Metanoia and Repentance


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 20, 2020

Knowing, as we do, that scripture for one person can be a call to an exemplary life of love, self-sacrifice, and compassion and for another an invitation to the exact opposite, it is very important not only that we read scripture, but also how we translate it. That is why I love the old adage that scripture is not in the reading, but in the interpretation.

How words are translated from one language to another can be fortuitous or disastrous. One example comes from the translation of the Greek word metanoia into Latin. 

Metanoia is a beautiful word without a one-word English equivalent. The Latin Fathers translated it using the Latin word meaning penance or repentance. But that does not do justice to metanoia at all. Metanoia means something much more significant. There is a hidden depth to it that the Latin Fathers missed. One biblical scholar called it a "linguistic and theological tragedy."(A.T. Robertson). Even Tertullian criticized it early on.

Metanoia means "a change of mind" to a greater or higher consciousness, a transformative change of heart as Webster’s dictionary defines it. St. Paul calls it "putting on the mind of Christ," the consciousness of God. Illumination or enlightenment comes closer than penance.

We can prepare the way for metanoia, but we cannot force it. One does not leap to Christ-consciousness in one fell swoop. Transformation is a process. Ultimately, metanoia is a gift over which we have no control. We can “make the way straight” for his coming (Isaiah 40:3), but the time of his coming is not known to us.

Evolution has hard-wired us for survival. Christ would transform that hard-wiring into selfless love. The root of every human being is love, in fact, but something happens between “the forceps and the stone” (Joni Mitchell) to recondition us from love to selfishness. We call it "sin" which is,  broadly speaking, anything that distracts us from our vocation to develop into God's likeness. This reconditioning Christ refers to as “taking up the Cross” and self-denial. Our resistance to metanoia is what must go.

Here is a beautiful quote from Catherine of Sienna relating something the Lord said to her: “The more you abandon yourself, the more you will find Me. You are that which is not. I am that I am.”

Tertullian thought that "conversion" was a better way to translate metanoia. I agree. Every time we grow truly conscious of our own failings and seek forgiveness the door to metanoia, transformation, conversion opens. But not just in those moments. Metanoia can happen at any moment when something interrupts our self-centered internal dialogue. Prayer is an interruption we choose that can open us to the gift of metanoia. So we must pray more often! Liturgy invites us to receive metanoia through his Body and Blood. Beauty is an interruption that often surprises and pierces our defenses opening us to metanoia. As Dostoevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.”

There are many metanoia moments in scripture just as there are in life. For example, right before Jesus ascends he "opens the minds of his disciples to understand the scriptures." That was a metanoia moment. An opening of the mind to understand. A move from a good/small to a better/larger consciousness. Of course, the proviso is this. Are we willing to let go of the good to progress to the better? That is why many of us are so resistant to spiritual growth. We hold on so tightly to life as we know it, to God as we claim to know him, that there is no room for growth. Without this willingness to change "putting on the mind of Christ" is not possible. Christ always stands at the door and knocks, but as Nikos Kazantzakis wisely said, “You can knock on a deaf man’s door forever.”

Last night in my reading I stumbled across this incredible quote by St. Diadochos of Photiki. He describes what is meant by metanoia better than anything else I have read.

"Those who consciously love God in their hearts never lose an intense longing for spiritual illumination, until they feel it in their bones and no longer know themselves but are completely transformed by the love of God. They are both present in this life and not present. They live in the body, but have departed from it, as through love they ceaselessly journey in their souls towards God. Their hearts constantly burn with the fire of love and they cling to God with an irresistible fervor, for they have, once and for all, transcended self-love in their love for God.

He speaks of those who have entered a life of continuous metanoia and describes the essence and goal of a truly Christian life. This mystic transformation is for every Christian.