Today is Ash Wednesday.
In churches all over the country people are gathering to repent of their sins. They are kneeling while the vicar or celebrant draws a cross of ashes on their forehead as they prepare for Lent, and after that, Easter.
I like this. A stopping point, a place to be reminded.
It is only recently I have understood what repentance is really about.
Maybe you never mis-used or misunderstood repentance, but for a long time I did. Repentance was part of the conversation about how I was messing it up and was not able to get my shit together. It was another way to expose my failings.
Repentance and confession were necessary for all the ways in which I screwed up: in my youth sins of commission (stuff I did) and in my 20s sins of omission (stuff I didn’t do). Repenting reminded me I was a failure.
Every time I messed up, I would confess my sins, I would determine in my heart to be different.
To turn over a new leaf.
I knew that if I could only control my behaviour and correct my attitude God would be happy with me, and life would work.
I have learnt a lot in the past seven years, since life as I knew it came crashing down.
Gradually I began to see how I had taken responsibility for people, situations and outcomes that were never my responsibility to begin with. I had adopted the burden of problems I could never solve.
It took me a while longer to recognise this sense of misplaced duty did not just exist outside of me, as demonstrated in my feelings towards the people, jobs and relationships I had cultivated.
It was also happening inside me.
I expected myself to be stronger than was possible, I required of myself a greater level of persistence and purity than I was capable of. I pushed myself to work harder, to try with more determination, to be a better person.
I continually failed, the goal was always ahead of me.
A few years ago I was walking around my neighbourhood, absentmindedly plucking leaves off trees, when I had an epiphany, one of those moments when a door is unlocked and you walk into a new understanding.
I realised repentance shouldn’t make me feel guilty. It isn’t a punishment, a way to scratch over my wounds and failings, repeating and re-living all the things I have done wrong.
Repentance is not to remind me to try harder and be better, repentance is about about letting go of my need to be in control and getting it right.
Rather than an opportunity to feel guilt and shame, repentance is about admitting that I can’t do it myself, I never could. It is about acknowledging I am not able to be perfect. That I cannot control my life and make it all work out.
Repentance is not about beating myself up; clenching tight my fists promising to do better next time, washed in feeling of shame and humiliation.
Repentance is relief.
Repentance is giving up self-salvation projects.
It is knowing I don’t have to be teeth-clenched, fist-closed about my life. I don’t need to forcibly hold it all together because I have to keep the boat afloat, the show on the road.
Repentance is recognising that I don’t have to because I have someone who won all that I was never going to be able to attain: righteousness, salvation and forgiveness, on my behalf.
Repentance is about relaxing, letting go. It is about taking myself back out of the driver’s seat and trusting. It is about unravelling and unfurling.
Richard Rohr writes:
“We need to unlearn a lot to get back to that foundational life which is “hidden in God” (Col 3:3). Yes, transformation is often more about unlearning than learning which is why the religious traditions call it “conversion” or “repentance”.”
Today on Ash Wednesday, I am remembering to live with my hands open and palms up, open to possibility and accepting of uncertainty. Today I am remembering to unfurl, to unlearn all the ways I have tried to pull myself together to make myself acceptable.
I am remembering again to let myself off the hook, remembering I am worthy of love and acceptance and belonging already.
I sat in bed this morning and wondered if I should be ‘doing’ something for lent. Giving up chocolate or alcohol, or television. I contemplated springing out of bed and heading to the gym, making a plan to lose weight or get fit.
Instead I stay in bed, which is where I am writing this.
Maybe for lent this year I will take each day to remember to let myself off the hook, to remember to treat myself with compassion.
For some of us who have worked ourselves into illness (whether this hard work was faith based or not) this would be a revolutionary step.
To give up trying to be perfect for lent.
To me that sounds like a very good thing to do (and possibly quite fun!). Follow me on Instagram as I attempt to remember this practise daily.