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Vincent's Metanoia: Hope for All of Us

Friday, November 2, 2012

Let me tell you a secret. The founder of the Daughters of Charity, one of the most famous Catholic saints, St Vincent de Paul became a priest to become rich. Sure, he probably loved God and all but he really did it to be comfortable, to enjoy all the privileges that priests did, and to put an end to this working in the fields. And he did, even living in palaces and castles, becoming the personal tutor and confessor to a rich family, the de Gondi.

But somewhere along the line, something changed in Vincent. He went through a variety of experiences, even becoming a slave to pirates at one point. With each experience, Vincent grew from that ambitious yet selfish young man into someone new. Thanks to Madame de Gondi, the matriarch of the rich family he served, he began to have even more experience with the peasants - the very life he was hoping to escape when he left home to become a priest. Vincent underwent a "metanoia" that changed his life, and the world, in a way he never would have expected.

Unlike "discernment" and "transition" (two of my least favorite words), one of my favorite words in the world is "metanoia". It's a word that's barely used outside of Lent, but yet it's one that could describe our entire lives. Vincent would certainly say that it would describe his.

I don't know Greek, nor will I pretend that I do. Yet, to my understanding, or at least according to Webster's Dictionary, "metanoia" means "a transformative change of heart, especially a spiritual conversion" The word is used in different contexts - theology, rhetoric, and psychology - but they all essentially point to the same thing, "a change for the better". It's basically a conversion.

Metanoia, in the Christian context, means repentance. We realize that we have been sinful and regret our actions. We recognize that sin was driving us further away from God and we dedicate ourselves to becoming better. In fact, the use of the word "metanoia" in the New Testament, originally written in Greek, is translated into English as "repentance" (example: Matthew 4:17).

All of that is good and true, yet I believe that metanoia doesn't always have to be a large "mea culpa" moment, in which we beat ourselves up over a sin we have committed. I think it's also the realization "there's something better out there. I can transform myself into something better than what I already am", which can come about through an experience that turns us upside down. Vincent's experiences with the peasants didn't come out of a sin he committed, but rather due to the persistence of Madame de Gondi, his employer and good friend. It's a change of mind and heart...and strangely enough and wonderfully enough, that's exactly what God wants.

Jesus tells a short parable in Matthew 21:28-32. He gives the example of two sons. The father tells the two sons to go and work in the vineyards. One says no, but then changed his mind and went. The other said he would go, but then didn't. Jesus uses this parable to illustrate to the disciples that tax collectors and prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God even before them. (I can only imagine how the disciples felt after that one, geez). But Jesus uses this parable to make a point - that it is because of metanoia, a deep transformative change of heart, that we more fully enter into the kingdom of God.

That may sound wonderful, but this change of heart, this conversion, isn't easy. Ask anyone who has ever converted to Catholicism or even Christianity. Now, I can't speak from experience since I was born Catholic, raised Catholic, and now on the way to becoming a Catholic Sister. But any kind of metanoia means a peeling-off of the old self. Problem is there's something familiar and comfortable, maybe even easy, about that old self. A part of us is whispering "just stay the way you are", yet another part is screaming "but now, it's impossible for me to do anything but change".

After those experiences with the peasants, Vincent was probably distraught. What to do? Life in the palace, life with the de Gondi, was comfortable - yet it was that same comfort that bothered him. He ended up leaving that family and returned to parish life. He would never be the same - and, because of that, neither would France or the rest of the world.

In my opinion, metanoia isn't a one-time deal. In Jesus' parable, the first son's decision to obey his father and work in the vineyard wasn't the only change of mind/heart he would ever have in his life. The tax collectors and prostitutes won't enter the kingdom by a simple decision to become a Christian. Throughout Vincent's life, we see him constantly changing his heart to grow into the Vincent de Paul that would die at the age of 79.

Our life is full of metanoias. We are constantly evolving or, to use a Biblical image, we are constantly being formed in the potter's hands. We are being transformed through the heart.
And if one of the greatest saints in Catholic history went from a young man joining the priesthood for all the wrong reasons to a man known all over the world for his compassion and humility, what can metanoia do for me?

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