Towards Compunction: Opening Our Hearts to the Grace of God

Note: Steve delivered this talk on March 11, 2019 (Clean Monday) at Archangel Michael Orthodox Church in Port Washington, NY.   

Is it possible for any of us to change?

We seem to live in a world that is both more stubborn and more lonely than ever before. Perhaps that is no coincidence; perhaps these two trends go hand in hand.

Stubbornness and Loneliness

This stubbornness and loneliness may be easiest to see online, where most of our social interactions tend to happen. Despite being connected to virtually every bit of knowledge ever assembled, and virtually every person currently alive, loneliness is becoming an epidemic (at least here in the United States, and perhaps in the Western world as a whole).

The health insurer Cigna recently conducted a survey that began to measure just how serious this problem is. Among their findings, they discovered that:

  • 46% of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone.
  • 43% of Americans say they sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others.
  • 20% report that they rarely or never feel close to people.
  • Only 18% say they feel like they have people in their lives they can talk to.

You may say that, despite being incredibly connected with the outside world, we feel increasingly trapped within ourselves.

And that’s why I think loneliness is connected to stubborness. Not just because stubborn people are less fun to be around (and best avoided), but because stubbornness is a different way of being trapped within ourselves.

Of being resistant to outside influence.

Of being resistant to change. 

Why Things Are Worse Online

This definitely manifests in the way we interact online. There, interactions are not dialogues or conversations or even mutual exchanges of information: they are shouting matches, the trading of insults and accusations. 

No one changes their mind on the internet. If anything, these overly combative exchanges simply serve to confirm how right we are...and how wrong everyone else is. And when we retreat from these online battles, we enter into echo chambers that further reinforce the rightness of our preferred point of view.

On the flip side, our call-out culture takes delight in bringing up mistakes that other people have made (no matter how long ago). The purpose of digging through a person’s old tweets or interviews isn’t to spur some kind of change or repentance, but to embarrass. To demean. 

To humiliate. 

Which puts us on the defensive. And makes us all the more stubborn and isolated as we fend off attack.

It’s a vicious cycle that leads us further inward, feeling trapped within ourselves. 

So is it possible for any of us to change? We tend to act like the answer to that question is “no.” Possibly because, in our pride, we don’t need to change. 

While others can’t; or at least, even if their change was possible, our attacks would make it unlikely. 

A New Possibility

Yet on Clean Monday, at the beginning of Great Lent, the Church offers something radically different. The Church offers us the possibility to change. The Church offers us the possibility to repent. 

In fact, Great Lent is designed to inspire some level of repentance in us as a means of preparing us to celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. 

Yet there’s something else that the Church also calls us to experience, particularly now during Great Lent. Something the Church calls compunction.

I’d like to suggest to you that there are two types of compunction. We experience one kind of compunction emotionally, on a very human level. But there’s another kind of compunction; an even deeper kind of compunction.

And I’m excited to share that with you.

But first, some quick definitions. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page. 

What is Repentance?

Repentance is a term we’ve all probably heard before. It comes from the Greek word μετάνοια and it means a change of mind. 

Repentance is a new way of thinking; a new way of being. Repentance is a new direction for our lives: away from sin and towards Christ and His Kingdom.

Repentance is, of course, incredibly important. Yet (and this might be a little challenging for us to fully appreciate) it’s not the whole story. 

It’s not enough.

St Athanasios the Great was a very young deacon in the Patriarchate of Alexandria when he wrote his classic work On the Incarnation. It’s an explanation of why exactly the Son of God took on flesh and became human. 

After all, why did the Son of God take on flesh? Why is the Incarnation part of our salvation?

Shouldn’t repentance be enough to save us from sin? Shouldn’t a new direction in our lives (away from sin and back towards God) be enough to save us?

St Athanasios answers that question in the negative: no, it isn’t enough. 

Was [God] to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression [human beings] became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again... [But] repentance [does not] recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. 

(Saint Athanasios, On the Incarnation, §7)

That was a lot, so let’s break this down to make sure we all get it.

Why Did the Son of God Take on Flesh?

St Athanasios begins by stating that, of course, humanity had fallen into sin. And God, who wanted the salvation of the world, *could have* simply asked people to repent of their sin. Just like sin led us into death and corruption, repentance could have led us out of death and back into life. 

But, as St Athanasios says, that’s precisely why repentance isn’t enough by itself. Our problem, as people, isn’t simply sin. It is death. It is the corruption of our nature. 

(Or at least it was, until the saving work of Jesus Christ: His birth, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, etc.)

Ethics, in other words, isn’t enough to save us. The fundamental problem of our existence can’t simply be fixed by acting differently. 

As St Athanasios says: “no, repentance could not meet the case.” 

(As a brief aside, this should challenge all of us who work in ministry, especially ministry with young people. Whether we’re parents or youth workers, do we sometimes assume that our primary job is to keep kids from doing drugs or having sex? Do we view our job as ministry leaders as nothing more than managing behavior and keeping kids out of trouble? Because St Athanasios tells us very clearly that ethics, by itself, isn’t enough.)

And of course, as you can guess from the title of the work, the solution this great saint points to is the incarnation: the solution was the Son of God taking on our flesh and becoming one of us. 

It was healing our broken and corrupted human nature from the inside, so to speak. It was joining us in death so we could join Him in life. 

Not just survival but real life. True life. Life without end.

And compunction is the way we begin to sink into this mystery. Or rather how we begin to allow this mystery to sink into us and change us from within.

What is Compunction?

So what exactly is compunction? I’ll begin with the words of St Porphyrios the Athonite, who describes the word very simply:

The root of the word κατάνυξις, ‘compunction,’ is the verb νύττω, ‘to puncture or pierce,’ κατανύττω, ‘to stab or wound repeatedly.’

(Saint Porphyrios, Wounded by Love, p. 120)

So compunction is, you might say, an attack: a repeated stabbing or wounding.

But why do we need compunction? What does this attack have to do with our stubbornness and isolation, the great problems of our modern age? And what does it have to do with our salvation, the great problem of human existence?

Why do we need compunction? 

Well, because our hearts have grown hard. 

You’ve probably heard this phrase before: hardness of heart. I want to describe it with two examples from literature; one very classic, one newer yet (I think) no less moving.

These examples can help us get a sense of the first type of compunction: a powerful human experience that can open our hearts to change. 

Compunction in "Crime and Punishment"

In the novel Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky presents us with Raskolnikov, an intelligent and passionate young man who is swept away by the currents of sophisticated, modern thought. He writes a paper, titled “On Crime,” where he paints himself as a Napoleon: someone who is above the constraints of conventional morality and capable of greatness. 

Yet he’s also a former student who lives in poverty, unable to support himself. So he decides to rob and kill an elderly pawn-broker, and use the money he steals to build a new life and live up to his greatness. 

But the murder doesn’t go as planned...

It turns out that it’s far more difficult to kill than Raskolnikov initially thought. He emerges from this act shaken, physically ill. Raskolnikov never seemed like the picture of spiritual health; yet after the murder he sinks into even deeper spiritual sickness. 

He descends into an ever deeper isolation and anguish. 

Raskolnikov, an isolated and bitter loner, falls even deeper into isolation and bitterness. His heart, which was already hard, hardens even more. 

Just like us, he sinks into further stubbornness and further isolation. 

And what finally pulls him out of this darkness and despair? What finally brings him back to himself? 

A simple look.

At the end of the novel, Raskolnikov encounters the tragic character of Sonya. At the beginning of the book, Sonya decided to become a prostitute in order to support her impoverished family. She is a figure of great sadness and suffering.

When Raskolnikov looks upon her at the end of the novel, he sees her despair. Her piercing look stabs his heart, and he makes a full confession. 

He is a murderer, and he is ready to accept his punishment. He no longer sees himself as an ubermensch, someone above conventional morality. He is a broken man, and he is finally open to healing. 

Consider this powerful exchange, after Raskolnikov has confessed to the murder:

“Well, what to do now, tell me!” he said, suddenly raising his head and looking at her, his face hideously distorted by despair.

“What to do!” she exclaimed, suddenly jumping up from her place, and her eyes, still full of tears, suddenly flashed. “Stand up!” (She seized him by the shoulder; he rose, looking at her almost in amazement.) 

“Go now, this minute, stand in the crossroads, bow down, and first kiss the earth you’ve defiled, then bow to the whole world, on all four sides, and say aloud to everyone: ‘I have killed!’ Then God will send you life again. Will you go? Will you go?” she kept asking him, all trembling as if in a fit, seizing both his hands, squeezing them tightly in her own, and looking at him with fiery eyes.

He was amazed and even struck by her sudden ecstasy. “So it’s hard labor, is it, Sonya? I must go and denounce myself?” he asked gloomily.

“Accept suffering and redeem yourself by it, that’s what you must do.”

Raskolnikov, who begins this exchange a stubborn and isolated man, descending deeper into spiritual self-destruction and darkness, emerges both connected to Sonya and ready to begin the process of change. 

That moment, the moment that opened the door to this, the way Sonya’s look pierced Raskolnikov’s heart, gives us a sense of what this first type of compunction is: a powerful experience that can open the door to change.

Here’s another example:

Compunction in "Harry Potter"

In her Harry Potter series, JK Rowling introduces us to the character of Lord Voldemort, a dark wizard who threatens the world with terror and darkness. Voldemort, as we learn in the series, is such a terrifying figure because of his self-inflicted spiritual wounds. 

He is terrified of death, and he insures himself against the possibility by magically creating what are known as “horcruxes”: little pieces of his soul that he contains within assorted objects. That way, even if one piece of his soul is destroyed, the other piece will survive. Some fragment of him will continue to exist.

As you might expect, horcruxes are terrible bits of dark magic. They shatter the soul, in the most literal sense of the word, and grant their makers a perverse parody of life: many years in a fractured, less-than-fully-human state.

As the great Albus Dumbledore uncovers Voldemort’s plan, he realizes (to his horror) that the Dark Lord hasn’t just created one horcrux. No, he’s done the unthinkable, what people didn’t even realize was possible: he’s created six horcruxes. Meaning that he’s split his soul into seven fragments. 

How can anyone return from such a place of spiritual destruction?

Yet Rowling herself, in an interview, said that “if he had repented, [Voldemort] could have been healed more deeply than anyone would have supposed.” The Dark Lord’s redemption was, in fact possible.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione stumble onto this possibility in the seventh and final book of the series, The Deathly Hallows:

"…It warns in this book how unstable you make the rest of your soul by ripping it, and that's just by making one Horcrux!"

Harry remembered what Dumbledore had said about Voldemort moving beyond "usual evil."

"Isn't there any way of putting yourself back together?" Ron asked.

"Yes," said Hermione with a hollow smile, "but it would be excruciatingly painful."

"Why? How do you do it?" asked Harry.

"Remorse," said Hermione. "You've got to really feel what you've done. There's a footnote. Apparently the pain of it can destroy you. I can't see Voldemort attempting it somehow, can you?" 

Hermione, tragically, is correct. In their final encounter, Harry gives Voldemort one last chance to show a bit of remorse. But he is shocked by this request. As we read:

Of all the things that Harry had said to him, beyond any revelation or taunt, nothing had shocked Voldemort like this.

Voldemort guarded his hardened heart. He refused the connection that Harry offered, and the opportunity to return from his fractured spiritual state. He refused to step back from the brokenness into which he had so thoroughly sunk. He attacked Harry, trying to kill him, and ended up dead himself. 

Voldemort was dead, killed by his own rebounding curse, and Harry stood with two wands in his hand, staring down at his enemy’s shell.

Towards an Even Deeper Compunction

Raskolnikov and Voldemort both experienced the possibility for something similar to compunction: a powerful experience that would pierce their hardened hearts and open the path to healing; to wholeness; to a recovery of themselves. 

One opened himself to this piercing, and took his first step towards redemption. The other didn’t. 

These literary examples give us a sense of the first type of compunction: a powerful experience that can crack open our hardened hearts and open us to the possibility of change. It tends to be something visceral, something deep and powerful: Sonya’s dramatic look of despair, or the deeply felt remorse one would need to recover from a horcrux. 

But the Church points us to an even deeper kind of compunction; a second kind of compunction. To explore this let’s use, not literary images, but some commentary from the Fathers. 

Because yes, emotions and remorseful experiences with other people can certainly pierce our hearts, shatter our stubbornness, and reconnect us with others. It can open to us the door of repentance, and put us back on the path towards God.

But compunction, in the deepest and most mystical sense of the word, doesn’t come at the beginning of our repentance. It comes at the end. It is more than something that leads us back to God: it is something that God does to us when we have found Him.

Compunction and Communion

If we keep our eyes and ears open, we’ll find references to compunction all over the Church. For example, as you probably know, there’s a short service of preparation for Holy Community. We can read it as part of Compline the evening before Liturgy. 

Here’s the instruction that we find at the beginning of the service:

When preparing to receive the Immaculate Mysteries, first read the service of Small compline to the end of the creed, and then say the following Canon with compunction.

(Canon of Preparation for Holy Communion)

So, before we receive Holy Communion, we should prepare with compunction: with this piercing of our hardened hearts that will open us to the presence of Christ.

But this piercing, in the deepest sense of the word, is not something we do. It is something that is done to us. Which is why it’s so instructive that this word, compunction, is tied here with Holy Communion.

Think about what normally happens with the things we consume. When I eat or drink something, my body acts on it. My body transforms it. My teeth and stomach physically break the food down, my body metabolizes what I consume and then uses what I consume. My body turns it into energy, so I can move and think and act in the world. 

Or my body turns it into more of me: new hair that’s always growing on my head, new skin cells to repair a scratch, new blood cells or muscle cells or whatever. 

Normally, when I eat something or drink something, I turn that thing into me.

But that’s not at all what happens when we receive Holy Communion. 

Consider what St Nicholas Cabasilas says about what happens when we receive:

While natural food is changed into him who feeds on it, and fish and bread and any other kind of food become human blood, here it is entirely opposite. The Bread of Life Himselfchanges him who feeds on Him and transforms and assimilates him to Himself.

(St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, Book 4 §8)

In other words, when I receive the Body of Christ, I don’t turn that into my body. Instead, I am turned into a part of the Body of Christ. Normally I act upon my food, and transform my food. But in the case of this eternal food, this heavenly food: I am acted upon. I am transformed. 

When I am acted upon in this way, there is no stubbornness. There is union with the will of God. Thy will be done, o Lord, on earth as it is in heaven.

When I am acted upon in this way, there is no isolation. I am not acted upon as an individual Christian: the Lord acts upon me as a member of His Body, united as I am with Him and all in Him.

This is deeper than the act of my repentance. This is deeper than the effort of my change. This is God Himself acting in and through me.

More Than Our Effort

Of course, this isn’t to discount our effort. Our effort is important. St John Climacus, for example, wrote an entire book about our efforts. In fact, the Church dedicates the fourth Sunday of Great Lent to St John and this incredible book: The Ladder of Divine Ascent

Yet even St John, who spends so much time talking about the importance of our spiritual effort, makes sure to keep that effort in its proper place. When he writes about the ways we work to inspire remorse and compunction in ourselves, he is honest: it is not as great as the compunction which results when God Himself pierces our hearts.

Consider these two sentences in The Ladder of Divine Ascent. They are from Step 7, which deals with repentance. First, St John stresses the importance of our work and our effort:

Keep a firm hold of the blessed joy-grief of holy compunction, and do not stop working at it until it raises you high above the things of this world and presents you pure to Christ.

(St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 7, 9)

And then, just a few sentences later, he says that this effort (as important as it is) is nowhere near as great as the compunction that is given to us as a gift by God:

Great is the power of this compunction—greater than that which comes as a result of our effort and meditation.

(St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 7, 25)

Go Forth With Humility

So here, at the beginning of Great Lent, it’s important for us to begin our ascetic struggle with joy and zeal and dedication. We will work hard to attend the services as much as we can; to give alms as much as we can; to pray as much as we can; to direct our hearts back to Christ as much as we can. 

Yet it’s important to do this work with humility. We don’t simply commit ourselves to being better, to trying harder, to do more. A few Sundays ago we read about the Publican, who prayed more than us and tithed more than us and did more spiritual things than us. 

Yet he congratulated himself for all this spiritual work, and had no room for God in his heart. His heart was incredibly religious, yet also incredible hard: stubborn, proud, and isolated. 

No, we commit ourselves to allowing God to act in and through us.

We work, in a sense, so that God will work in us.

At the begin of every Liturgy, the deacon prays a very short and simple prayer. He says “it is time for the Lord to act.”

As Christians, we know that it is always time for the Lord to act. 

May the Holy Spirit pierce our hearts and fill our hearts. May the Holy Spirit act in us and through us, for the glory of God alone.



Steven Christoforou is the Director of Y2AM. He and his Team are working on a new ministry training course, Effective Christian Ministry, which will help Church workers develop a Christ-centered vision for ministry and implement it with the core practices of formative and transformational ministry.