Metanoia. A cornerstone concept of Christianity causes resentment in us. At least in me. Maybe resentment is the wrong word. But when I hear the word conversion, I’m initially on the defensive. I prefer Easter Sunday to Good Friday. At least emotionally. Maybe you’re further along and already so in sync with the Lord that the idea of conversion makes you more excited. Not with me. Something in me twitches at first. OK. It´s not the end of the world. I´m a priest after all. I should be used to Lent. And yet. Starting at around 4 p.m. on Ash Wednesday, I really start looking forward to breakfast the next day.
A whole new way of seeing the concept of “Metanoia” dawned on me flying to the United States at the end of January. My computer ran out of battery so I started to read Monsignor James P. Shea incredibly insightful and paradigm shifting essay „From Christentdom to Apostolic Mission“. Unfortunately this text does not exist in German (yet…working on it) – but with some adaptation to our European Context it has a lot to say, yes to the US, but perhaps even more to us, as we are so much further in the secularization process. Here I want to highlight one idea of his and apply it to one aspect of our personal life in view of this Lenten Season.
When Paul speaks of conversion in his letters, he uses the word “metanoia.” A change of thinking. First and foremost, becoming a Christian requires a radical change in our way of thinking. And that’s a real challenge. Because the point is not that conversion to the Christian faith should lead us to change some of our ways of thinking. The challenge and the request are much more fundamental. It’s about the willingness and the real effort to see EVERYTHING differently.* That is to say: the gospel shines a light on reality that places this reality in a different light. Of course, one rejoices when one sees that some thought patterns of an epoch do not contradict or come quite close to the gospel view. But the point of reference is not the point of view of the epoch or the group or my political party, but the gospel. Where this does not happen, the evangelization of a group, of an individual, of a country, of a cultural entity, remains very superficial.
It’s not that easy to break out of certain thought patterns, because certain ways of thinking are simply taken for granted. They are not questioned. It wouldn’t even occur to you to question them. Not because they are rational or irrational, but simply because they are the mainstream narrative. I was just in the US. But came back to Austria on Super Bowl Weekend. And was pitied for it. You poor thing. You could miss the superbowl. What a tragedy. I am slightly exaggerating but not much. It did not even occur to my interlocutor that as a Canadian-German-British living in Austria, it just could be the case that the Superbowl is not on my bucket list of my most important events of the year. And…what Austrian today would seriously question whether democracy should be the best form of government for his country? Which party… that’s another question, but democracy itself is not in question. Or, who would seriously say today that Nazi-totalitarianism is a good thing? Not because there would be no rational reason for it its rebuttal. But most people don’t think about those reasons. One just accepts that this is the way it is.
Take another example. Progress. How often do we hear some form of „we’re not in the Middle Ages anymore!“ from Christians. Behind it is a narrative view, a view of the world that there is constant progress in the world for the better. That is, the constant progress of technical innovation is superimposed on the moral development of mankind. As if exactly the same had to happen in the moral realm as well as in the technical realm. And these narratives are not questioned at all. It just is. Even if history has shown the exact opposite over and over again. The values of an epoch have to be internalized again and again by a generation or by individuals. Something is not good simply because it is new or because it corresponds to what the majority thinks today. Something is not morally „more perfect“ simply because we are now living in the 21st century instead of the 16th. „He’s a dinosaur!“, „He lives in the past!“ – the Nazis also claimed that. As Pope Benedikt remembered in one of his books, the concept of progress has replaced the concept of truth. But if there is not truth, then there is no north star, no point of criterium what progress is and what it is not. It is left to the strongest power to decide. This is why relativism tends ultimately to lead to dictatorship.
As Msgr. Shea reminds us, for centuries we have had a condition where many of the basic assumptions of society have been Christian. This does not mean that people have also lived as Christians. But when Bernard of Clairvaux or Teresa of Avila or Vincent de Paul called for conversion, this conversion often found an echo that is almost incomprehensible to us today. Whole cities, whole regions and great masses of people have been „converted“. This preaching was also so effective because these people already shared many basic assumptions with these saints, even if they did not live them or had to be awakened from deep sleep. But that is fundamentally different today.
In early Christianity, the Gentiles converted by Paul had to learn from the ground up to think differently. Above all. And so, perhaps, one can also understand why the catechumens, that is, the candidates for baptism, were led on such a long journey in the early Church before they were baptized. They had to learn to think in a completely new way. They had to practice a new worldview that was profoundly different in the society of the time. Put off the old man and put on the new man. Through the three immersions, baptism reminded us how fundamental conversion was – and had to be: a real death with Christ in order to be raised with him.
Lent is just around the corner. And I want to invite you, but also myself, not to be superficial about this Lent. Let us ask the Lord to help us to see where in our lives we have warped the gospel by our neo-pagan patterns of thought. Where the purity of the gospel message has left little or no imprint. Where I’m permeated by thought patterns „because that’s the way it is“, which have nothing to do with the real gospel or Our Lord Jesus Christ.
But how can we do such soul searching? The first thing that comes to mind is Spiritual Exercises. Below a few suggestions on how and where. Things are often so hidden and so intertwined with one’s own self-image and self-understanding that it takes a long time of examination and prayer to even recognize them. Spiritual Direction can also help. It is not always easy to find a spiritual director who brings a good match between formation of faith, spiritual depth, deep understanding of what it means to be a Christian today and balance. But it’s worth searching without falling into perfectionism.
Another help, perhaps especially during Lent: to discover or rediscover the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Maybe also to deal with topics that I find particularly difficult. But the Catechism is a good introduction to a Christian view of the world. Certain aspects, especially of Christian morality, cannot be understood at all if one does not first have a holistic Christian worldview. Finally, I would like to recommend the daily examination of conscience. Examination of conscience is all about seeing how God works in our lives, and especially about discovering the deeper motivations and motivations behind our actions, to see where and how he really shapes my life and how not. In this regard I highly recommend Timothy Gallagher’s book, The Examen Prayer.
Metanoia. May the Lord help us see new, think new. Many blessings now also in this Lentan Season!
Fr. George LC