus himself proclaim fire to our souls. So I did a little experiment this morning. I opened my Bible to Matthew 23:13-36 and read the woes Jesus pronounces on the scribes and Pharisees. Or rather, I let the woes read me. Slowly. Jesus told me of the dead men’s bones inside me, the ways in which I neglect the “weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” Then I turned to Matthew 25:31-46, the separation of the sheep and the goats. Jesus told me how I treat the “least of these”, and I was not proud of what I heard. Last, convicted of the passion of anger, I turned to Matthew 7:21-22. As I remembered a recent angry fit, Jesus told me I was guilty of murder, that my words held me liable to the Gehenna of fire. And all I could say in response was Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
My novice attempt at recalling the judgment my sin deserves may sound depressing, guilt-inducing, morbid. And it would be, except for the sweet prayer Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Awareness of the magnitude of our sin increases our awareness of the magnitude of our Savior. Evagrios writes earlier, “When you think that you do not need tears for your sins during prayer, reflect on this: you should always be in God, and yet you are still far from Him. Then you will weep with greater feeling” (78). I have not received the gift of tears yet. But recalling the eternal fire increases my thirst for them. And my thirst for God.