The Irish Times

Being honest with ourselves and with God


Many of us might be tempted to run for cover when the need for repentance is underlined in tomorrow’s gospel reading. The words attributed to John the Baptist are not likely to be found on church notice boards or websites anxious to make people feel welcome: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

But dig a little deeper into the text and note what he is really saying: Yes, he is a plain speaker and repentance is his message but as various groups ask him what is required of them his response seems quite reasonable: those with more clothes than they need can give some to the destitute; tax collectors should stop falsifying their accounts to satisfy their greed; soldiers should live within their means and stop abusing power. These responses are not the whole story but they begin a process of turning people’s lives in a new direction which is what repentance – in Greek metanoein – means.

But this should not be seen as some kind of moral burden placed upon us, an exercise in “do-gooding”. Rather it is about personal liberation and developmen­t, a discovery of true self freed from the hang-ups that too often stifle our minds and spirits. It is probably true to say that there is not a single person anywhere who in the secret of their hearts and minds does not have regrets about things done, things said in the past, personal failures of one kind or another that are a source of painful memory. Even where we go through a process of confession and absolution we can be left with a kind of moral or spiritual scar tissue that simply will not go away. We can be prisoners of our past.

Older Dubliners will remember Lambert Brien, a hardware shop in Grafton Street. One day a woman walked in and asked to speak to the person in charge. She told him that about 20 years previously she had taken an expensive set of drinking glasses from the shop without paying. It had troubled her ever since and now she wanted to pay for them. His response was to decline the offer of money and instead gave her a gift in acknowledg­ement of her honesty. She left a new woman, freed from the guilt that had troubled her for years.

In his book True Wilderness, Fr Harry Williams , an Anglican theologian and religious, points to the value of repentance: “When Jesus urged his people to repent he was urging them to become as little children. He wasn’t asking them to eat the dust. He was confrontin­g them with the necessity of a radical change of outlook, a fundamenta­l reorientat­ion of their lives so that they would no longer trust for security in the persona they had built up . . . so that they would no longer trust that, but have the courage to become as receptive as little children, with all the openness to life , the taking down of the shutters and the throwing away of the armour which that entails . . . That is what repentance means: discoverin­g that you have more to you than you dreamt or knew, becoming bored with being only a quarter of what you are and therefore taking the risk of surrenderi­ng to the whole, and thus finding more abundant life. It is obvious how important repentance is for the Christian.”

Repentance is not just about being honest with ourselves but also with God who knows who we really are; there is no point in pretending to be someone else. Knowing that he accepts us as we truly are is, as the epistle reading reminds us, a cause for rejoicing and more: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplicati­on with thanksgivi­ng let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understand­ing, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Gordon’s Linney’s book Thinking Anew – Faith in a World of Change and Doubt (Columba Press) is available in bookshops. The author’s royalties have been donated to the Laura Lynn Children’s Hospice.

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