Long ago, a young man walked up to Jesus and put a question to him: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “You know the commandments: Do not kill. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Do not defraud. Honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth,” the young man protested.

Then, Mark’s Gospel tells us, “Jesus, looking upon him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’”

And that was the one thing the young man couldn’t do. Not even for the reward of eternal life. He loved his riches too much to walk away from them.

Two thousand years later, the demands of discipleship haven’t changed. If we want to spend an eternity with Jesus, we have to let go of even the most minor sinful attachments and follow Jesus. For the rich young man, that meant turning away from his wealth. For us, it might be something entirely different. Or many things different. Either way, to inherit eternal life, we must repent and believe.

The word the Gospels use for that two-fold process of turning from sin and toward God is metanoia. Metanoia is the one word answer to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.”

But what does metanoia look like in practice? How do we pursue it? And why don’t we hear it talked about more often?

Franciscan Magazine put those questions and more to some of Franciscan University’s resident experts on metanoia. Here’s what we learned.

1. Metanoia is a way of talking about repentance and conversion.

Metanoia is a Greek verb that goes by many other names. In the New Testament, it’s translated most often as “repentance.” In medieval Europe, it was frequently talked about as “penance.” Today, in common parlance, it’s “ongoing conversion.” But, no matter how we talk about the concept, the meaning goes back to the Hebrew word shuv, which, according to Franciscan University theology professor Dr. Andy Minto MA ’83, is a verb that “signifies turning from sin and turning to God.”

“It’s always from and to,” he explains, “which is important because it qualifies the idea of freedom. Freedom is never a non-subordination. One turns from the rule of sin to the rule of God.”

Shuv was a familiar concept to almost every New Testament author; it’s how the Old Testament talks about repentance. Again and again, God and the prophets called the ancient Israelites to shuv, to repent, to turn away from their idols and false gods and return to one true God.

In the New Testament, the Apostles and Evangelists build on the idea of shuv, using the Greek verb metanoia. The original meaning of the Greek word is “to change one’s mind.” So, as with shuv, there is a turning. First you believe one thing, then you “turn” from that belief to another. The New Testament authors, however, use the term to show how divine revelation leads us to a deeper awareness of God and his will. It is because God has revealed himself to us in Christ that we turn from sin and toward Jesus.

“In the New Testament, there is a correlation between the depths of revelation and the depths of conversion,” says Minto. “People turn from sin because God has manifested himself. That also shows the deeper nature of sin and what sin does to destroy the fabric of human life and human personality. Sin is contra life. To turn to God is to turn to life.”

Real repentance, real metanoia always involves both turns. Simply turning from sin isn’t enough. We also have to turn toward God. We have to entrust ourself and our life to him. So, in short, metanoia is a conversion—a conversion from one way of life to another, from one master (sin) to another (God)—and it is a conversion that doesn’t end. The more we come to know and understand who God is and what he asks of us, the more we seek to conform to that, the more we seek to conform to him.

2. Metanoia is at the heart of Franciscan spirituality.

Eight hundred years ago, St. Francis heard the same call that Jesus issued to the rich young man in Mark’s Gospel. Unlike the first young man, Francis obeyed. He recognized his sinful attachments—his vanity, his pride, his love of wealth and comfort—and he ran from them into the arms of Jesus. He experienced metanoia, although the term he used for it was “penance.”

“Francis called himself a penitent,” explains Father Jonathan St. André, TOR, ’96, Franciscan University’s vice president of Franciscan Life. “When the early friars are asked who they are, Francis says, ‘We are penitents from Assisi.’ There were a number of penitential movements leading up to Francis, but Francis gave those movements a new power. He saw his call to be one of penance.”

Again, his use of the word wasn’t like ours. We generally think of penance as something we do to atone for sin: fasting from meat, praying Rosaries, saying an Our Father. To St. Francis, however, it meant so much more.

“Francis of Assisi defines penance as having five elements,” says Father Jonathan. “For him, penance is love of God, love of neighbor, hatred of sin, reception of the Eucharist, and bearing worthy fruits of penance. Those fruits include charity, peace, joy, external acts of mortification, and more. But it all starts with the internal, with the ongoing conversion to Jesus.

“In Francis, we see metanoia in action,” he adds. “Penance was his response to the Lord.”

Importantly, Francis’ response inspired other responses. As time passed, more and more lay men and women sought to imitate his way of life—his rejection of sin, his turning toward God, and his life of conforming himself to Christ. Unlike Francis, however, they wanted to do that as lay people, without leaving their homes, their families, or their work. To help make that possible, Francis encouraged them to live as penitents, freely embracing the Franciscan charisms. This loosely organized confederacy of lay followers eventually became the Third Order of St. Francis, which would include two branches.

The first was a secular branch (today known as the Secular Franciscan Order), which continued to be made up of lay men, lay women, and secular clergy (diocesan bishops, priests, and deacons), all striving, like Francis, to follow Jesus. The second branch was made up of religious communities of men and women. The Franciscan friars who founded and administer Franciscan University belong to this branch. Those developments, however, didn’t diminish the importance of penance or metanoia within the Third Order Regular. Ongoing conversion remains one of the primary charisms of the TORs
of the Sacred Heart Province and of the University its friars founded.

3. Metanoia is a lifelong process.

Baptism is a once and done thing. Once you become an adopted child of God, that’s it. There are no do-overs. You can sin. You can lose the gift of sanctifying grace. You can walk away from the Church and never darken another parish door. But, you can’t get re-baptized. It’s once, for always.

Metanoia is different. It’s something that by its nature happens again and again and again. Nobody is perfect. Everybody stumbles. And when we stumble, the smartest thing we can do is get up and run right back to Jesus. Which is metanoia. Moreover, the closer we grow to Jesus, the brighter his light shines in our soul. This light illuminates every part of our heart and mind, showing us all our lingering attachments to sin and calling us to repent of those attachments and turn to Jesus. Which, again, is metanoia.

That same light of Christ illuminates other things as well, not just sin but habits of life and thought that aren’t the fullness of what God wants for us. When we turn away from anything—a job, a relationship, a hobby, a way of seeing others or spending our money or using social media—and then turn toward Jesus to more closely follow him, we are experiencing metanoia.

“The whole of the Christian life is metanoia,” says Minto. “It’s daily. It’s constant. It’s initial, and then it’s ongoing. It’s never anything that you completely achieve. It’s something that you are always performing. The sacraments of the Church should teach us that. If there was no need for ongoing conversion, there would be no need for confession.”

Metanoia also takes place in the context of an ordinary day. It’s not something that happens apart from our work or studies or family life but something that happens in the midst of those things.

“The greatest movements for grace always come in a vocational context,” Minto explains. “When you think, ‘If I just had more time to pray, I’d be a holier person,’ you’re missing it. We don’t have to work hard to hear God’s voice. It’s usually so close to home. It’s the thing to which we don’t want to pay attention.”

The idea that conversion is constant and part of our daily life isn’t always easy for Christians and, possibly, Catholics in particular, to grasp.

“As a Church, we don’t talk a lot about conversion,” says Franciscan University’s president, Father Dave Pivonka, TOR, ’89. “If you were to go to the average Catholic in
the pew and ask, ‘When did you have your conversion?’ a large number of people wouldn’t know how to respond to that question. Others would say, ‘I’ve been Catholic my whole life. I don’t need to convert.’ They equate conversion with a singular event or with Protestants coming into the Church.”

He continues, “Years ago, two freshmen came to see me, and they were talking about their desires for their time at Franciscan. And I said to them, ‘My hope is that you experience conversion.’ Years later, they shared with me that they had walked out of that conversation frustrated. They didn’t understand why Father Dave thought they needed
conversion. They already knew Jesus. That’s typical for so many Catholics. The idea that conversion is a continual process is foreign to many of us. We tend to think conversion is for ‘those people, out there,’ and not for us.”

4. Metanoia isn’t easy.

Sin is death. God is life. It should be an easy choice between the two. But, it’s not. Partly because we have to make the choice for God over and over again, year after year, in good times and bad. As time goes on, we discover that while Jesus may offer us more joy than we ever imagined, he also requires of us more sacrifices than we ever imagined.

“We don’t think that Jesus is ever going to ask anything difficult of us,” Father Dave explains. “So often, all we think we signed up for is to love Jesus. Then we find out what that entails, and it’s like, ‘He said what?’ We just weren’t expecting the difficulty that inevitably comes with following Jesus, with doing things his way and not the world’s way.

“Also,” he adds, “everybody has things that keep us away from conversion—power, possessions, influence—and we don’t want to let go of those things. We’re attached to them. Breaking attachments is hard.”

Our own nature works against us, too. As Father Jonathan notes, “Being sinners does not incline us to repent of our sin.”

This was true thousands of years ago of God’s “hard-hearted” and “stiff-necked” people, the ancient Israelites. They saw the Nile turn to blood, were led through the desert by a pillar of fire, and dined daily on manna sent from on high. But despite all they witnessed, they repeatedly struggled to let go of their sinful idols and follow God.

Their “obstinance,” says Minto, led to “a refusal to receive what God offered.” Our obstinance can lead us to do the same.

An affection for sin can also lead us to become the “double-minded person,” mentioned in the Letter of St. James, who, Minto says, “wants to have their cake and eat it too” and “doesn’t see the contradiction in choosing both sin and God.”

It also doesn’t help that we live in a culture that denies the very existence of sin, believes in tolerance, not truth, and often confuses fraternal correction with shaming.

“Even as Christians, we can’t help but be affected by a culture that isn’t honest about its own sinfulness,” says Father Jonathan. “We are overly careful at times about our words and don’t always lovingly and prudently challenge each other, because we don’t want to give offense.”

5. Metanoia means God does most of the work.

Despite all the challenges we face in experiencing metanoia, we have one advantage: metanoia is always a work of grace. This means, when it comes to repentance, God does the heavy lifting, not us.

“The call to conversion is a gift from God to us,” says Father Jonathan. “You see this with St. Francis. It’s always, ‘The Lord gave me this, and the Lord gave me that.’ His conversion was all about the gifts the Lord gave him and doing penance was his response.

“So, the first step is God’s,” he continues. “Because sometimes we think of metanoia or penance as something I do, but it’s more something God first does in me and that I respond to.”

That doesn’t mean we get to sit back and let God do all the work. When we hear his call, when we feel the tug on our heart, we need to respond. We need to begin the hard work of turning away from whatever he is asking us to turn away from and turn toward him instead. We also need to take advantage of all the opportunities God gives us to receive his grace: reading his word in Scripture, spending time in prayer, going before the Blessed Sacrament, receiving the Eucharist, and going to confession.

“Repentance breeds more repentance,” says Minto. “The more we cooperate with grace, the more open we are to grace. This is the vision Paul has of Christian freedom in Galatians and Romans. If love fulfills all the commandments, if you are open to the one you love, then you are inspired more and more to love him. The whole process only gets shut down when we stop it, when we say, ‘This is the door I will not let you open.’ At that point, grace can go no further.

“But,” he concludes, “the good news is that despite how that makes us look like we’re in control, we aren’t. God’s grace is so abundant and so generous that it seeks us out, finds us, and wears us down. God gets us anyway. He’s the hound of heaven. So, he allows our weaknesses to serve this ongoing conversion process.

“He lets us wallow in our restlessness until we realize that what we’re really seeking is what we turned away from. What we are seeking is him.”