by Dr. Roberta Ervine
Associate Professor of Armenian Studies
What follows is a presentation delivered by Prof. Roberta Ervine to the St. Nersess seminarians and faculty at their Orientation Retreat held on September 1-3, 2006 at the Ararat Center in Greenville, NY.
For us, the words penance or penitence have come to carry certain emotional weights: we associate those words with feelings of sadness, regret, or remorse. Too, the words penance/penitence are most often linked in our minds with punitive vocabulary like penalty or penitentiary. Penance has become a backward looking word: we look back on what we have done and feel sorry for it or anticipate that we will pay a penalty for it in some way. In short, penitence strikes our ears as an oppressive word.
But the way we use the word penitence nowadays has very little to do with its original meanings. In fact, its ancient meanings and its present connotations are almost diametrically opposed. We could spend quite a long time investigating the various biblical words which English translates as penitence. The word for it in Greek is the one students of the Bible come to know best: metanoia.
Crescendo of Understanding
I would like to give you an illustration of metanoia's oldest meaning, and focus our thinking this evening on that meaning and its ramifications for our understanding of penitence, especially in the context of this new academic year, when we will be living and learning together as a seminary community.
In its earliest application, metanoia was a type of verbal expression. It was a rhetorical technique employed to create statements like this:
My actions, as it turned out, were for the best. Unbeknownst to me, circumstances were already working in my favor. It is not too much to say that I was divinely inspired.
Or like this:
She is pleasant to look upon. Beautiful, indeed. Nay, radiant as the sun.
Metanoia, then, is a way of expressing deepening realization. It draws the listener forward into the nuances of an idea, or builds to a crescendo of understanding. She is pleasant to look upon, yes. But when you look more closely, pay closer attention to her features, you gradually come to see that she is in fact radiant as the sun. From the initial realization that my actions were for the best, I come to understand that there was more to the situation than I realized; in fact, I was divinely inspired.
The component parts of the word metanoia are meta (=after) and noeo (=perceiving). To have afterthoughts or refinements to one's thought. To change one's thinking on the basis of what one gradually comes to perceive, and perhaps also to alter one's direction on the basis of that perception.
A Word in Armenian
When Armenians came to express the ideas inherent in metanoia, they chose a pair of words to convey both the verbal and the behavioral aspects of repentance and penitence: apashkharut'yunand apashavut'yun. Normally, ashkharel is used for mourning, lamentation and similar things. However, according to the great linguist Hrachya Acharian, apashkharut'yun harks back to an ancient root meaning "speech." So the word apashkharut'yun would mean to move away from something said, to alter one's expressed ideas. By the same token, apashavut'yun is related to the word shavigh, or path--to alter one's direction.
Metanoia"penitence"does not oppress us; it broadens our vision. It does not make us look backward, but presses forward. It inspires us not with regret, but with growing wonder at the true reality of what is before our very eyes, part of what we originally thought of as an average experience.
An impenitent person, then, is one who is not open to change, who feels that his or her ideas need no further refinement. The impenitent know that they are right, that they have seen what they need to see. At the beginning of Luke's Gospel, John the Baptist called people away from that conviction of their own rightness, from being stuck in their own ideas: "Repent (metanoiete)", he said, "for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
Getting a Fresh Angle on Things
Living your days with penitence, viewing them with metanoia, means having afterthoughts and second thoughts, stepping back and getting a fresh angle on things, thinking and thinking again, looking and looking again, and being changed in the process.
Change. In living with metanoia, we welcome change, and the possibility it implies, as two of our most helpful companions. Cardinal John Henry Newman is credited with a beautiful summing up of metanoia in the statement, "To grow is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often."
In our seminary experience, each new day lived in penitence deepens what we have already experienced or done or learned, and unfolds it so that we can better view its true extent.Metanoia opens us to new aspects of ourselves and of the external world, and leads us to live in the light of that new vision. It is a continual movement forward, upward, into increased awareness of the eternity that is behind the outer shell of our activities. Deep within every life, our own or another's, no matter how bland or difficult or puzzling it may seem to a casual observer, there is something eternal happening.
May this be a penitential year for us all. May we act for the best, and discover that we have been divinely inspired; may we look at our pleasant neighbors until we see that they are truly radiant as the sun. At the end of such a year, we will see ourselves, and each other, differently. We will have become more perfect.