Saturday, June 14, 2008


Penthus, Repentance, Penitent

Are these words related? One of you etymologists will perhaps tell me.

I'm having a clear moment this morning, or more accurately a calm one, and thought I'd post what I'm thinking.

Grief is so terribly powerful, as the quote in my post below makes clear, that I thought that there had to be a Greek god for the experience and the feeling. There is one, but he doesn't do all that much but make you cry. His hame is Penthus, or Penthos and he only got the job because he was absent on the day that Zeus was assigning tasks (warning; this link launches some god-awful new age spiritual "music.")

Then again, the Greeks thought that Aphrodite was the goddess of love, and while I'm sure she thought she was, love is a much more complex emotion than that shallow and vain woman ever understood--which is why it took her daughter-in-law, Psyche to raise the concept to a whole new level.

So, I'm sort of dissatisfied with the Greek concept of grief and what it will do to you in a transformative way if you will let it. Though, let me say right now, grief is torture and it really sucks and letting "grief in" should not be confused with something as feel-good as letting the "sunshine in." Still, it's been fascinating talking to people who both know what grief means, and people who don't. If you don't, you probably will at some point--actually, you can't help but find out--and then you will see for yourself how you respond.

If you aren't afraid, then you will be led down this fairly awesome path. I don't mean "awesome" in the California sense. I mean it in the way it was originally used.

When I think about it, it really is the Christians who developed a sophisticated sense of what love means and what it can do and what happens to us internally when we experience it. I suspect the same is true for grief. And I wonder if the concepts of repentance and penitence come from poor old simplistic Penthus and his lamentations.

I rather like this severe lecture by a member of the Greek orthodoxy, John Chryssavgis--I'm a sucker for orthodoxy because I like ornamentation. He writes:
Repentance is not to be confused with mere remorse, with a self-regarding feeling of being sorry for a wrong done. It is not a state but a stage, a beginning. Rather, it is an invitation to new life, an opening up of new horizons, the gaining of a new vision. Christianity testifies that the past can be undone. It knows the mystery of obliterating or rather renewing memory, of forgiveness and regeneration, eschewing the fixed division between the "good" and the "wicked," the pious and the rebellious, the believers and the unbelievers. Indeed, "the last" can be "the first," the sinner can reach out to holiness. Passions are conquered by stronger passions; love is overcome by more abundant love. One repents not because one is virtuous, but because human nature can change, because what is impossible for man is possible for God.

You see how hard it is to write about these things? I recognize this passage as emotionally true, though the language is fully in Christian terms. I can't ever read something like this without ingesting it somewhat metaphorically, and yet the intent behind it is so very real, and such a powerful expression of what grief and repentance feel like.

Apparently, the Greek term for repentance doesn't contain anything that looks remotely similar to "repent."
The Greek term for repentance, metanoia, denotes a change of mind, a reorientation, a fundamental transformation of outlook, of man's vision of the world and of himself, and a new way of loving others and God. In the words of a second-century text, The Shepherd of Hermas, it implies "great understanding," discernment.

But, he says, Penthos plays a role in repentance.
It is clear that what is at stake here is not particular acts of contrition, but an attitude, a state of mind. "For this life," states John Chrysostom, "is in truth wholly devoted to repentance, penthos and wailing. This is why it is necessary to re pent, not merely for one or two days, but throughout one's whole life."

Um, I can't maintain this state for my entire life. If I did, I'd be going into a convent, and I don't think that's the right place for me, and I also know in heart I couldn't pick just one religion through which to focus my head and my heart. It isn't written in my genes or my cultural upbringing.

But this nice essay does explain what is happening, and makes me feel grateful to people who ponder these mysteries, because they are mysteries.

Of course, when it comes to grief, there are always the now much parodied five stages, one of which is anger. Oh, anger is so tricky. In the anger stage, I feel no repentance at all, nothing holy, just incredible divine rage. And then I have massive difficulty seeing who is friend and who is foe. I understand poor King Lear. Fortunately, I don't have the energy to sustain anger over the long term.

If none of this makes any sense to you, don't worry about it. It might some day. Or, you might be the kind of fortunate person who doesn't need to go off looking at these kind of texts to understand yourself. Otherwise, this blog post is here for you.

(Edited to add: "The word penthos (mourning) has the same root as pathos (passion): both stem etymologically from the verb "to suffer." So, there's my answer. I can be such a lazy reader . . .)

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