Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Community and Repentance

[I have been asked to give a talk on "community" to a group of zealous, young, mostly Mennonite Christians who have been trying for a couple of years to form an intentional community. Below is an initial reflection.]

If we look to the earliest Christians for a model of community, surely we must begin with Luke’s description of the first days of the church recorded in Acts 2:42: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship [community], in the breaking of bread and in prayers.”
Preceding this description of the earliest Christian community are St. Peter’s instructions as to how one enters the Christian community: “Repent and...be baptized…and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Repentance precedes community. If we are going to understand how both to create and sustain Christian Community, I think we must begin by reflecting on how we might ourselves better repent.
I’d like to reflect a little on what repentance is not--or what may be tied to repentance, but is not repentance itself. Then I’d like to take a stab at what repentance may be, especially as it relates to creating and sustaining Christian community.
First, repentance is not essentially a moral matter. Certainly, repentance may involve morality, but when it does, moral change is a consequence of repentance, not repentance itself. People adjust their morality for all sorts of reasons, reasons that often have nothing at all to do with one’s relationship with God or one’s love for neighbor. Many drug addicts, sexual profligates, gangsters, burglars or white collar criminals have cleaned up their life for the perfectly selfish reason that they realized that their moral choices were making them miserable. Vanity and pride often motivate people to “do good.” Those who would never fast or rise early to pray for the sake of their souls, will diet severely and go to the gym every morning before work in order to look good in a bathing suit. No, mere moral change is not repentance.
And on the flip side, there are men and women whose hearts turn to God, who love their neighbor much more than themselves, and who yet are unable to make notable changes to their moral life. Lifestyles are ensnaring. Circumstances in life may make it impossible, or nearly impossible, for some people to change their behavior. I have seen heroin addicts kick the habit for the sake of Christ again and again, only to return to the drug and eventually die in an overdose. Addictions of all sorts hold us in ways that are very difficult to shake off, even if we are desperate to change. I have also known and have known of people involved in seriously immoral and/or illegal activity and who prayed earnestly for a way out. In most of these cases, the people involved were supporting or protecting others whose well being or very life would be at risk if they stopped the immoral or illegal activity they were doing. Sometimes, God provided a way out rather quickly. Sometimes it took years. Sometimes it took death.
No, repentance in not a matter of mere morality.
Secondly, repentance is not an emotional experience. Repentance may be emotional, or it may not. One may have intense emotional experiences as one grows in repentance, or one may not. The tearful weeping over personal sin or harm caused to others is not itself repentance. Repentance may touch the emotions powerfully, or it may not. And even those who have very emotional experiences related to repentance may not express that emotion outwardly. Some may live for weeks or months with a constant emotional pain, like a knife sticking into their side, but show very little outward sign of that pain. Others wail uncontrollably. You cannot judge someone’s emotional pain by outward signs. Much less can you identify repentance with outward emotional display. Repentance is something much deeper than emotions, although it may touch the emotions.
Finally, repentance is not something you do once and for all. Repentance is a way of life. Repentance is not one turning point, it is a life of constantly turning to God.
Constantly turning to God. This is repentance.
The word “repentance” comes from the Greek word metanoia, and unfortunately, the literal translation of metanoia is quite misleading. Literally it means “with the mind” or “to change the mind.” This is misleading because when we think of “mind” in English we think of the rational part of our brain. To change our minds implies a rational decision--usually based on evidence or argument. Such an understanding of repentance, in my experience, far from creating community, goes a long way toward destroying Christian community.
So long as repentance (change of mind) is based on rationality, we are driven to demonize or belittle those who do not seem to repent, those who disagree with us. When repentance is based on reason, we force ourselves into a syllogistic trap. Those who do not seem to repent do not do so for only two possible reasons: the person either can’t understand the reasons why he or she should repent, or the person won’t accept the reasons. In the latter case, the apparently unrepentant one is demonized. She or he is an intentional sinner because she or he chooses not see reason. In the former case, the person is marginalized, belittled or despised. The person’s inability to see reason may inspire pity, but mostly she or he is just not taken seriously. She or he is treated like a child or a fool who just doesn’t know any better. Either way, demon or fool, such an understanding of repentance based on rationality destroys community because it legitimizes the marginalization of those who don’t seem to get it.
However, there is another way to understand metanoia. In the ancient Christian tradition, especially as it is understood and interpreted by the Eastern Christian Fathers and Mothers, mind (or in Greek, nous) is not understood as the reasoning part of the brain, but rather as that part of the mind, or what in English we generally call heart, that can know and have relationship with God. So in this tradition, repentance is understood as turning one’s heart to God. To be a little more specific, repentance means submitting the rational mind to the heart, learning to pay attention to or in the heart.
Such an understanding of repentance helps create and build community because it moves the focus of relationships inward away from behavior. It moves the focus to the heart, where we meet God and where we can begin to see others from a new perspective. It may sound strange, this idea of seeing with the heart, but many of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church have used the expression “eyes of the heart” to refer to this part of our mind or heart that can know God. When we can see others with our heart, we can love them, even if they do not love us, even if they annoy us at some level, even if they hate us. Love can be the only foundation for successful Christian community.
This does not mean that behavior is irrelevant. Communities require rules, or rather shared expectations. However, repentance, the ongoing turning of the heart toward God and growth in the ability to see one another with the eyes of the heart provides the grace that keep rules from becoming legalism. Communities often have to make tough decisions about what is and isn’t appropriate in that community. But love, seeing with the eyes of the heart, helps communities make tough transitions in at least two very practical ways.
First, when you love, you listen. What so quickly destroys community in the rationality-based model of repentance is that only those who fit a predetermined mold are listened to seriously. Who really listens to fools or demons? We may pretend to listen to make them feel better, but really we have already made up our mind. Community requires real listening, listening with the heart. According to the Rule of St. Benedict, a seventh century guide to Christian community living, only minor decisions were to be made with the counsel of the leadership of the community. All important decisions were to be made after everyone in the community had been heard. And here, St. Benedict makes an interesting comment: “God often reveals what is better to the younger.” And younger here refers not merely to age, but to spiritual maturity also. Love helps us listen to everyone.
Finally, seeing with the eyes of our heart enables us to have compassion, to share the pain of others. And when we share in the pain of others, we are careful to cause as little pain as possible. Sooner or later, more or less often, separation is necessary in a community. Not everybody fits well into every community. Sometimes separation is voluntary, a mutual realization that “salvation” (in the broadest possible sense) is not possible here, that the problems cannot be solved in the context of this community as it is now.
However, sometimes amputation is called for. Sometimes for the safety of the whole or of a vulnerable minority an offending member must be forcibly excommunicated--separated from the community. It is very difficult to know when someone is dangerous to a community. Often those of a vulnerable group are also those who have been marginalized, whose voices are not listened to seriously, especially if the dangerous one is a leader. Only by listening with our hearts, listening to everyone, even the weak, the young, and those who don't seem to get it, can we make our community a safe place.

However the apparently offending member needs to be listened to carefully too, without prejudgement. Careful listening may not heal the wound, the person may still need to leave the community. But perpetrators are usually victims too, and knowing that, seeing that and feeling that can help a great deal. For even if there must be an amputation, proper care and attention can safeguard against infection, resentment and sometimes even a witch hunt, which can kill community life more quickly than just about anything.
The first Christians required a miracle of the Holy Spirit to be a community, and any successful Christian community requires nothing less. I have suggested that one important aspect of that miracle of the Holy Spirit is repentance, repentance understood as an ongoing attention to the heart, an ongoing turning of the heart towards God. The ongoing repentance of the heart helps create and sustain community by moving the locus of discernment away from what is seen outwardly with the eyes to what is seen inwardly with the eyes of the heart, what is seen through love. But loving others starts with me. It starts with my repentance, my turning of my heart to God, letting my mind descend into my heart, and learning to see others there. Repentance precedes community. Repentance does not make community life less difficult. It only makes it more loving, more Christian, more transforming.


Barbara said...

Thank you for sharing your talk with all of us, Fr. Michael. I enjoyed it all and really liked your points about the demon or the fool. I had a recent conversation with a colleague about the value of debate in proving Christianity correct and thereby convincing young people to become Christians. I won't share the whole conversation here, but your explanation of the demon/fool helped me understand why I am so uncomfortable with this way of inviting people into our faith.

Jake said...


I don't know if your colleague really means "proving" Christianity like a geometric proof (or even worse, proof texting), or something more significant like addressing the rational where and when it needs to be. Allow me to explain.

I was raised a Unitarian Universalism. A modern Unitarian is really just a modern person, a neo-Epicurean in morals, metaphysics, "spirituality", everything. This is perhaps the best description in my opinion of "young people", in that everything in their culture, schooling, and experience teaches them to be rationalists. If you are to preach the Gospel to the modern soul you can not make a mockery of his reason. You may realize it's limits but he does not as of yet. (and I thank God for my upbringing because it taught me to THINK, and thinking brought to it's logical conclusion brings one to the limits of rational thought). If you do, he will perceive you as a mere sentimentalist - and he might be right. After all, reason is as much a part of our created being as any other part.

The trick of course is addressing the rationalist with reason without being a rationalist yourself. I confess I am not good at this, but the people in my life who won my trust and respect when I needed it most in my conversion performed this trick nicely.

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Christopher,
In many ways I agree: "The trick of course is addressing the rationalist with reason without being a rationalist yourself." Sometimes I wonder if apologists and more particularly those whose faith is buttressed by arguments of the apologists, fall into the trap of thinking that the way a Christian might (out of compassion and condescension) speak to an unbeliever, is also the way the Church speaks to itself. And more to the point, the way God speaks to the Church.

Barbara said...


I think my colleague was expressing something similar to what you describe - that young people, in fact most people, do need to have their questions answered in a way that satisfies the intellect (even if the answers point towards a mystery that can never fully be described by words). I don't disagree with that premise and many of my own struggles in faith have been to do with unsatisfying answers to my intellectual questions. My concern was the way right answers can only "buoy" our faith for a time, they keep us locked in our heads and turned away from the existential truths of who we are and who God is. They are little comfort when you are lying on the side of a mountain unable to move. They do not answer the pain that comes when you get a call from the police about your child. They do little to help you love the people God has given you to love. They rarely satisfy the grief of losing someone you love. Right answers do not necessarily lead to wisdom or transformation. They can also become a game that we play competitively, breaking all possibilities of communion with others. Truth becomes real estate that we acquire and own and use for our gain. There was a sense of triumph in my colleague's comments about his experience at the debate that disturbed me to the core.

Another colleague recently gave me a book edited by a friend of his that is a "Reader in Orthodox Theology". He said he was surprised by the theological depth of the book because he associates orthodoxy more with liturgical worship than theology! This is the false dichotomy that concerns me.

I am thinking about your words, "mere sentimentalist". We have done a good job in our modern world of emptying the word love of its Truth. And yet the first moment of theology is the icon of St. John laying his head on the chest of Christ at the Last supper.

I agree that there is a danger of being misunderstood when you try to really live as though Truth was Personal, and that knowledge is a revealed in communion.