The readings this week again invite us to reflect on sin and repentance so that our hearts may burn with love. Jesus the just one, is the sacrifice that takes our sins away – not only ours, but the whole world’s. (I Jn 2:2) Peter in his declaration to the people says that we must now repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out. (Acts 3:19) But both sin and this act of repentance are very often misunderstood. We might imagine that to repent is to acknowledge that we have already done something wrong, which we regret, and so we now commit ourselves to living in a new way. We probably know that the word that is used in the Gospels for repentance is the word metanoia which means to change our minds and literally to do an about face and turn around, facing an entirely new direction. But what is perhaps not necessarily very clear is what the new direction should be!
The Gospel story of the two disciples walking away from Jerusalem and being joined by the (unknown) Jesus on the road who shared and taught from the scriptures about the suffering Messiah provides us some insights. We note that as they walk along, their hearts begin to burn within them as Jesus shares from the scriptures, but it is only when he begins to share a meal with them that their eyes are opened and they finally recognise him. It seems that a lot of what is going on in this passage is the true sense of repentance. Indeed as a result of this encounter the disciples literally do an about face and run back towards Jerusalem to share their story with the other disciples.
What Jesus was able to open up to them is the truth that needs to also be opened up to us. Last week I spoke about the truth that a better way to understand sin is as a theological problem more than a moral problem. Sure we experience sin morally – in the many ways that we fail to live in the fulness of God’s new life. But the more that I experience my own sin and that of others in the confessional, the more I realise that the sins that we know and are ashamed about in our lives are essentially the symptoms of something deeper. The moral failures in our lives are a pointer to a failure to truly repent. But what does this mean?
Perhaps the best way of appreciating this is to recall that within the Thomistic tradition, there is an understanding that within us there are two souls, often referred to as the little soul and the great soul. At any given moment in our lives we are either identifying with one or the other. If I identify with my little soul, I will feel bitter and angry. I know that I am living from my little soul when I am petty, afraid, aware of my hurts and being abused. If I relate to life from my little soul, then I will be impatient, short-sighted, despairing and constantly looking to feed my addictions.
But on the other hand, every one of us has a great soul. If I allow my great soul to reign within me, then I will be a different person altogether. As Fr Ron Rolheiser puts it: “I am relating out of my great soul at those moments when I am overwhelmed by compassion, when everyone is brother or sister to me, when I want to give of myself without concern of cost, when I am able to carry the tensions of life without a breakdown in my chastity, when I would willingly die for others, and when my arms and my heart would want nothing other than to embrace the whole world and everyone in it.”
Every day we are given the choice: will I live under the influence of my small petty soul; or will I choose to allow the grace and mercy of the Lord wash over me and call me to respond to him from the fullness of his creation in my great soul.