Metanoia: Meta-what?

By Justin Thirstrup

Pastoral Associate for Outreach

This year, Wednesday, February 22nd will be remembered as Ash Wednesday by many Christians.  If you see someone walking around with a black splotch on their forehead, chances are good that this person is a Christian.  The ashes are worn by Christians as a sign of repentance to God.  Ash Wednesday also begins the season of Lent for Western Christianity.  In the Catholic cycle of feasts and seasons, Lent is designated as a season of forty days in which believers make penitential preparations for the celebration of Easter.  Those preparations may take the form of prayer, penance, almsgiving, or some sort of self-denial.  As a result, the season takes on a relatively somber mood.

Lent has always been my least favorite time of the year.  To put it simply, it seems like Lent is a time of the year when the Church encourages people to be unhappy.  All of the beautiful flowers and decorations are taken away.  We no longer sing the joyful “Gloria” or beautiful “Alleluia.”  Penitential purples set the mood as the liturgical color of the season.  The nature of Lent also encourages people to make some sort of sacrifice in their life.  On certain days we fast, and on other days we abstain from eating meat.  Some people may talk about what they are “giving up” for Lent.

That last practice never really had much meaning for me.  As a child, I would give up candy or pop or something else that I really enjoyed.  Most years I would be good and keep up the practice for the full forty days; but at the end of Lent, I never really felt like I made much of a sacrifice for God.

A few years ago, someone suggested that instead of “giving something up,” I might try “taking something on.”  That seemed like a promising idea, so I gave it a shot.  One year, I vowed to do more service.  Another year, I promised to spend more time in prayer.  It was nice to take on these tasks, and for the most part, I again stayed very faithful for the full forty days.  When Lent was over, however, I still found little fulfillment with the season.

It wasn’t until last year that I realized what my problem with Lent really was.  While on a Lenten retreat, I was introduced to the idea of “metanoia.”  This Greek word is often translated as “repentance” but it more accurately reflects the idea of “changing one’s mind.”  To date, I have been so dissatisfied with Lent because I was limiting myself to a practice for just forty days.  To be truly useful, Lent should be about a life-long conversion—a true transformation of the mind.

The concept of “metanoia” has become a very powerful one for me—so much so that I have incorporated it into the Lenten practice I am going to take on this year.  For the next forty days, my goal is to transform the way I look at the season of Lent.  Rather than just see it as a season of doom and gloom, I hope to find a new meaning in it through practices that recommit me to my faith.  I’m not promising Lent is going to become my new favorite liturgical season, but I hope to at least find some positive meaning in it.  Hopefully, then, in years to come, I won’t approach the season of Lent with so much dread…  In fact, I hope Lent will become a very meaningful time of the year for me.  I wish the same for all of you on a Lenten journey.

It may be an oxymoron, but with an open mind ready for change, I wish all of you a “Happy Lent!”  Here’s to the journey of conversion!