How to Live a Life of Constant Conversion
During the season of Lent we are particularly focused on the need for repentance and conversion. After all, the first words proclaimed by Christ following his temptation in the wilderness (which we hear proclaimed at Mass during Lent) are, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17). These are the same words proclaimed by John the Baptist during his ministry in the wilderness. These are similar words to those proclaimed by the prophets. In short, the Lord has been proclaiming the necessity of repentance especially in preparation for the coming kingdom. These words calling us to repentance are no less urgent now than they were when they were uttered by the very mouth of Our Lord himself. We see in the gospel time and again how he calls sinners of both public and private sins to repent.
But what does this repentance really mean? It involves a recognition and confession of sin, a change of the interior disposition from sin and darkness to truth and light, and the abandonment of sin to begin a new way of life. The word we call in English ‘repent’ is in the Greek ‘metanoia’ which better translates as “to change your heart or mind”. So John the Baptist and Jesus called the people that heard them to change their hearts and minds, because it is the heart and mind that require changing. Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord refers to the hearts of the Israelites as hearts of stone, but to the prophet Ezekiel he reveals, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (36:26-27). It is finally through the life, death, and resurrection that this change of hearts of stone to hearts of flesh will be accomplished. But conversion, as we know from personal experience, is not a one and done ordeal. It is a process. It takes time, an entire lifetime in fact.
The Season of Lent
The current season of Lent provides us with an opportunity to reflect on conversion for this particular time in the Church’s year. The readings at Mass, the extra prayers, the fish fries, and seeing the things we gave up everywhere are all reminders of this season of repentance that the Church takes very seriously. The Church in her wisdom is trying to prepare us for the celebration of Holy Week, the holiest and most precious week of our liturgical year. Although we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ at every Mass, and in a special way every Friday and Sunday, there is nothing like the dramatic and engaging celebration of Holy Week which truly immerses us into the passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord, whose sacrifice and triumph is the means of our salvation. These forty(ish) days are a wonderful opportunity to step back and reflect on what it is that separates us from the love of Christ. This season is rife with biblical imagery and liturgical reminders of the spiritual sackcloth and ashes that we should be donning. But if we really believe that we are always called to repentance and not merely called to this kind of self-reflection and prostration before the throne of grace for forty days a year, how can we carry this intention of conversion, this intention of changing our hearts for love of the Lord, into the everyday? St. Paul gives us some beautiful and challenging words to live metanoia in our daily lives.
Metanoia in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans
St. Paul, a pretty radical convert himself, has a lot to say about conversion, the rejection of sin, and living a new life in Christ. Let us turn our attention to two specific passages in Romans which will give us plenty to chew on for the present. In chapter 7 of Romans, St. Paul intensely catalogs the interior conflict between good and evil, between sin and righteousness. He describes this conflict in this way,
I can will what is right but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells in me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (18b-25).
Is he saying here that he is not culpable for the sins of his flesh? No. But what he is describing here is something that the Church calls concupiscence, that is the tendency towards sin that each person carries since the Fall of our first parents. We were created good, but we choose evil, sometimes even when we know what the good and right thing to do is. We are a composite creature of body, will, and reason. Our reason ought to govern our will and body, but all too often, our intemperate passions and weak wills succumb to temptation. Our reason (intellect) also has to be enlightened and rightly formed – we have to know what the good is that we ought to do in order to do it. This is the challenge of a fallen human nature. It does not excuse us from our sins, but it does help us understand why we do the evil we do not want to do.
Further on in Romans chapter 12, St. Paul gives a specific exhortation that ties in exactly with Jesus’s call for metanoia – to change your mind and heart. He appeals to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (v.2). The language here is significant – do not be con-formed. The prefix “con” means “with.” In other words, he is saying do not be formed by going along with the world. Rather he emphasizes the necessity of being trans-formed – for the Christian’s form (person, being) to be changed. By what? The renewal of their minds. The Greek here uses some of the same language in the word metanoia. The mind is being re-newed: being made new again and again as the Christian struggles towards the goal of righteousness, virtue, and ultimately life eternal with Christ and all the saints. By being changed by the renewal of the mind, St. Paul says that the Christians will be able to prove the will of God: what is good and acceptable and perfect! Incredible. Through this transformation of the Christian through their change of mind, change of heart they (and we!) will be able to show the will of God for humanity – mankind not governed by the way of the world (that is, sin and darkness) but mankind governed by Christ the King in eternity. This shows us what the struggle is all for – life with Christ. This begs the question: are we willing to fight the good fight within our broken selves every day in order to love Christ more, to follow him better, that we might live with and love him for all eternity?
Practical Suggestions for Living Metanoia
Beyond the Lenten sacrifices of this limited season, there are many ways we can live metanoia in our daily lives. Here are a few practical suggestions:
- Remember and celebrate your baptismal day, the day that you were claimed for Christ and the stain of Original Sin was washed away
- Focus on interiorizing the Confiteor and the Our Father at Mass which remind us during the Mass of our sins and our need for God’s mercy
- Take up the Sacred Scriptures daily for encouragement and reminders of how to practice conversion with special emphasis on Christ’s interaction with sinners and his disciples in the gospels
- Make an examination of conscience at the end of every day and not only when you go to confession so that each day you have to face your practice of or failure with virtue
- Place everything into the merciful hands of Christ, perhaps by often repeating what is known as the Jesus Prayer – Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner