On reflection, one of our most distinctive traits as human beings, although created in likeness of the Creator God, is our freedom to choose to approximate the Divine or to take an alternate route, distancing ourselves from a forgiving God, a detour we call sin. The Greek is for missing our waypoints is hamartia (αμαρτία, from αμαρτάνειν hamartánein), which in the classical language, means to “miss the mark.”
Conversion 101 – A Reflection
In a recent reflection posted for the Companions of New Skete, we read the word repentance, a word that has plagued theologizing linguists for centuries because it is an extraordinary mistranslation, a linguistic glitch that distorts the intended meaning of the Greek word metánoia – and conflates it with the Greek word metámelomai (see Mark 1 vs. Matt 27:3, sources which employ the words metanoeo/metánoia or metamélomai (μεταμέλομαι)) that occurs in the Second Testament (and in the LXX), which renders the Hebrew word “nacham” (change of mind, finding comfort). That word metánoia (μετάνοια, change in mind, conversion) continues as evidence of the extraordinary insult in translating dating back to the Latin Fathers’ translation of metánoia, rendering it poenatentia, and thus associating it with penance and punishment, and which reflects the later Medieval Scholastics’ teaching of a God, who is vindictive and vengeance seeking, angered by our choice to sin, and the teaching that for our sinfulness God demands propitiation, payment to avoid Divine wrath. The sinner must purge themselves of their guilt engendering guilt and condemnation. That teaching reached its pinnacle of silliness with the teaching of “tollhouses”, stages of purification through which the soul must pass to attain salvation. This is a notion of a distorted God and flies in the face of the teaching of a forgiving and merciful God, and our freedom to change.
Metánoia is not the only casualty of the Latin translators, we can also note the confusion of messiah and savior in the translations from the Hebrew; that confusion continues to this day and continues to mislead the ignorant faithful and far too many of the clergy. No less a figure than Tertullian took offence to the translation of metánoia with poenitentiam, arguing that metánoia is not a confession of sins but a change of heart. (Having made that statement, I do not argue that the “change of heart” does not result from reflection of one’s past behavior or regret for having sinned. St Augustine himself is clearly a witness to that.)
The word repentance, which has persisted in myriad translations and in pastoral and theological usage, does not convey the very important and authentic meaning of metánoia: a change of heart.
In the ordo salutis, at one pole of which we have the steps leading to healing and return to the source and final end in the Western Catholic (faith, contrition, regeneration, penance (epitimion, pokúta; following confession), sanctification, purgation, theosis) or in the Eastern Catholic (Orthodox) (catharsis, theoria, theosis by way of virtuous life, prayer, and participation in the Mysteries), or in the Reformed tradition, election/predestination. Repentance, at least in the Western tradition, has to do more with penance, less with metánoia.
So, what is my point, you may ask by this time? I find myself reflecting on the Orthodox tradition, in which sin is conceived of as a disorder, an illness, and confession as a ‘medicine’, with metánoia being the healing therapy, leading to – another insult to conscientious linguistics and competent translation — “salvation”, where salvation may be in its broadest connotation a sort of being saved or deliverance, in truth is not being saved but being “healed” (it derives from the Latin salvus, and like the English word “salve,” is healing).
There are a number of reasons for these confusions but whatever the reasons, we have to deal with them now, in our lives, in our teaching.
No matter what the reasons for the misuse of the term repentance or why it has persisted, the fact remains that our healing, our salvation if you prefer, depends not on revisiting old sin, or on guilt, or on propitiation (save for the salubrious effects of epitímion, if employed by the priest) but on metánoia, a change of mind, heart and conduct.
In fact, a more appropriate reading of John the Baptist’s call to “repent” is actually a call to change of heart, a change of mind and conduct, not to revisit past sinfulness. Moreover, the reported teachings of Jesus point also to the notion of change of heart and conduct, less than a recollection of past sinfulness. While I am not purporting that we should not maintain an awareness of our freedom to make wrong choices or that we should not examine ourselves regularly, nor that regular confession and consultation with a spiritual guide are nice but not necessary, I do feel that we must look forward, while employing all of the preceding, to changing our way of thinking and behaving. And Yes! this process of metánoia or conversion is a lifetime process, and we would be ill advised not to revisit our hearts and minds and conducts regularly, in order to tweak and fine tune ourselves, ensuring we are on the correct spiritual heading towards the destination, which is God.
Far from the negative connotations and denotations of the term “repentance,” metánoia compels a positive, proactive, life-affirming response to God’s offer of union through His grace.
Reading St John Climacus’ “Ladder of Divine Ascent“, the saint teaches that “[R]epentence is the renewal of baptism. Repentance is a contract with God for a second life. A penitent is a buyer of humility. Repentance is constant distrust of bodily comfort. Repentance is self-condemning reflection, and carefree self-care. Repentance is the daughter of hope and the renunciation of despair. A penitent is an undisgraced convict. Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the practice of good deeds contrary to the sins. Repentance is purification of conscience. Repentance is the voluntary endurance of all afflictions. A penitent is the inflicter of his own punishments. Repentance is a mighty persecution of the stomach, and a striking of the soul into vigorous awareness.” We could easily replace “repentence” with “metánoia” or “change of heart” without substantially distorting the saint’s teaching (assuming the rest of the translation is correct).
Having said all of that, I do not wish to avoid reflecting on the concept of repenting on behalf of others (so important for Greek monastic theology from the 4th century on), at least in nascent form, can be found in the LXX, but that’s another diatribe for another time.
Our reflection was on repentance as compared with metánoia, and our Lenten retreat centers on forgiveness. So what’s the connection I’m trying to make? Well, having reflected on the importance of metánoia, it would seem that claiming a Christian lifestyle would be a mockery if not abject hypocrisy, if we were not to engage metánoia as our radical, i.e., fundamental attitude towards forgiveness. We have the freedom to choose Divine Light or a fragmented, autonomous existence choosing darkness. Self-awareness, authenticity, that is, the admission that we are capable of sinning — sin is not just the province of evil people — our purification and forgiveness comes from getting to the root of the reality of potential and real sinfulness, and this involves metánoia: a change of mind, heart and conduct. Some have referred to this as “soul surgery”, something we can’t do ourselves, but for which we need God’s grace and the wisdom of wise and patient spiritual guidance from another pilgrim capable of nudging us towards opening ourselves to the truth about ourselves, acknowledging that truth, doing something about it, and navigating us towards true forgiveness, reconciliation, and ultimately healing.
This is a radical revolution, an about face in our attitudes rooted in a change of heart and an orientation to God. If we commit ourselves to metánoia, we approach true self-awareness, a prerequisite for the essential authenticity, and self-control through the action of the Holy Spirit and Divine Grace.
Whoever acts as his own spiritual guide has a fool for a client.
As I reread and reflect on my thoughts, it becomes obvious how frequently I, and you, have been deceived by detouring from the true path to the Divine; in other words, we have frequently been deceived by sin of one sort or another. We all have heard the saying: “Whoever acts as his own attorney has a fool for a client.” This can apply very aptly to our spiritual life as well. As we cannot do our own soul surgery, we cannot act as our own spiritual guide, and we really should have a wise spiritual father or mother who can provide good counsel to us, based on their mature spirituality and their deep listening skills. We are fortunate, as Companions of New Skete, to have a treasure of rich resources at our disposal, and we would be pitiable spiritual sons and daughters if we were not to avail ourselves of these resources.
In conclusion, our focus should be less on repentance as such and more on metánoia. Through a change of heart, a reorientation, a radical transformation of outlook, a change in our view of the world and ourselves, a renewal of how we love, and how we see beauty. Metánoia should be at the heart of our teaching, our liturgical preaching, and our participation in the liturgy, which is a great source of healing and inspiration. The liturgy is faith in action, and Orthodoxy is a liturgical culture; we are liturgical creatures. We must appreciate the gift of liturgy and spiritual guidance. I speak from experience: Those of us practicing vocations of compassion often come away from encounters with the faithful-in-crisis, whether spiritual or existential, with a deep sadness, a sadness that has its roots in a realization that our faithful have acquired and live with an image of the Christian life and the Christian God that are distorted. One of those distortions is that God is punishing one because of one’s past, present, even future sins. This is not the message of the Gospels. Let us recall the scripturally based prayer of absolution teaching that “God desires not the death of a sinner, but that the sinner turn from his evil ways and live.” That prayer teaches metánoia, not medieval notions of repentance and wrath, guilt and shame. It also teaches forgiveness.
I think, during this liturgical season of reflection, that we should seriously make metánoia and forgiveness our goals as compassionate companions.
Please share your thoughts with me about my thoughts.