While repentance is a year-round, daily practice for all disciples of Jesus, we’re aided by the Lenten season when we particularly focus on this practice. Repentance isn’t about being sorry for our sins, although personal sorrow is probably an appropriate emotion we experience while repenting. Repenting isn’t a feeling or an idea. Repentance is an action where we intentionally seek to change our understanding of ourselves in relationship to God, and consequently, the way we live in the world. The Greek word for repentance in the Bible, metanoia, literally means: “to change our understanding.”
A story that instructs me in my repentance is the story of a rather obscure saint of the Church. Her name was St Mary of Egypt. In her early life, Mary was a prostitute in Alexandria, Egypt. One day, she went to exercise her profession down at the boat docks and there saw two groups of men. One was a group she knew well, a group of sailors. The other group was a group of Christians heading for Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. Without thinking, she decided to go with the pilgrims to Jerusalem. Her life story even reports that she exercised her profession among, shall we say, the less mature pilgrims on the boat trip to Jerusalem.
When they arrived in Jerusalem she had a profound experience. She went with the pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is the Church built on the place of Jesus’ crucifixion. She saw the pilgrims enter the Church and she tried to enter with them. But when she tried to enter, she couldn’t. A force she couldn’t see was keeping her out. She tried again to enter, but to no avail. She left the Church’s entrance and ran into the city. She spent the day repenting of all that she had done throughout her life that had obstructed her relationship with God. The next day she entered the Church. She left a changed person. She had changed her understanding of herself, of God, and of her life in the world.
She spent the rest of her life, over 40 years, in the desert south of Jerusalem. There she lived in prayer and praise of God. We’d know nothing of her life, if it hadn’t been for a monk, Abba Zosimas, who accidentally came upon her, a naked old woman, in the desert when he went there for solitary prayer. At their meeting, she told him her life story. But before she did, this is what she said to him: “I am ashamed, Abba, to speak to you of my disgraceful life, forgive me for God’s sake! But when I start my story you will run from me, as from a snake, for your ears will not be able to bear the vileness of my actions. But I shall tell you all without hiding anything, only imploring you first of all to pray incessantly for me, so that I may find mercy on the day of Judgment.”
Notice the honesty and humility of her words. Not present are the arrogant and entitled words that we so often hear today. Her words do not presume a sense of deserving anything, yet they are filled with the hope of God’s love. St Mary of Egypt saw herself clearly and changed her understanding. She repented. Her life story invites us to do the same, trusting that when we do, God will not run from us, “as from a snake,” but rather that God’s mercy will envelop us “on the day of Judgment.”