Metanoia. Or, μετάνοια. It signifies repentance, a change of mind, a turning. It has also become something of a running theme with my Catholic friends—a quirky theme, to be sure, and really only because this word has dictated so much of our collective religious outlook through college…and for such a long time, I’d not really grasped the meaning of this word at all.
The holy name of God in the Old Testament, YHWH as anglicized from the Hebrew, was such a name that could only be spoken by the high priest—and only then once a year—for its very utterance manifested the identity of that which was invoked: the Lord of the universe. To proclaim the name of God was, in some capacity, to claim to partake in the identity of God as well. I now have the impression that μετάνοια takes on an identity within the human being analog to that of the divine name with the Divine Being. What does this mean? Embedded within both of these words—“metanoia” and “YHWH”—is a sort of act of becoming. Their full import is more truly embodied than merely understood.
Metanoia comes to us as we live it. It is then that we begin to understand it. St. Ambrose, prefacing his Prosologion, professes that “I believe in order to understand.” Proper knowledge of God comes in trust and surrender, not in cold, distant examination. This was a lesson I learned later than many. For much too long a time I had been living in a spiritual darkness that encompassed much of high school and even my time here—in this place of such spiritual wealth!—until early into this semester. During this time I did not live by the belief of St. Ambrose, but tried to reverse it, seeking to wrap my mind entirely around what I thought God willed for me before some calculated decision of whether to dedicate myself to that, or to follow my own ends. My own ends always won; who can claim to see the designs of God without having faith in those designs?
Very recently, a singular, undeserved moment of greatest grace from the Spirit brought me out of this mire into the light of God for the first time in years. It seems appropriate in retrospect that this moment should come as we were approaching the season of Lent. Lent is classically characterized as a season of penitence; it’s a descriptor we hear so many times. “A season of metanoia” may be a better one—not for any substantive change of meaning it brings but for its breadth of meaning. Just as God is eternally in the process of sustaining the universe, of calling it into being, so are we human pilgrims, as long as we are on this earth, in the constant process of turning to God and away from our fallen desires, becoming more like God the more we lower ourselves. This is something like metanoia’s essence.
My friends had introduced me to the idea of metanoia back in freshman year, planting the seed for it to become a persistent subject in my mind. Even now it revives itself—it was not long after my reversion experience that one of them suggested starting a publication with metanoia as its theme. It’s funny how God’s timing works.
Spiritually, I still feel like an infant. A one-month-old operating within the psyche of a twenty-year-old. “Always, we begin again,” says St. Benedict. I have recently had to take that to heart more than I thought I ever would. Opening the self to God’s will is a new sort of ache when one is not habituated to it, and the darkness I’d built in myself over such a long period sometimes threatens to blot out what I can see of the Light—but at least I am now vying for that light, running for the prize.