…Create in me a contrite heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit…
The gradual psalm we prayed together moments ago, Psalm 51, is the same psalm we prayed aloud in the Ash Wednesday liturgy as we began the season of Lent: “Create in me a contrite heart, O God…”[i] The English word, “contrite,” comes from the Latin, contrītus, which means “thoroughly crushed.” The energy around the word “contrite” is not a prayer that our heart be broken. It’s already happened. Contrition is a state you realize: “I’m just crushed.” If you’ve ever said that or felt that – “I’m just crushed.” – because of something sad or bad that has happened in your life, you will understand the essence of contrition. It’s just that contrition is feeling crushed from the inside out. You are not just the victim; you are also the culprit. Contrition is the dawning of regret or remorse about something you know to be wrong in your life.
To pray for a contrite heart is asking for two things. First, that we be given a like-new heart. The prophet Ezekiel says, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”[ii] Contrition is not a heart bypass procedure. Contrition is a heart transplant, a like-new heart. Secondly, to pray for a contrite heart is asking for God’s aid in our new heart’s being broken open with compassion and compunction for the needs of the world that surrounds us, a world that God so loves.
There’s a word for this heart-transplant procedure, a word that shows up repeatedly in the Scriptures and in the vocabulary of the church: repent.[iii] Repentance is centered in the heart, the heart symbolizing the center of who we are. Repentance is how we cooperate and participate in what God, the Great Physician, is doing in this heart procedure. Repentance comes from our realization how we had it wrong: something we have done or left undone, said or left unsaid, and we know it to be wrong, regrettably. Our need to repent may come from a realization about an interaction we had which we now see and admit was not right. Our interaction was mistaken, or mean, or unkind, or fueled by our jealousy, or by our covert spirit of revenge. Or our sense of need to repent may come from an attack we brazenly made on someone out in the open, or in the secret recesses of our heart. Our sense of need to repent may come from an ignoble habit how we have navigated life, a pattern of life that may have snowballed out of control. Repentance comes from the searing awareness how we’ve been in the wrong. Our need to repent comes from the inside out. Repentance is fueled by regret and sorrow. Repentance is both better and worse than you might imagine.
Repentance is a constant theme during the season of Lent. It’s as if to say we must be prone to get it wrong on a regular basis, in small and big ways. Today we began our liturgy with a confession of sin. We did not first take a survey here in the congregation, asking whether any of us had need for the making a confession of sin. Show of hands? No. Rather, we just moved ahead with the confession, presuming that all of us here were in need of making our confession. It’s the presumption that all of us arrived aware that somehow, somewhere, with at least someone, we’ve missed the mark, gone astray, and that realization is weighing upon us, perhaps imprisoning us. That’s why repentance is worse than you might imagine. Repentance points to such a pervasive problem in life: getting it wrong, in big ways and small ways… and the realization we need to change our ways. That’s the bad news. The Gospel is bad news before it’s good news.
The good news is this is what Jesus is all about. Jesus presumes we’re like lost sheep needing to be rescued on a regular basis.[iv] Jesus has come to seek and to save the lost, and that’s talking about us, most every day.[v] C. S. Lewis says that repentance is not something God demands of you before God will take you back and could let you off the hook.[vi] Repentance is simply a description of what going back is like. That’s the good news coming out of the bad news. Repentance is an intervention. Jesus presumes our need to be rescued; Jesus provides for us the way.
Here’s a suggestion how the bad news/good news of repentance could figure into your daily life. It’s a daily practice you could incorporate into the remaining days of Lent. It might even become habitual, a good habit, that you carry on in life. My suggestion is what Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th century founder of the Jesuits, encourages on a daily basis, what he calls “the manifestation of conscience” or “manifestation of consciousness.”[vii] Sometime before the close of the day, turn around and look back on your day. Rehearse your day as you navigated from one thing to the next.
- Give thanks to God for the enormous privilege of being alive, and for so much good that surrounds and fills your life. Take nothing for granted. Express your thanks to God as you remember what was good that transpired in the course of your day. What was good that you took in through your senses, through your interaction with people and with the other creatures of life. Give thanks for your own gifts, and abilities, and creativity you tapped in the course of the day. Give thanks for the amazing goodness of the day.
- Look where you missed the mark. In your interactions with other people – passing strangers or people whom you know, perhaps know well – where did you get it wrong? What you said or left unsaid, did or left undone, what was going on publicly or going on privately in your own head: where did you get it wrong? Include your relationship with your own self. We can be our own worst enemies. You might be aware of some event, some interchange as you look back on the day where you were out of sync with yourself, where you were dismissive of yourself, where you broke your own integrity, and you know it, regrettably.
Repentance is not a spiritual callisthenic that we initiate. Repentance happens at God’s initiative and with our awareness and our collaboration: God operating and we co-operating.
I shared a conversation with a man who came to talk about his life. A lot of good things going on. And then some bad things. Some of the bad was in troubling interactions where, as he said, he had blown it. More troubling to him were his character flaws: certain ways he habitually acted and interacted. And it wasn’t right, he knew it. He said, in his despair, “I’m trapped. I don’t think I’ll ever change.” Lots of sorrow; quite a few tears. “I don’t think I’ll ever change,” he said again in despair. And he asked me what I thought. I told him he had chosen the wrong religion. Christianity, at its core, presumes both that we need to change and that we can change. That’s Jesus’ message to us all, and it comes at his initiative and with his power to make it possible. We need to change, and we can. And that’s the fuel of repentance. And, at least for this old monk, it’s something I’m in touch with on a daily basis: both the need and the grace to change. If you feel stuck and presume you cannot change, I beg differ.
Here’s what could be a lenten discipline for the remaining days of Lent. Practice this review of the day, what I’ve already suggested, reviewing where you are grateful, and where you missed the mark that day. And then take Jesus at his word. Repentance is to claim Jesus’ promise he is intent upon creating in each of us a new heart, a new way in a new day how we relate to our own self, and to others, and to God: with a free, open, compassionate, generous heart. Repentance is necessary or our heart will harden because life is so hard, if left to our own devices.
Pray for the grace to enable repentance, this new-heart procedure, and then one other suggestion. Repentance needs a companion. Following Jesus is not a solo act. Repentance comes from the inside out; repentance is enabled by the outside in. We need help, all of us do, to be able to claim what Jesus promises. Find a soulmate. Pray for a soulmate who can incarnate what Jesus promises: someone you trust, who can beam God’s light, and life, and love onto you. This person could be a friend, a neighbor, a partner, a spouse, a mentor, a therapist, a sponsor… someone who can help you wrap your heart around what Jesus intends for you: a new heart, someone who can beam God’s light, and life, and love onto you, the fruit of repentance. You are worth it.
Come, Lord Jesus.[viii]
[i] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 266.
[ii] Ezekiel 36:26.
[iii] The English word translated as “repentance” is from a Greek word, μετάνοια: a preposition “meta” (after) and “noia” (to think or observe). Repentance is gleaned from what we realize, regrettably, in hindsight.
[iv]Jesus speaks about our being “lost sheep” in Matthew 18:12-14 and Luke15:3-7.
[vi]C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, pp. 38-39.
[vii]St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), in his “Examen of Conscience” or “The Examen of Consciousness.”
[viii]An invocation from I Corinthians 16:22.
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