The Life of Repentance and Purity by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III is the first book in the Coptic Studies Series from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. The editors of the series – His Grace Bishop Suriel, also the translator of this book, and John Behr – could not have chosen a better work to initiate this new and important series to expose readers to Coptic Christianity and to essential Orthodox and Christian teachings.
Pope Shenouda III (1923-2012) was the 117th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark. He was known as a great teacher and preacher, which is illustrated abundantly by The Life of Repentance and Purity. The book also shows that he was a gifted and discerning reader of Scripture and the writings of the Fathers of the Church.
While the book draws on lectures and sermons Pope Shenouda delivered when he was a bishop in the 1960s and throughout his decades-long tenure as pope and patriarch, The Life of Repentance and Purity is a cohesive and comprehensive guidebook for attaining a deep and pure heart that truly exalts God.
Pope Shenouda begins his work by answering the question, “What is repentance?” He tells us that repentance, among other things, is returning to God or reconciliation with God; spiritual awakening; resurrection of the spirit; freedom from sin; a cry of conscience and a rejection of the past; a complete change of heart; and renewal of mind.
True repentance, he says further, is walking the path taken by saints such as Augustine, Mary of Egypt, and Moses the Black; it also is the acceptance of the hand that God extends to us, as he did to Peter, and then “forsaking sin without return.”
Repentance is neither a one-time event nor an occasional event: it is a daily activity and only the beginning of a lifelong journey. Some have difficulty taking this journey because of their love of sin. “The perfection of repentance is the hatred of sin,” Pope Shenouda writes.
The more you love your life, however, the more difficult it will be to repent: “How can a person change his life when it seems beautiful in his own eyes? For if he cannot sense his bad state, then he cannot repent and change his life. … As for those who are righteous in their own eyes, for what will they repent, if they do not confess that they have sinned in anything?”
Those who love sin, in fact, refuse to call it sin: “Every sin can have another name that the sinner uses as a refuge.” To live a life of repentance, therefore, means calling sin by its true name and examining and judging yourself.
Throughout Scripture we are called to repentance. Noah, “first to preach repentance,” is followed by the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jonah, Joel, and Jeremiah. And it is to them that the penitent should turn for reading and meditation, as well as Deuteronomy and St. Paul’s epistles to the Philippians, Ephesians, Corinthians, and Timothy.
The penitent must also drink from the living water found in the well of the Gospels. St. John the Baptist preaches repentance as the forerunner to Christ, but it is Our Lord Jesus Christ who calls all to repentance at the very start of his ministry and who shows us the way.
In handing down the faith as it was handed to them, the Fathers of the Church also teach us that to live a life of repentance is for all Christians. Pope Shenouda tells us that St. Basil the Great teaches that we should “Ask for repentance during every moment” and St. Isaac the Syrian that “At all times during the twenty-four hours of the day, we are in need of repentance.”
The Life of Repentance and Purity is a gift to the universal Church. Pope Shenouda provides a true education in how to read Scripture and the Fathers of the Church so that we can follow the will of God and so truly live “according to the Spirit.”