R – Repentance-
On the feast of Pentecost the Jews celebrated the day on which God had given the Law to Moses. However the first Pentecost after the Resurrection was the day on which God gave his new law – the law of love. This law was not primarily a list of rules and regulations like the laws that were given to Moses, but the same personal love that God had showered on Jesus. It was this love that enabled Jesus to practise to perfection the New Commandments that he taught his disciples. Namely, to Love God with their whole hearts and minds, and with their whole being, as he did, and to love others as he did too, and still does. What had been given to Jesus throughout his life on earth, had been given in full measure after his Resurrection, and in such a way, that he would be able to give it to others to inaugurate a new era – the Kingdom of Love. After the Resurrection the unique and transcendental love that Jesus had received from God enabled him to love not just one person, or even a group of persons, as he had done before, but every person alive at that time and in time to come, who would believe in his love and who would freely chose to receive it. So when the crowds who had gathered on the first Pentecost, demanded to know how they could receive the love of the Holy Spirit, St Peter told them that they should repent.
Justice and Peace, Goodness and Truth.
When he told them to repent, he was telling them, in language that they understood, how to turn to receive this love that had already begun to change him and his friends, as they could see for themselves. In other words they had to turn away from the adolescent world in which they had been living, where self-seeking, self- indulgence and self-absorption was the norm, in order to turn to be filled with the love of Jesus, his Holy Spirit. This love would take them out of themselves and into the new world order that Jesus had come to inaugurate. In this world, love would transform them, by enabling them to enter into the risen Christ to experience the fullness of love that deep down every human being yearns for more than anything else, because it is this that they were born for in the first place. The fruits of this love – justice and peace, goodness and truth, and the flowering of all the virtues, would be seen embodied in his followers, as they had been embodied in his life on earth.
The love that had been unleashed by the Risen Christ would never stop pouring out now and for always, but it would only be received by those who choose to turn to receive it, or in the words of St Peter, who choose to repent. Every Jew knew what it meant to repent, it meant turning back to God, for that’s what the word repentance had meant throughout the whole of the Old Testament. However, for Jesus, this traditional word took on a new meaning. For the first time Jesus had taught his followers that God was none other than their ever- loving Dad, and repentance therefore, meant turning back to him and to the true home where we had all originally been conceived, and to where we were all to return. Interestingly enough, the word Shub in Hebrew and in Aramaic for that matter, actually means to return. The prophet Isaiah uses this word as Jesus was to use it later, namely of the return of errant sons back to their Father. Jesus had come from the home where we had all been conceived, to take us back with him to live with him in a family bonded together by the love that endlessly surges out of his Father, to enjoy utter, ongoing and ever-increasing joy to all eternity.
Many of those who listened to him had an immediate conversion experience. The love that had touched the apostles touched them, and they wanted to change their lives immediately. A conversion experience is one thing, but repentance is quite another. Repentance means turning to receive the love, that is forever pouring out of Jesus, not once, but time and time again. How? By relentlessly turning away from all and everything that would impede it, even though this might mean a complete and radical change of life.
Conversion and Repentance
God the Father lives outside of space and time in eternity. In him there were no yesterdays, nor any tomorrows, there are no befores or afters, he simply is, now, in the present moment. Here he is utterly engrossed in, and enjoying the life of uninterrupted loving. When Jesus rose from the dead to be united with God his Father, it meant that he too was taken outside of space and time where his utter delight and joy is, not just to love and experience his Father’s love, but to become the means by which, what he receives from his Father, is channelled to those who he left behind, as he promised at the Last Supper. Now God is only alive and loving now in this present moment, so it is only now that believers can turn to receive his loving, by continually repenting here and now. The time for repenting then is here and now in the present moment, because the present moment is the only time when this can be done. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is to come, it is therefore only now that a person can turn to God to receive what is relentlessly pouring out of him.
The Sacrament of the Present Moment
Jean Pierre de Caussade SJ called the present moment a sacrament, because it is only now that a person can abandon themselves to the love of God. The only way to do this, is not by making a grand gesture, as people often do after a conversion experience, but by freely choosing to repent here and now today, and repeatedly every day, in the sacrament of the present moment. First thing in the morning is invariably a short time in which to make the morning offering, so sometime later in the day, or at the end of the day, it is good to to look ahead to the forthcoming day. While the failures of the present day are still fresh in the mind, it is a perfect opportunity to resolve to try more effectively in the day that is to come. It is a time to remember that every moment of the forthcoming day is a sacred moment, when we can keep repenting, by continually turning to God in, and through everything that has to be done, through all the joys and sorrows that the day may bring, so that at no time are we separated from the love of God. This is what Jesus means by the ‘prayer without ceasing’.
This was the prayer that the first Christians tried to attain above all else. A human being is not changed permanently for the better by a single choice, but by choosing to love again and again, day in day out, and every moment of every day. When a person marries they do not stop loving, but by their very choice they are choosing to love again, and again on every day of their lives, ‘in sickness and in health’ until death. The first Christians, like the Desert Fathers who followed them, would chose a word, a phrase ,or a brief sentence from the scriptures which they would use in between the times set aside for prayer, to help them keep their hearts and minds continually upon God is such a way, that they would come as near as possible to attaining the ideal to which they all aspired – The Prayer without ceasing.
The Journey into Transformation
The first Christian writers used many different similes to explain the nature and meaning of the journey back home to the Father, and to the loving family of which even the most perfect of families here on earth are but distant shadows. Perhaps the most common simile was that of the journey made by the first Jews, who fled from slavery in Egypt to freedom in their new home in the Promised Land. I have already referred to another simile used by the Fathers of the Church. It was the simile of a ladder reaching onwards and upwards from this world to the next, based on Jacob’s mystical dream. Later writers used the same idea to outline what they called ‘the ladder of perfection’, ‘the ladder of ascent’ or similar titles that enabled them to develop their spiritual teaching, detailing the way home.
Mystical writers, like St Teresa of Avila for instance, often found the example of climbing a mountain, like ‘The Ascent of Mount Carmel’ to develop their mystical theology. Ever since ancient times it was believed that God dwelt on top of the highest mountains, like Mt Sinai, where people like Moses encountered him. However I want to use another simile that is far more prosaic to explain how we are transformed into Christ, as we begin and continue to make our way back to the only home that will ultimately satisfy us.
One of the more formidable challenges that we used to dare one another to do, when we were children, was to run up the downward escalators in our local department store. It was much later however, reflecting on my misspent youth, that I came to see that this was the perfect analogy for the journey for the spiritual ascent, at least that’s what it became for me. So in the hope that it might be helpful to you too, let me explain how this secular simile has helped me to understand the journey back home.
Firstly, unlike the other more ancient and the more poetic examples, there can be no standing still, for the moment you try to stay where you are, you are on the way down again. In the spiritual life it is imperative to realise that progress means to keep moving forwards at all times, albeit slowly and gently – Festina Lente! It takes many years, if not a life time, or even longer to reach the top of the spiritual escalator that I have in mind. If a person tries to mount it at speed, thinking that they can reach the top by their own endeavour alone, then failure is only a matter of time. When exhaustion forces them to stop, as it will, they will be on their way down again and back to where they started before they have time to catch their breath.
A person whose arrogance has led them to believe that they can take heaven by storm by their own unaided efforts, will inevitably fail, no matter how many times they try. Their failures usually convince them to settle for mediocrity long before they are put out to pasture. When the patient, gentle, but consistent tread of a person embodies their deeply held conviction that of themselves, they will never achieve their objective, their humility will always induce the Holy Spirit to reach out, to infuse into them all that is required to complete their journey home.
The One Who Makes All Things New.
When the Holy Spirit begins to act, he first strikes the mind like a shaft of light, enabling the believer to see with a depth of wisdom and understanding that they have never experienced before. Then he strikes the heart, to suffuse weak human love with the divine. Only then will they be empowered to love God, as they had never been able to love him before.
Their weak human faith grows like never before, and hope for what is to come, and for who is to come, grows deeper every day with the experience of his presence within. Then gradually, in years rather than months, as the climber continues, the loving presence within expands, sweeping away all that once corrupted what St Paul called ‘the old man,’ replacing him with ‘The New Man’ with whom, and in whom, we journey on to our true home, that we have never even imagined, even in our wildest dreams.