“Hermas, stop asking all these questions about your sins! Ask about righteousness also, that you may bring a part of it to your family.”
-Shepherd of Hermas, 3.1
The transformation of the mind: that is what the Greek word for repentance, metanoia (me-tah-nee-ah), means. So it is much more about ‘a change (meta) of the nous (= noia)’ in the right direction, than about ‘regret for past sins’. After all, both Peter and Judas regretted what they did, but while Peter’s repentance led him to life, Judas’ remorse led him to self-destruction.
True metanoia is not just when the nous has turned away from its past sins, but when it is purified, illumined, and ready to move forward cheerfully. It is about rolling up one’s sleeves and sweeping out the house of our souls. It is not something we do once and for all, but needs constant renewal: “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind (nous)” (Rom 12:2). Lent is like spiritual spring cleaning, when our nous gets rid of the hoarded passions of grudges, pride, lust, and learns to curb and control them when they dare to reenter.
At the same time, we are psychosomatic beings. While the mind should be submitting to God and ruling over the passions, it is often so distracted, so prone to wandering. It is the icons, services, and practices of the Church that best re-orient the nous. That is why we call a prostration of the body, a bow to the ground, a metanoia: it is a gesture of the body that reminds the soul to bow down in spirit. You may find that after a long day at work or study, your mind is so distracted that the only way you can pray is by using your body first. Then, at the lighting of a candle and incense, the slowing of the breath, the momentum of a metanoia, the nous follows suit and manages to tune into the prayer. This should come as no surprise, for after all the Church is a Body and we repent as a Body. In that sense, there is a certain spiritual truth in the saying, “A healthy mind in a healthy body” (νοῦς ὑγιής ἐν σώματι ὑγιεῖ).
When the nous is properly oriented by the Church, it can begin ordering itself aright. Traditionally, all Orthodox churches are ‘orientated’, meaning that their sanctuaries face East, anticipating the coming of Christ, who is the Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 4:2). As we sing at the end of the Divine Liturgy: “Keep us in Your sanctification, that all day long we may meditate upon Your righteousness.” After Church, our mind is filled with light to see its own sins; this should not discourage us. In order to clean out your own house you need light to see the stains, dirt, and clutter. Then, when we start to declutter our nous, we can then sort things out in the home, at work, and at school. Perhaps it can even manage to bring a little light to the cavernous abyss of the internet.
In both Ancient Greek philosophy and Orthodox tradition, the word dikaiosyni, which can be translated both as ‘justice’ and as ‘righteousness’, means the right ordering and structuring of something. This can be as universal as the proper ordering of humankind (i.e. God’s just dispensation to both Jews and Gentiles), or as specific as the three parts of the soul (not to be confused with Freud’s model of the soul):
Logistikon/nous - reason, mind
Thymikon - anger, irascible part
Epithymetikon - desire, appetitive part
The proper ordering of these three parts means that our reason directs and corrects our anger and desire. Again, when the nous can see clearly from the light of the Church, it can order the body aright, by regulating anger and passion. The mind should be ruling over them; they have no right to rule over it. Nor does the devil have any right to use them against us. As the mind grows experienced it can even learn to make clever use of anger and desire, turning them against the devil himself (for example, it can use anger against the demons, or turn desire for food into hunger for righteousness). As for philosophy, Plato describes in the Republic that the mind is like a wise man, anger like a proud lion, and desire like a many-headed monster. In the Phaedrus he suggests that reason is like a chariot-rider, while anger and desire are like two winged horses. As long as they are properly tamed, they can facilitate the soul’s ascent to heaven. But when left to their own devices, they lead the soul crashing down. Whatever the precise structure of the soul is, most Ascetic Fathers emphasize that beginners should not be distracted by the complex passions of the soul or the wily deceits of the devil. They should simply attend to the one thing needful: Jesus Christ. Especially through the pristine simplicity of the Jesus Prayer.
Lastly, we must work on ourselves in humility before being able to assume responsibility for others. That is why in the early Church one of the main requirements for priests and bishops was that their own households were in good order before they became leaders of the Church (1 Tim 3:4-5). How can you remove the speck from your brother’s eye when there is a plank stuck in your own? Repenting, metanoia, means removing the plank from the nous, the eye of the soul (Mt 7:3-5). And as we repeat in the Lenten prayer most often accompanied by prostrations, or metanoies, the Prayer of St Ephrem: “Yea, Lord and King, grant me to see my own failings, and not to judge my brother.”
All this is to say that there is a right way to repent and a wrong way to repent. The wrong way may be full of genuine emotion and remorse, but it brings no benefit if it lacks the healing power of metanoia. We do not begin with great tasks, but with little ones. By being faithful in a little one, we are entrusted with ever greater commissions, even with the Great Commission “to make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19). That way our own transformation of mind can spiral out to the transformation of the world. Then “he who has ordered himself well will also order another; and he who has ordered another well, will also order a house; and he who has ordered a house well, will also order a city; and he who has ordered a city well, will also order a nation” (8.3). But it all starts in here, in the nous.