The Metanoia Blues
Metanoia. Literally repentance or penance. The term is regularly used in the Greek New Testament, especially in the Gospels and the preaching of the Apostles… It means a change of heart from sin to the practice of virtue. As conversion, it is fundamental to the teaching of Christ, was the first thing demanded by Peter on Pentecost, and is considered essential to the pursuit of Christian perfection.
Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary
In my Secular Franciscan formation meetings, the topic of conversion comes up all the time. This is because the Franciscan Order asks us to experience conversion every day. But what does this mean in practice? Our talk of conversion almost always begins with the grand accounts of the big, famous, sudden metanoia experiences of the saints, like St. Paul getting blinded and knocked off his horse. Is this the sort of thing we are supposed to experience every day?
None of the people at the formation meeting claim to have had a big conversion experience. Since we believe that on the level of total commitment some sort of conversion or change of heart (metanoia) is necessary, the question sometimes comes up that if one has not had a “big bang” radical experience, does that mean that one is not converted in the same sense that Paul was?
As it happens, I believe that I did have one of these kinds of conversion experiences on the Feast of St. Mark in 2008. I don’t generally like to talk about it because of the way that people look at me when I do. For all of the talk of spirituality one hears these days, our society is not really friendly to the idea of mystical experiences. But then I’m sitting at the table with the Formation Director and my fellow candidates, all of whom seem to me to be far better Christians and Catholics than I am, yet they all wonder whether they have had this change of heart yet. So I have to think about what happened to me, what it meant, and what it didn’t mean.
When we think of conversion experiences in the abstract, we often tend to focus on the before and the after. (I once was lost and now am found; was blind but now can see.) Despite the fact that the Biblical account of Paul’s conversion makes it sound like a very unpleasant experience (to say the least), we often use a sort of flowery mystical language to talk about the post conversion person. And I think this causes people to picture the moment of conversion itself as Audrey Hepburn being carried to the heavens on a fluffy cloud while cherubs float around her, playing harps and sprinkling her with angel dust.
I think of my own experience a bit differently.
I once read an interview of a one legged man who was asked what was the happiest moment of his life. He answered something like this. “The happiest moment of my life was one beautiful day when I was swimming in the warm gulf water with the sun on my back. Suddenly, a shark grabbed my leg just below the knee and thrashing and tugging started to pull me under the water. Although I am a very strong and confident swimmer, I knew at that moment that I was about to die a very terrible death and there was nothing whatsoever I could do about it. The happiest moment of my life was when I saw my leg come off in the shark’s mouth and I knew that I just might have a chance to get away and survive and live again.
This is a fair description of my conversion experience.
It is probably not common in the literature for the wonderful gift of metanoia to be compared with having a shark chew off one’s leg. But this is the sort of image that I, at least, need to convey to answer questions people have, like: “How did I know I had a metaphysical experience?” “How did I know I had a religious experience?” “What changed with me, and what didn’t?”
I was one of those lapsed Catholics that one reads about and I came back into the Church by an accident. One afternoon some years ago, my wife called me at work and told me that in ten minutes a nun was going to call me about a mid-term fill-in position as a CCD teacher that my wife had volunteered me for (for God knows what reason). Then, without giving me any details, she said she had to run, she loved me, and good bye. About eleven minutes later, I was transformed into a rather guilt ridden CCD teacher. I was aware that I was a complete hypocrite, of course. But I took this as an opportunity to go to Confession. (“You haven’t been to Confession for FIVE YEARS and you think you want to become a WHAT next Sunday?!” said the priest, who fortunately was a Franciscan, because I had the distinct impression that he wanted to bang my head against a pew.)
The kids were wonderful but also terrible, for the nun had taken the opportunity with this newbie teacher to gather all of her very worst eggs into one basket, just for me. The religion book was shallow and incoherent, so I found myself reading a lot on the outside both to give the children some depth and so as not to appear as a complete idiot when they asked me the inevitable unanswerable questions. I managed to make my way to the end of the term, and then I signed up again for the next year. For in the meantime, I had gotten back into the habit of going to church and I also found that I was enjoying my reading. Very much.
The spiritual crisis that led to my metanoia occurred several years later and it took me utterly by surprise. There was no catalyst that I can remember. On the contrary; I felt that I was always making spiritual progress. It was during this period that I had finally learned to pray (as I have related elsewhere). My reading became deeper and broader, moving from histories and saints’ lives to the Bible and then to the philosophy of ethics and then even into some theology. (It helps to have a two hour ride on the train to work each day.) One day my wife, who has a masters degree in Religious Studies from a very good university, pulled a book out of my stack and said “What on earth is this? Are you crazy? Nobody reads Bernard Lonergan for pleasure! Absolutely nobody!” But I did and I felt rather proud of myself.
But at a certain point, out of the blue, I found myself becoming unsatisfied and then deeply unsatisfied with myself. It wasn’t any sort of aridity. I still felt that my prayer life was rewarding and I still felt an attachment to God. It wasn’t depression either, something that I had deep experience with. And it wasn’t even good old fashioned Catholic guilt, because the feeling had no particular object at all. But I felt more and more inadequate and shallow in a way that just seemed “spiritual” to me. And as it grew, it developed into a nagging sort of tension that would not leave me alone.
I started reading handbooks on spirituality and none of them helped. I then reread some books that I really love (my usual cure for the blues) but these made me feel bad as well. Finally I picked up a book that I had consciously avoided all my life; Merton’s Seven Story Mountain . I had avoided it because I could not believe that any book so popular could possibly be any good. I found it to be all right, and I felt that I could relate to what seemed to be Merton spending hundreds of pages being confused.
Then I read an episode where Merton is talking to his friend, the poet Robert Lax. Lax seemed to me to be one of the few truly saint-like people in the book. Merton asks him something like “What do you think it takes to become a saint?” And Lax replies something like “I guess in order to become a saint, you have to want to become one.”
This really struck me hard. Could someone aspire to become a saint? Didn’t someone have to already be a saint in order to do all of those saintly things that the saints did?
I think I finished the book but this inspirational passage, which I could not get out of my mind, made things much worse. I felt on edge all of the time. “You have to want to become one” kept echoing in my mind. Was I going insane? Or worse, was I turning into a religious fanatic?
Something told me that I’d better talk to someone. A Franciscan church that I used to pass on the way to work downtown advertised that one could walk in and make an immediate appointment with a friar. I firmly resolved that I would do this, and then of course I managed to procrastinate for a full week. But finally I ran out of excuses and with the tension within me almost unbearable, I dragged myself over to the church.
It took about 10 minutes before I found myself sitting across from a monk in a little consulting room. I couldn’t talk. I was sobbing by now. The poor priest probably had no idea what to make of me, sitting there in a suit crying like a baby. Gradually, he succeeded in calming me down but I was still babbling what sounded to me like a bunch of disorganized gibberish.
Let me tell you about the shark. The shark isn’t a shark. The shark is YOUR shark. In that moment in that room every sin that I had ever committed, every person I had ever hurt, every time I had been weak, all of it came rushing back to me, right before my eyes. One of the things that was so utterly awful was that I could see that this image I had built of myself, not just as a Christian but as a typical nice sort of guy was built on a lie. My core was built on a central irredeemable mediocrity. This was so terrifying because it was not only a vision of hell, it was a vision of a hell that I had built for myself personally. I felt like a murderer on a scaffold. I felt worthless and worse, utterly undeserving. “Something is happening to me” I managed to blurt out at one point. And the priest only smiled, and said “Yes.”
I find this hard to write about without referring to the particulars of my own concrete sinfulness because the concreteness of the experience is such a component part of it. So I am not going to do that. Instead I am going to talk about what I think was another conversion experience where I think we know some of the context.
I have a home a disturbing (because it is so vivid) drawing of St. Peter strangling a rooster. Peter looks as anguished as a drowning man and the tears are pouring down his face. This is a reference, of course, to the moment after the cock has crowed three times and Peter is brought face to face with the fact that Christ had told him a short time before that he, Peter, would betray Him before the sun was very high in the sky the next day. The Bible recounts Peter’s anguish very vividly as his very own shark grabbed him by the leg. For I believe that Peter suddenly realized that in betraying Christ he had not really loved Him. He’d only been infatuated with him. He had followed him everywhere, had hung on His every word and had even endured some privations. He had pledged his loyalty and now he knew that it had been a prideful lie. He knew he completely lacked the resources that he had thought he had. In the picture I have, Peter is strangling the rooster. But what he really wants to do is to strangle himself.
But we know that Peter did not strangle himself and that he not only survived and persevered, he became St. Peter. For Jesus had known full well before it happened that Peter would betray Him, and Christ could have already rejected him at that moment. But he didn’t. He had forgiven Peter even before Peter denied him. At the moment that the cock crowed, Peter had been stripped naked of all his illusions and knew that he did not deserve any mercy. But he had been forgiven, not only for the betrayal but for everything else. In a sense, he was reborn in a moment of radical understanding. He had received the gift of metanoia.
We moderns like to think that there is a sharp divide between our physical experiences, which are real and our metaphysical experiences which are not (or at least not in the same way). But conversion is really just a special form of a “metaphysical” experience that almost all of us have already experienced, falling in love. We have all also experienced infatuation and those of us who have experienced both infatuation and love can tell the difference between the two. But what really happens when we fall in love? The object of our love seems to change in some profound way. But has he or she in fact? It is we who have in fact changed. And if there is anything that can tell us that we are indeed in love and not merely infatuated, it is that we can suddenly see all of the weaknesses of the beloved (as well as the strengths) and we find ourselves not only loving them anyway in spite of them. We love them more because of them. Still, I may write the greatest poetry in the world about my love, but it will be utterly impossible for me to convince someone else to love them in the same way through any description that I can provide.
As the priest helped me work my way through my own terrible but wonderful experience of metanoia, I came out of it in love with God.
This gave me no special powers whatsoever. In fact, to put it bluntly, I emerged as precisely the same inadequate and pathetic person that I had been before. I was just as weak and inconsistent as I was with everyone else that I had ever loved. But I had crossed some sort of line where I could now see God in everyone. It is a glimpse of the fact that all people without exception are deserving of the same kind of love that those that we love now deserve and get from us (at least when we are at our best). I knew that I would have to fight against decades of bad habits and misguided attitudes. But somehow I felt confident that I might in fact be able to do this and even prevail, even though I am tempted every single day to believe that I in fact can’t and that I am absorbed in another lie. Love makes us want to love and sometimes love gives us the strength to do it. But there are never any guarantees, which any adult knows all too well.
There was a sort of proverb that I used to find a bit confusing, that went like this: If you love God you will fear God. I used to think that this could only mean that I should be afraid of God and His punishments and that, if I were persistent, I might come to love God or at least act like someone who does. But after my experience, my understanding of this changed. If I change the proverb by replacing “God” with someone that I know I love (like my wife) and say “if I love my wife I will fear my wife”, it seems to me that fear in this case means that I fear to betray my own love. I therefore cultivate a sort of watchfulness and protectiveness of my love. I don’t fear any sort of wrath. I fear being inadequate to my desire to love well. And this has to be cultivated every single day, for love knows no rest. In a very real way, when love is involved, we have to be converted every day.
I can report that after this experience I felt a very special joy and that this wonderful feeling lasted a good three weeks. I can see now why people pursue “metaphysical experiences” for themselves and why spiritual advisors warn us against this. After this first wonderful glow, I feel that I was left with something that for want of a better word I would describe as more “mature”. I feel that I have been exposed to a great responsibility now. The Spirit is real to me in a very tangible way that It wasn’t before. And I feel now as though I might have the inner resources to pursue this, although I know that there is no guarantee that I will be able to and that I now shall never know any rest from it.
Sometimes people seem a bit envious that I had this experience (when they are not incredulous). I am very glad to have received this gift. But I am also rather sorry that I was a person who had to be knocked off his high horse and that I was so old (relatively) when it happened. A few people, but not all people, need to experience love as a thunderbolt. For others it comes as a gentle but steady rain and they find themselves in love almost in spite of themselves. The important part is really the life giving rain, Not the thunderbolt.