In a way, these words are the focal point of the Great Canon of Repentance composed by one of our greatest saints St. Andrew of Crete. This is how he addresses his soul, “My soul, my soul arise! Why are you sleeping?” If this great saint accused his soul of being in a state of spiritual slumber, what can we say about ourselves?
The Holy Fathers often said that there is a paradox in the spiritual life, yet this seeming contradiction in itself has a deep meaning. This ‘spiritual paradox’, as the Holy Fathers say, is that sinners see themselves as righteous, and the righteous see themselves as sinners. Why is this? Why does the sinner see himself as righteous? It is because he does not know himself, whereas the righteous person strives with all his soul towards self-knowledge.
The best people from the pagan world also realized that it is essential to somehow gain an understanding of one’s internal state. In ancient times, before Christianity, there was already a saying ‘Know thyself’ that was ascribed to Socrates or some other pagan sage. As for a Christian understanding of this truth, for good reason, all during Great Lent we pray “Yea, O Lord King, grant me to see my failings”. If we saw our sins as we should, we would not need to be saying these words in prayer.
We already mentioned before an example taken from the Lives of Saints. A righteous person once prayed for the Lord to show him how deeply sin has penetrated humankind, that is, to what extent sin has disfigured it and how much it has taken over and subjugated it. And when the Lord fulfilled the ascetic’s humble request and showed him how our human nature has become poisoned and disfigured, he was so horrified and thought that he would lose his mind, and he asked the Lord to take away this terrible vision as quickly as possible. This is how man has been poisoned by sin.
The deeper a person goes into himself, and the more he examines his internal life, the more it becomes obvious and painful to him how he has been damaged by sin.
For good reason St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, and other great saints who composed the prayers before receiving Holy Communion call themselves the first among sinners, not worthy to lift up their eyes toward heaven. They did not say this for the sake of eloquence or with undue exaggeration – they simply saw themselves this way.
For good reason, the great saint of our Russian land the Venerable Seraphim, whom people had seen shining like the sun and hovering in the air while praying, liked to call himself ‘poor’ Seraphim. Truly, the righteous saw themselves as sinners.
For example, if there is a dirty rag in the room but it is dark, we do not see that it is dirty. However, if light is let into the room, then we notice the dirt on it right away. And the brighter the light, the more clearly we see it. Therefore, the closer these saints are to God, the more clearly they see their sinfulness. Indeed, when a person comes closer to God, his conscience becomes more noticeable, and he hears its voice clear as a bell reproaching him for every way that he has fallen away from God and not been faithful to Him.
As for the sinner, he does not know himself, and even when he goes to confession, it seems to him that he is not bad at all. When he hears about people who sinned greatly, he, like many others like him, thinks to himself, “Sure, I am not like that! I may not be a saint, but all in all I am not that bad. There are probably lots of people worse than me...” Not one truly righteous man would ever allow himself the least self- justification! He thinks of his own sins only, not the sins of others, always grieves over them, and sees himself undeniably guilty before God.
St. Metropolitan Philaret of New York, Sermons, Vol. I, pp. 97-99.