The Practical Power of Penitence

It’s there right up front, and you can’t avoid it. The first step in following Christ is repentance. The first thing we have to do is say “I’m wrong.” Only then can we begin the journey. It’s like a magic password.

The Greek word is metanoia which means ‘turning around’. It’s there in the story of the prodigal son where the turning point is when he is in the pig pen eating the swill. Then the old version–is a stroke of psychological insight–says, “He came to himself.”

What Satan would like us to believe is that penitence is a gloomy, miserable self-tortured mentality. It’s not. True repentance is one of the most joyful and liberating things we can do. At the moment true repentance takes hold the chains of our self pride, vanity and worldly foolishness fall away. At the moment of true repentance our arrogance and know it all attitude and our belief that we are right falls away. At the moment of true repentance the burden of being respectable and righteous falls away and we are free.

Not only do we attain true freedom in the moment of true repentance, but we also begin to take responsibility for ourselves and responsibility for others and even for the whole world. “What’s wrong with the world?” I am. This is the mark of true and utter maturity–taking responsibility for my decisions, my actions, myself and my eternal destiny.

One of the most debilitating, annoying and frustrating things about ordinary life is the sheer amount of grumbling, protesting, finger pointing and blame that goes on. Over and over again we hear grown up people who ought to know better complain and blame others for their problems. It’s the president’s fault. My parents messed me up. It’s the priest’s fault. The Catholic Church is wicked. It’s the Capitalists’ fault. The Communists are to blame. Why do you want to change the world when you cannot change yourself?

Counseling? Most of  it would be solved with a good and hearty confession. Too much counseling is all about blaming others and being a victim. Family problems? If everyone made a good and hearty confession most of the problems would start to be solved. Sexual problems? A good and hearty confession would start to solve the problems. Money problems? A good and hearty examination of conscience and confession would start to solve the problem. It would start to solve the problem because the individual would start to take responsibility for the problem and not blame others.

If individuals took responsibility for themselves and put their own house in order and tried to live heroically virtuous lives the world’s problems would be solved. The answer is personal virtue, and personal virtue begins with “It’s my fault. I’m sorry. I’ll take responsibility for that.”

Lest anyone grumble that the trash isn’t theirs–that somebody else littered–let them remember that the whole point of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is that he took responsibility–not for his own sins, but for the sins of others. This is the work of Christ, and this is the work of Christ’s body the Church in the world. Stop blaming others–even if it’s their fault. Take responsibility. Claim the blame. Pick up other people’s trash.

Grow up.

  • Julie

    Reading this was a great way to start a new day. Loved it!

  • Jim J. McCrea

    That is why the one who is working the most to facilitate peace and justice in the world is the priest who makes himself readily and frequently available to hear confessions.

    • Robbie J

      I’m with you on this one, Jim. God gave us such a beautiful way to “turn around”.
      And it’s right there in the Catholic church.

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  • Tom M

    Home run, Fr. Dwight. Thanks for this.

  • Justme

    Repent to “change ones mind”, i guess I see the mind as a projection of myself lol, kind of like an old movie projector projects an image, but I project the image of God :), what a lofty position true Christianity give to humans! Let us love one another!

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  • Monica

    Thanks Father for this post! I love the part about “putting our own house in order.” I’ve done my share of grumbling and fault finding and I have also been on the end of receiving blame for something someone mistakenly thought I did because, well, they gave an ear to vicious gossip. I believe that God allows me to go through these trials to make me stronger, to learn a valuable lesson, and to bring me closer to HIM. There is no one who knows who we really are inside except for God. He knows our real motives. Letting go of fault finding, anger, grumbling, alterior motives, and revenge and looking inward to see what I can change in myself is where peace and joy begin to happen in my soul. I believe one day we are all going to be really surprised when our sins and virtues are set out for everyone to see in the final judgement.

  • Natalie

    In some ways I guess confession is the solution for many kinds of depression and relationship issues. I know I always feel a sense of relief after I have been to confession for brooding over a particular thing. We do need to first look inside. I would say though, that sometimes looking inside isn’t enough. A good Catholic or spiritual-minded psychologist can do a lot of good in some instances. Many people are lacking in the area of setting good boundaries because they have not learned to set good boundaries as children and thus entangle themselves in messes. Having a good counselor who can distinquish between selfishness and the need for real assisstance can help a person find good solutions to problems. In my naivete as a young person, I once believed that all people were basically good. I have since learned that there are some folks who really do have evil hearts and who knowingly desire to control and manipulate others with lies and coersion. (I met a woman who admitted to me that she enjoyed manipulating others.) These people are rare, but they do exist. Paying attention to the red flags and setting boundaries can prevent a lot of heartache and misery in the world. I would have never known about setting boundaries if it wasn’t for a psychologist who suggested I read a book about boundaires. Also, a priest told me once, “when you meet someone who is controlling and manipulative, run like the Dickens!”

  • M.C.S.

    I’m unclear on the last few lines on taking others’ blame on my shoulders. It is hard enough for me to untangle my own fault. How on earth do I even begin to take the blame for someone whose actions are not my fault?

    • njl

      There is a difference between taking the blame and taking responsibility. I may not have dropped the litter or made the mess but I will take responsibility for keeping the area clean and pick it up myself. I am not to blame for the mess but I am responsible for our common space. Do the deed can be an act of selfless love for unknown others.

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