“Metanoia” : “Conversatio Morum” or “Poenitemini”?
From 1962 to 1968, I was a member of the contemplative community at Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. For three years as a novice and two as a “simply professed” monk, I hoped and prayed and studied and worked to succeed as a permanent member of the community under the three monastic vows of Stability, Obedience and “Conversatio Morum”. Certainly a portion of our studies consisted of trying to gain a complete understanding of those vows and what it meant to make them.
The Vow of Stability was the easiest to grasp conceptually but certainly not one of the easiest with which to be faithful. It consists primarily in a vow to remain in the monastery until death or in a monastery founded by the “mother” house to which you may be assigned. This vow was to prevent a pseudo-monk from becoming a dilettante who samples one monastery after another, leaving each because of boredom or by his wearing out his welcome by his non-monastic behaviour, a so-called “gyrovague”, Rule of Saint Benedict(Ch.1).
The second vow, Obedience, intends that the monk live out his life under the Rule of Saint Benedict and the Order of the Abbot and Community as representing Christ and God’s will. The fact that what I will to do and what God wills me to do are frequently not the same, and since as Paul has written of himself:
“I do not understand what I do; for I don’t do what I would like to do, but instead I do what I hate.” (Romans 7:15)
makes obedience to God’s Will recognized as the serious challenge it is to our nature and fallibility.
The third vow, “Conversatio Morum”, more difficult to explain, is an ancient monastic term. It has been subject to some shades of interpretation because early copyists wrote the term “conversio” rather than the more difficult to understand “conversatio”. Conversatio refers to a continual change of heart and mind to God’s plan for us. Through the centuries, it had primarily been interpreted as “fidelity to the monastic way of life as given in the Rule of Saint Benedict and in the Constitutions of the Order”. An early source from the Institutes of John Cassian and the Desert Father traditions defined the ultimate aim of monastic life to be the Kingdom of God, but the immediate goal was Purity of Heart. This was seen to be a “turning to” and a “turning from”, i.e., a turning to a loving God in unceasing prayer and out of that strength to “turn from” material goods as a goal; our compulsions and false self as goals; and the visible and present world as a goal.
It is very interesting to hear “Conversatio Morum” also described as a “monastic metanoia”, a being open to the indwelling of the Godhead WITHIN ourselves. For the monks of the Middle Ages, living faithfully meant listening to the inner voice and responding to the call.
That “conversatio morum” could be termed a “monastic metanoia”, brings up the old challenge of biblical scholars that the frequent occurrence of the term “metanoia”[ Mετανοίέτε in the original Greek], especially in the earliest Gospel of Mark, written in all likelihood in Rome to Gentile and Jewish Christians between 65-75 AD, and being the first words placed on Jesus’ lips (Mk.1:16) and on those of John the Baptizer (Mk.1:4), may thus be termed their “Keynote Addresses”. A keynote address is an author’s attempt to summarize the essential message, the “news”, and in these cases, the “good news” that the document wishes to impart.
It is thus in all likelihood the most important words written down as the “Good News” preached BY Jesus, not the Good News preached about Jesus which we term the Gospel. A translation directly from the Greek to English would have the words :
“Jesus went to Galilee and preached the good news from God, saying:
‘The present moment is the right time, the Kingdom of God is within you . [Мετανοιετε] Change the way you think about reality; believe this GOOD NEWS’” (Mk 1:14-15)
Thus, from the original Greek, it seems that Jesus’ main preaching is that we should live in the present moment, that God indwells us, and that should be the central reality that allows us to pray interiorly to the Father and we should stop looking for God outside us, except insofar as God indwells everybody else as well. Thus, God is within us, and within all others and we should treat everyone in acceptance of this good news.
As Christianity spread, the Good News grew to include the story of Jesus and his teachings with a theological development to explain more about what Jesus means to mankind, interpretations of why and how Jesus’ act of redemption occurred, and what is Jesus' relationship to God and led to the development of Christological and Theological dogmas leading to controversy and Councils.
Although this may have been the earliest understanding of Jesus’ words, as they were translated into the Vulgate Latin of Saint Jerome, a shift occurred. The word “metanoiete” was translated as the Latin “poenitemini”(Repent). The process that began with this mistranslation has followed down through Church history all the way to modern times and has caused devastating effects. In a study written in 1896 by Treadwell Walden (The Great Meaning of Metanoia: An Undeveloped Chapter in the Life and Teaching of Christ) the author points out that:
“There is another and more serious matter involved in the confusion of meaning. The use of the word repentance(poenitentia) for Metanoia has thrown an almost exclusive character around both the original proclamation of the gospel and its present call. Despite himself the reader hears the “Repent Ye!” of John the Baptist and of the Saviour, like a cry, a note of danger, full of terror, amid which the hearts of the people stand still, instead of what it really was, an invocation of a mind, heart, and life which should befit such a glad and glorious “change” as the kingdom of heaven (within). If the call had really been “Repent ye!” it would have been only an appeal to the feelings…of guilt in an impenitent listener with accompanying eternal consequences. (p.24)
In Latin, the root noun poena, ae, has the following meanings: compensation, satisfaction, expiation, punishment, penalty.
The verb, poeniteo,ere,ui, means to repent, to be sorry
[Dictionary of St. Thomas Aquinas].
These definitions indicate the gap between what one experiences when one hears these translations as the Keynote address of both Jesus and John the Baptist.
Repentance is the activity of reviewing one's actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs. It generally involves a commitment to personal change and resolving to live a more responsible and humane life. It has been the experience of many Catholics, to grow up with this notion of our existential situation, i.e., that we are from the start guilty of having done something wrong and are therefore ineligible to enter into any kind of eternal reward until and unless God do something to “cleanse” us. The doing something we were taught, was the Death and Resurrection of Jesus as a sacrifice, somehow earning our being forgiven. The concept of how Jesus’ death accomplished this, was portrayed by one of many suggested atonement pericopes as conceived by theologians, and as applied to us individually and exclusively by the Church as sine qua non, i.e., “nulla salvatio extra ecclesia” [No Salvation Outside the Church]. The necessity for this condition stems in large part from a belief that the Keynote, sum and substance of Jesus’ good news were contained in the word, “Repent!”
Should we revert to the original meaning of the Greek “Metanoiete”, [“Change the way you think and seek reality”], then would not all of Christian ascetical theology draw much nearer that of the “Awake!” direction given to Buddhists in interior prayer as a focusing “on the present moment”; and may this not be the reason that the teachings on Centering Prayer as led by Fr. Thomas Keating, OCSO, are so attractive to the Dalai Lama and Buddhist contemplatives. Is it not conceivable that the past 2000 years have seen a separating of teachings on interior prayer from increased emphasis on sacramental, liturgical and dogmatic efforts.
I wish to look into the schism in preferred schools of spirituality between East and West within and without the Church which may offer a suggestion as to how an appreciation of this historical drift may assist us in recovering something vital lost by it.