“Repentance makes room for joy within us” –Phoebe Farag Mikhail
Nearly half-way into Phoebe Farag Mikhail’s gentle guidebook, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift your Spirit from the Early Church” is a chapter on repentance. And about half-way into that chapter I set down the book. Something was snagging at the corner of my mind, flapping in the wind of introspection her words had provoked.
Farag Mikhail centers her repentance chapter on the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the gospel account of Samaritan woman, both liturgical readings of the Lenten and Paschal seasons. In recounting these passages she turns the traditional repentance narrative of shame on its head by focusing instead on the outpouring of joy that comes as a result of contrition. The repentance of the prodigal son brings about “a party in heaven and on earth,” and the repentance of the Samaritan woman after her encounter with Christ brings joy as her life is completely transformed, and–as a result–so also is her community.
Farag Mikhail references the Greek word “metanoia” to describe the change that precipitates joy: “a complete turning around.” Metanoia, which we translate as “repentance” in English, can also be understood as a change of heart and a turning away from a life of sin.
And here was my snag. We are all quite familiar with these life-changing conversion stories, but quite frankly, it is hard to imagine this kind of life-change for myself now. I was raised in a Christian household, and it’s been thirty years since my baptism and twenty-six years since I was chrismated in the Orthodox church. For over two decades I have worked for Orthodox organizations, surrounded by volumes of theology, icons, priests. For better or worse, the Lenten reading of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican hits home more than the stories of the prodigal son or Samaritan woman.
For example, while hearing the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee read a few weeks ago, I was struck by the unpleasant revelation that I had recently thought something akin to the words of the Pharisee, “Thank God I’m not like that person.” I live in the beautiful city of Portland, Oregon, where hiking and upcycling are the common “religious” activities of my neighbors. In the last few years, perhaps as a result of the pandemic, homelessness and crime have taken over many parts of the city. It is impossible not to notice the mushrooming of encampments–little slums of tarps, trash, and misery–nestled into every underpass, strip of public land, or park. Eyeing a particularly filthy campsite, I recently caught myself entertaining a disturbingly pharisaical gloat. I mean, afterall, if I had to live under an overpass in a tent, at least *I* would keep it tidy!
When I picked up “Putting Joy into Practice” a few days later, I was reminded that repentance is not just for those who dramatically turn from a string of dubious life choices or outright evil. Farag Mikhail goes on, “The life of a Christian is the life of one who falls and gets up, falls and gets up… a life of continual metanoia, and therefore a life of continual joy.” Of course I know this: but obviously for all my “churchiness” I still need to be reminded. All repentance is an encounter with Christ, in each moment we are the prodigal son turning back home to ask forgiveness of his father, or the Samaritan woman freed from her shame and fear. That moment of inward repentance is everything: our hearts find spaciousness, courage, generosity, and of course, joy.
It would be a fitting conclusion to say that I now volunteer to help tidy up homeless encampments or pass out food, but alas, I have not taken such courageous steps. I am, however, guarding my mind against indifference, or worse: self-congratulatory thoughts as I drive past sodden tents. And here I am repenting, publicly, of my hard heart. It is Lent after all, and I am writing about repentance.