There’s that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which Indy has to go through the tunnel in the cave to finally find the Holy Grail. To do so he has to pass three trials. The first one is that whirling blades unexpectedly fly from the walls to decapitate the victim. The clue to get past is the phrase, “Only the penitent man shall pass”. So Indy kneels down in penitence and the blade whirls harmlessly over his head and he is saved.
Well, I’m hearing confessions the other day and thinking that penitence is really a pretty wonderful thing. It is the answer to everything. Here’s my thinking: the problem with the world, with societies, with individuals and with me is that we are proud. We are know it alls. We are narcissists. We make ourselves into little omnipotent, omniscient gods and goddesses. At heart we think we’re okay as we are and that all we have to do is to learn to love ourselves a bit more and raise our level of self esteem.
Sure. And I’m not an advocate for that kind of false humility groveling guilt trip Christian thing where we tell ourselves and one another that we are piles of dung or that we are totally depraved and that all our righteousness is no more than a filthy rag. I’m done with that false gospel. However, true repentance is something different. It’s healthy. It’s wholesome and it’s revolutionary.
A really good confession means the individual has honestly and simply looked at himself or herself and said, “I’m okay, but okay isn’t good enough. ‘Good enough’ is never good enough. The standard is to be perfect. Therefore there is still work to do.”
At that point the person begins a fearful and faithful examination of conscience and goes through to face the failures and confess them. In the act of confession several very important transactions take place: first, and most importantly, the person admits that he or she is wrong not right. They make the fundamental shift in consciousness that they have work to do and they are not perfect and furthermore–it is their responsibility to do something about it–God being their helper. It is difficult to overestimate how important this is to the health of the mind and soul. At this point the person has faced a very, very important reality. The illusion of his perfection and self sufficiency evaporates and in the new reality he is set free.
This is utterly revolutionary to the human mind and the human condition. It is a radical re-orientation. The default setting was self sufficiency, pride and independence of spirit. This reversal suddenly means the person is not already complete and self contained. In admitting his fault and responsibility he also admits his need of assistance. You cannot say, “I have failed.” without also saying, “I need help.” At this point the need for divine assistance becomes not simply a theory but a reality, and as soon as that divine assistance is requested it is given.
That this is the foundation experience of the Christian faith makes the Christian religion unlike any other. Other religions call for the devotee to observe the rules in order to please God or to live by the precepts of the Holy Book. Others call on the devotee to make great renunciations, espouse asceticism, acquire arcane knowledge or offer strange sacrifices. Others simply expect the devotee to be a nice person, play by the rules, have good manners and join the country club or better yet–try to make the world a better place. Christianity on the other hand, offers a life changing experience called “repentance.”
This changing of the path or turning away from self to God is the first step and the continual step in the Catholic pilgrimage. I am to develop a “metanoia mentality”. I am to be a “penitent man”–not just going through this repentance experience once–or even regularly through the sacrament of confession, but to develop this as a regular and continual mindset. Thus the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God Have Mercy on Me a Sinner.”–thus the Divine Mercy devotion. Thus the prayer of the Benedictines, “O God Come to My assistance. O Lord Make Haste to Help Me.”
If this sounds like a gruesome and grinding constant groveling, then the critic has never experienced the freedom, joy and fresh perspectives that come through this revolutionary way of being. For if you are truly convinced that you do not know everything, then you are open to learn something. If you are convinced that your narrow mindedness, small attitudes and petty ways are wrong, then you are open to new vistas, fresh experiences and new opportunities to love and embrace all things.
The penitent man may pass–not only through the trials of life, but into the abundance of life.