Sunday, December 4, 2011


John the Baptist
Old Saint Mary's Cathedral
San Francisco
Advent is a time of preparation. In the liturgical church, John the Baptist is the voice of that challenge to get ready. The gospel texts describe him calling “Prepare the way." "Make straight the path." "Repent and be baptized.”

“Repent” is one of those words badly flattened in translation. The original word is “metanoia” – “meta” and “noia.” “Noia” is easy: “mind.”
Meta” is harder. It’s a prefix we see in “metanarrative” or “metaphysics.” It can be translated “beyond,” or “after.” But the meaning seems larger, more like “encompassing,” or “like this, only bigger.”

So “metanarrative” is the bigger story that contains, and explains, other narratives. “Metaphysics” is the bigger vision that contains, and explains, the physical world.

And “metanoia”? Literal attempts at translation read it as “a change of mind.” But it’s more like moving from a small mind, our own, to the “meta mind,” the larger mind that encompasses ours: God’s own.

So what John calls for is to let our small minds go, and find our place in God’s. Or to let our own agendas go, and find ourselves in God’s. To set aside our own blindered sight, and ask God to help us see his larger vision.

C. S. Lewis, struggling to explain this larger view of repentence, put it this way: 
“In other words, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.  Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor—that is the only way out of a "hole."  This process of surrender—this movement full speed astern—is what Christians call repentance. . . .  It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years.  It means undergoing a kind of death." (Mere Christianity) 
We like to think of repentance as something we can check off, a quick confession, a grudging acknowledgement of guilt, then on to other things. But metanoia is much bigger, more lasting. As Lewis says, it’s a kind of death, letting go of our own great ideas, our own fiercely held prejudice, our own self-importance. It’s a willingness to take on a less selfish way of living, a less self-absorbed way of seeing.

The difficulty, of course, is that we can’t do it ourselves. We see what we see. We are who we are. We hold tightly to our smallness. Conditioned by our experience, our upbringing, our temperament, the voices of our culture, our families, our favorite tv shows, we are locked into our own way of knowing, and trapped in our own ways of living.

The first step in “metanoia” is to recognize that, and to ask for help, to ask for the Holy Spirit to move in us, through us, around us, showing us as we really are, showing us what we were made to be.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his Letters and Papers from Prison, written not long before he was executed by the Nazis, puzzled over this: 

 "Christ Ready to Embrace the Penitent Soul" 
Isabel Piczek 1982, St. Norbert Catholic Church
Orange, California
“One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. . .  I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In doing so we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia . . .”

So, on a bright December day, I find myself wondering what it would be like to live “unreservedly” in the perplexities and struggle of a concentration camp. I wonder what Bonhoeffer saw, as he trusted himself into the arms of God. And I consider my own ongoing metanoia, the continuing call to prepare the way.

Where do I need a change of heart, a change of mind, a larger vision?

Hesychius, one of the early church fathers, wrote, "We will travel the road of metanoia correctly if, as we begin to give attention to the spirit, we combine humility with watchfulness . . .”

There’s that word again: watchful.

My thoughts turn to the Ignatian prayer of examen, a discipline of looking back, to see where God has been at work, to see where my own pride, or selfishness, has gotten in the way.

Sitting in God’s presence, I sift back through my day, and ask:
“Was my motivation love, or pride?”
“Was I really listening, or just waiting for my turn to speak?”
“Did I use my time well, or wastefully?”
“Was that opinion of mine a reflection of your heart, God, or of my own preferred way of seeing things?” 
Venerable Matt Talbot
Maria Orr, 2010, Michigan
Chapel of the Penitent
The goal isn’t to correct myself, or to justify my behavior. It’s to see myself honestly, which is only possible when I’m reminded of God’s love: “do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance / metanoia?"(2Corinthians 7:10).

Here’s the examen (in the slightly strange language found in almost any explanation of it):

  • The first Point is to give thanks to God our Lord for the benefits received. 
  • The second, to ask grace to know our sins and cast them out. 
  • The third, to ask account of our soul from the hour that we rose up to the present Examen, hour by hour, or period by period: and first as to thoughts, and then as to words, and then as to acts. 
  • The fourth, to ask pardon of God our Lord for the faults. 
  • The fifth, to purpose amendment with His grace. 
I have friends who see repentance in any form as a very negative thing, who think that acknowledging wrong is bad for the psyche, that confession of any kind is negative and harmful.

I find it deeply comforting. I’m not perfect. My attitude, my thoughts, my words, my actions. None are perfect. Not even close. 

I do things badly. I mess up. I harm others. I let people down. I hold fiercely to my own ideas, and react with frustration when asked to explain them. I harbor resentments. I procrastinate when prompted to reach out in ways that might cost me time, or risk my emotional safety.

And God still loves me. Still surrounds me with his kindness. Still calls me to deeper wisdom, clearer vision, more consistent faithfulness. Forgives my failings, calls me to change, and gives me grace to take the next step forward.

So I ask for grace to move on toward wholeness and holiness, to be more like Christ, to inhabit the callings we are all called to: agents of reconciliation. Light in a dark world. People who love in the way we’ve been loved.

And I wait for metanoia: a change of heart, of mind, of life. I trust myself to the mercy greater than myself. 
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)
The Holy Spirit and the Arms of God, Maria Orr, 2010,
Chapel of the Penitent, St. Mary Magdelene Church, Kentwood, Michigan

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