“If you become aware that death is right over your left shoulder and if you turn quickly enough you can see him there, that makes you alive and alert to decisions.”
—Brother David Steindl-Rast, Common Sense Spirituality
From time to time and completely out of the blue someone will say something and you feel your life change. This happened to me about a year ago when a Buddhist teacher and friend called sin simply a matter of being distracted. I still remember that moment, where I was, how I was sitting on a big sofa, the three others in the room with me, the dim shade of light coming through the big windows at the other end of a converted loft in New York City. There was probably a siren wailing on the streets 10 flights down. There are always sirens wailing on the streets of New York City.
The funny thing is that we were all just talking; no one was giving a lecture, no one was trying to make a point or win an argument. But what she said rang so true to me it felt like a critical lesson I needed to remember. I can even say it startled me; it felt like, well, a revelation. I think it struck me because what she said stands in marked contrast to what we normally think about when we think about sin. The word “sin” is freighted with so many meanings in our culture that chances are no two people are going to agree on what it is. Worse, religious zealots throughout the centuries have slaughtered untold millions over their own interpretations. But suddenly, what my friend said to me made complete sense. Sin is a personal condition and it requires a personal solution.
From time to time since that moment I’ve given the whole idea some thought, have reflected on it, and even went back to some of the books I’d read when I was a theology student. And what I found echoed my friend’s simple but profound remark. Interestingly, the Greek word in the New Testament that is translated in English as “sin” is hamartia, which means missing the mark when shooting an arrow or throwing a javelin. So when we sin our aim is off. We’ve a distorted vision of the world because we lack focus. We are distracted. There’s no judgment threatening you with death and eternal damnation. There is no hell outside of your own confusion, which is plenty to endure. It isn’t a place. It’s a state of mind.
What’s so liberating about this notion of sin is that we can correct our vision and intent just by paying attention. What’s troubling is that we can’t look to anyone to save us from ourselves. It’s up to each one of us to pay attention, to make this first step to creating a better world. Because when you pay attention you can’t help but notice not just the beauty all around you but also the suffering around you and inside you. And what can arise quite naturally and spontaneously, if you are really and truly paying attention, is gratitude and benevolence and compassion. The philosopher and activist Simone Weil wrote in her book Waiting for God that “every time that we really concentrate our attention we destroy the evil in ourselves.”
In the midst of all this reflecting I came upon the painting above in some long and untraceable thread of online surfing. It is Georges de La Tour’s The Repentant Magdalene. As soon as I saw it it stuck me as an apt image for what I’m trying say here. Painted in 1635, La Tour depicts Mary seated before a mirror, her profile illuminated by candlelight. She rests her chin pensively on her hand, and her hair is pulled back to reveal all of her face. The skull, a common medieval symbol of the ephemeral nature of mortal life, rests on a closed book, as if indicating that all the words in the world can now neither comfort or teach her. The book and skull are reflected in the mirror so that Mary cannot escape their haunting presence even captured in an icon of earthly vanity.
One can draw any conclusion one wants about La Tour’s intentions in this painting. Given that “repentance” is in the title, we can easily guess he is depicting Mary repenting how she has spent her days. The word “repent” is also a loaded word in our culture and it reeks with heavy moral feeling since the word has been blighted by the Latin background of concepts like penance and penitence. But most of the time in the New Testament the Greek word for “repentance” is metanoia. Etymologically, metanoia means a profound change in one’s vision of things; it’s what happens to people after a stark realization. It’s an awakening. Jesus experienced metanoia in the Garden of Gethsemane. Siddhārtha Gautama experienced metanoia when he sneaked out from behind his family’s palace walls to see the suffering—the dukkha—of life all around him.
Much the same thing happened to me when I decided to quit my job of 2o years to go out on my own, to make this leap. The decision did not come to me quickly, God knows (and some of my closest friends know). And when it came—when I handed in my resignation and saw it circulated to the staff in an email sent by the personnel director—I was shaking with fear more than I was jumping with joy about what I’d done and could not take back. But I knew it was the right decision for me. That’s when you know you’ve experienced metanoia; you feel you have made the right decision no matter how painful it is. The pain you are feeling is the pain that comes with just about any big change you make because you are redefining yourself; it’s emotional and intellectual surgery without anesthesia.
In this painting I see Mary reflecting on her life, feeling sad about how she’s lived so far—perhaps in as dark a place as she’s ever been—and wanting to make a big change. A decision is at hand; perhaps it’s already been made. She knows that her time is short by the evidence of the skull at her side and the ephemeral flame that lights the room dimly. And it’s nobody’s problem but her own.
I look at this painting in contrast to the religious fanatics around the world and down through the centuries to the present day, trying to bend the will of others to their own version of sin and repentance, projecting their own evil onto any available victim. I look at this painting and think of the thousands of paintings and statues of the Buddha sitting in the lotus position, one leg folded under the other, not moving a muscle, while the machinery in his mind and heart are producing tectonic shifts in how he understands the world, trying to hit the mark. I look at this painting and think how easy it is to miss the mark and, sometimes, how devastating. When you miss the mark with violent intent you kill the wrong target.
The Mary depicted here could be any of us at any time in our lives when we want to make a deep shift, if only in the way we see or understand a thing or a person. If only? No. This is big decision. This isn’t just about trying figure out what color tie to wear to the office or what new shampoo you want to try. Big problems require big decisions. If we are living in a way that is harmful to ourselves and others—holding a grudge or being envious or beating ourselves up about something we said or did or feeling trapped by nothing but our own fear, which are all a box full of big problems each one us has to deal with at some point in our lives—we can experience metanoia. And when this happens our task is to “live a different life, not just feel bad about the mistakes you have made and live in fear of punishment,” writes Thomas Moore in his recent book, Writing in the Sand: Jesus and the Soul of the Gospels.
Let’s be honest here. With the finality of death facing us, as it faces Mary in La Tour’s work, we’ve not much choice but to keep ourselves open to these sorts of big internal shifts, to make some big decisions, and to choose wisely. “If you become aware that death is right over your left shoulder and if you turn quickly enough you can see him there, that makes you alive and alert to decisions,” writes Brother David Steindl-Rast in his book, Common Sense Spirituality.
In other words, we don’t have all the time in the world. Every moment is ripe for seeing how distracted we are and for making a change of heart, to see death “over your left shoulder” and make a decision to live in the moment each and every moment, to pay attention.
I wish they’d told me all about the real meaning of sin and repentance back in Sunday school. Maybe no one knew, which I find hard to believe. Or maybe it was just easier to tell kids that they were going to get into heaven if they did what their parents and teachers told them to do. Frankly, I was always a bit skeptical, sitting in the back of the room and gazing out the window wishing I were out there riding my bike. And now the untold damage that must be repaired. It’s a big job and we all might was well dig in and get started. The thing to remember is that if you want to change your life all you have to do is change your mind.