Nobody has ever seen a sin. We may have seen actions we consider sinful, but “sin” itself is an abstraction, a reality of the spiritual world that we need to find ways to talk about. “Repentance” is the same: putting on sackcloth, putting ashes on the head, beating one’s breast – these may be signs of repentance, but repentance itself is invisible. So again, we need a tool for thinking.
That tool is metaphor: We think of sin (and repentance) in terms of something else that we’re more familiar with. But what metaphor should we apply to sin and repentance? The answer to that question has changed through time.
In the Old Testament early depictions thought of sin as a weight, and repentance/forgiveness as the lifting of the weight. On the Day of Atonement the High Priest would lay his hands on the head of the “scapegoat” (actually a pack animal), and then the animal would be sent off into the desert – as if carrying the sins of the people away from the community. (We still talk about “being burdened by our sins,” so the metaphor hasn’t completely disappeared.)
But by the time of Jesus the metaphor among the Jewish people had largely changed. Did you ever hear the translation of the Lord’s Prayer that says, “forgive us our debts…”? That was the common metaphor from His times, and Jesus regularly used metaphors of debt and the forgiveness of debt to talk about sin and repentance. Think of the “unjust steward,” whose debt is forgiven by his master but then won’t forgive the debt to him of a fellow-slave. Dig just a bit under the surface and a lot of our thinking goes along the lines of the “debt” of sin and of repentance as “paying off (or being forgiven) the debt.”
Through Christian history the metaphor has continued to change. You can see it especially clearly in Dante’s Divine Comedy (begun about 1308, completed in 1320), especially in the middle section, Purgatory. Here the shades repenting of their sins aren’t carrying weights around, or paying off debts: they are working and learning. Their penances are designed to show them the true nature of their sins. (For example, the greedy are fastened face-down to the earth – to what consumed their attention while they were alive – and continually call out to one another examples of greed and of its opposite, generosity.) Dante’s point is that sin is damage – to oneself, and to the fabric of the human community. So repentance involves learning just what sort of damage has been done (not unlike medical diagnosis), and then learning how to fix that damage, then doing it.
It seems to me that this metaphor – sin as damage, repentance as restoration – makes the most sense for us today. As we begin Lent, it can guide us in our penances. The first step is the diagnosis: How have I done damage, this past year, to myself and to others? As with self-diagnosis for our health, sometimes we can do it for ourselves, and sometimes other people see us more accurately than we do ourselves. So let me recommend that, to think about damage you might have done to others, you think about past or current conflicts. Try to see them from the other person’s point of view.
Another good, if difficult, diagnostic tool is to ask someone close to you (whom you’re not in conflict with regularly) what they see in you that might be doing damage – to your health, your relationships, your spiritual growth. Don’t take what they might say as Gospel truth, but think about it. Maybe they see something more accurately than you do.
Also, pray. Ask God to show you an accurate vision of yourself, good and bad. Ask, how can I help the good to grow? How can I heal the not-so-good? If you ask and listen, God will have something to say. (This is another way to use the notebook-at-Mass tool we’ve been talking about since last Lent.)
When there are some things you’ve concluded are actually damage you’ve done (or are still doing), then comes time for the therapy. If you’re still doing something damaging, the first thing is, of course, to stop doing it. Then comes the healing work. About that, more next week. Until then, peace.