21 February 2018

Repentance is possible – just ask Qi Huan Gong

Duke Huan of Qi 齊桓公


‘Virtue is as light as a hair, yet few can lift it.’

  - The Odes, Zheng Min.
As a model of repentance, Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 refers us to Qi Huan Gong 齊桓公, the hegemonic ruler of the state of Qi in what is now Shandong Province in China. Dong states that Duke Huan’s succession to the throne of Qi was highly irregular. Indeed, the Spring and Autumn Annals refers to him by his personal name, Xiaobai 小白 (a definite signal of the historian’s disapprobation), and the Gongyang catechist remarks that he ‘usurped the throne’. Duke Huan then used his political leverage over the state of Lu, forcing them to put to death his kinsman the rightful heir, Sir Jiu 公子糾, of Qi. He then attempted to disavow the murder, causing Lu to fortify its riverside border with Qi. Dong Zhongshu remarks, with (I presume) a tone of dry understatement, that ‘his crimes were weighty indeed’. He adds that if Duke Huan had not reformed himself, ‘he would have been lucky to avoid being murdered’. Indeed, the state of Qi was awash in the blood of brothers in Duke Huan’s generation; it stands to reason that if he had kept up the depravity that had marked his brother Zhu’er 諸兒 and his cousin Gongsun Wuzhi 公孫無知, he too would have met such a sticky end.

One of the officials who had steadfastly supported Sir Jiu’s bid for the throne, and who had been exiled and sentenced to death in absentia by Duke Huan, was a classicist named Guan Zhong 管仲 (also known as Master Guan 管子). However, the Gongyang Commentary later shows Guan Zhong, alive and well, serving as an advisor to Duke Huan four years later, advising him to deal sternly but fairly with the representatives of other states. What is left unspoken in the Commentary, but which Dong Zhongshu dwells on at some length, is that Duke Huan had a massive change-of-heart from his first couple of years as ruler. The Gongyang Commentary states, after he had pardoned Master Guan and was acting under his advice:
Even pacts made under coercion may be broken, but Duke Huan would never be guilty or suspicious of betrayal. He could have held a grudge against Master Cao [an emissary from the state of Lu who insulted Duke Huan to his face], but he never did. Duke Huan’s good faith was renowned throughout the empire, beginning with the making of this pact [between Qi and Lu] at Ke.
The author of the Gongyang Commentary expects us to be taken aback at this. Indeed, we should be. Neither he, nor the historian of the Spring and Autumn Annals, elaborates on what caused this sudden and remarkable reformation in the character of the Duke of Qi, who but two years previously had been displaying all the fratricidal violence of a usurper and all the overbearing temper of a tyrant. But at Ke we see Duke Huan yielding meekly to the advice of his righteous minister, dealing earnestly with the envoy from Lu, and honouring his word to make reparations to Lu for the violence that occurred over his succession.

The pardon and repatriation of Guan Zhong, the willingness to listen to a minister who had once opposed him in his bid for the throne, the reconciliation with Duke Zhuang of Lu 魯莊公 and the reparations made to his state, taken all together, constitute an act of repentance. This is repentance in the true sense of turning around (metanoia μετάνοια) or, as Dong Zhongshu would have it, ‘returning to [his] Way’ (fu qi Dao 復其道). Duke Huan, although he could never fully make restitution for the blood of his brother, nevertheless found those elements within himself that had led him down a disastrous path.

The word the Fathers use for ‘repentance’, the same metanoia aforementioned, is a word of pagan philosophical importance. This same importance inheres to the ‘fu qi Dao’ of Dong Zhongshu – a phrase he borrows, in fact, from the Book of Changes (Yijing 已經; Legge clumsily, and unfortunately, translates this phrase as ‘returns and pursues [his] own path’). It is good to remember, even and especially now, during Lent as we begin reading from the Hebrew Law and the Prophets: that the ancient Chinese, the ancient Hebrews and the ancient Greeks were all well-aware of the need to ‘return to the Way’. It is possible to overstate this. Dong Zhongshu notes that toward the end of his life, Qi Huan Gong relapsed somewhat into his former ways:
From this time forward, however, Duke Huan of Qi grew arrogant regarding his accomplishments. He became haughty and self-satisfied and failed to cultivate his virtue… He harmed the people of other states. He detained their great officers… He had not yet completed his meritorious undertakings, but his heart already was content… From this time forward, the state of Qi gradually declined and numerous states rose up in rebellion against it.
God save us from finding any such illusory contentment! Saint Andrew of Crete, the Damascene saint who wrote the Great Canon that will be said at Vespers all this week, understood all too well that spiritually, we are still no better-off than those pagans who lived and died before Christ; indeed, in many ways, we are far worse-off, because we do not even have the excuses they had.
I have willfully incurred the guilt of Cain's murder, since by invigorating my flesh I am the murderer of my soul's awareness, and have warred against it by my evil deeds,
Saint Andrew cries aloud with us.
I have not resembled Abel's righteousness, O Jesus. I have never offered Thee acceptable gifts, nor divine actions, nor a pure sacrifice, nor an unblemished life!
And again:
David once joined sin to sin, for he mixed adultery with murder, yet he immediately offered double repentance. But you, my soul, have done things more wicked without repenting to God!
We may lament, alongside Saint Andrew of Crete, the wretched states of our souls. But we should never forget – Saint Andrew would never let us forget – that those who were in a similarly-wretched state, such as King David (or Duke Huan of Qi), were able to repent, however imperfectly and even without being able to see for themselves the Way which they aimed at. Dong Zhongshu ends his meditation on Duke Huan of Qi with the quote from the Odes shown above. ‘Virtue is as light as a hair’, which means that we can pick it up – if we want to. The fact that, as the Ode says, ‘few can lift it’ merely shows that, in the unfathomable depths of our hearts, we don’t really want to do so.

Hence – for us Orthodox Christians, at least – the Lenten disciplines. The Lenten disciplines of fasting and prayer and almsgiving aren’t meant to show us that lifting that ‘hair’ is something hard and gruelling. Nor are they meant as vain propitiations. What they are meant to show us instead is that it is our hearts that are heavy, our wills that are unwilling, the passions that are unbearable to us. The Lenten disciplines are exercises of the heart and of the will, for mastery of the passions. If repentance was possible even for the brother-slayer Duke Huan of Qi in a time of anarchy and constant war, is it not also possible for us, who have the visible and tangible Christ as our Way?

No comments:

Post a Comment