The story of St. Mary of Egypt offers us an exemplar of penitence, and the story of the Passion which we are about to relive is the ultimate call to that repentance. John dedicates an entire chapter, Step 5 of his thirty step ladder, to the subject and he allots it a considerable amount of space to the subject. He defines repentance thus:
Repentance is the renewal of baptism and is a contract with God for a fresh start in life. Repentance goes shopping for humility and is ever distrustful of bodily comfort. Repentance is critical awareness and a sure watch over oneself. Repentance is the daughter of hope and the refusal to despair. (The penitent stands guilty—but undisgraced.) Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the performance of good deeds which are the opposites of the sins. It is the purification of conscience and the voluntary endurance of affliction.
Understood in this way, repentance was the continual duty of Christians. It was not the occasional response to noticeable sins but a perpetual disposition born from our persistent sinfulness. He warns:
We ought to be on our guard, in case our conscience has stopped troubling us, not so much because of its being clear but because of its being immersed in sin.
A true reflection on the degree to which we sin ought, according to John, drive repentance. In fact, if we were truly aware of just how grievous our sins (or our sinfulness) was, John insists that we would have no trouble repenting continuously.
He who really keeps track of what he has done will consider as lost every day during which he did not mourn, regardless of whatever good he may happen to have done.
Such an inordinate focus on our sinfulness might ultimately lead to despair, although John has already specifically said that the essence of penance is hope and not despair. To answer this, John offers a story that, while it may not inspire confidence, does model an appropriate attitude of penitence as we seek to approach God. John tells of a group of monks who strove to repent of their sins, tried desperately to conquer the passions, and prayed constantly for forgiveness. Like so many of us, however, they were plagued constantly with doubt. He writes:
With failing confidence, they would often speak to one another as follows: “brothers, are we getting anywhere? Will we be granted what we ask? Will the Lord accept us once more? Will He open up to us? Others would answer: “As our brothers the Ninevites said, ‘Who knows if God will change His mind and deliver us from mighty punishment?’ Let us do what we can. If He opens the door, well and good; if not, then blessed be the Lord God Who in His justice has shut the door on us. At least we should continue to knock at the door as long as we live. Maybe He will open to us on account of our persistence.”
I think there is in this a good, biblical model for repentance: one that acknowledges human depravity, recognizes human ignorance, and throws the soul continually at the feet of a loving God, knowing that it is not our merit but His mercy that makes salvation possible.