‘Repent, for the Kingdom of the Heavens is at hand!’ (Mt 4:17)

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

I discovered today that the Latin Vulgate gives paenitentiam agite — Do penance! — where English Bibles usually give, ‘Repent!’ in Matthew 4:17. The Greek is metanoeite; the automatic instinct is to opt for the English. The Latin would seem to tend towards simply performing some sort out outward act, mere ‘works righteousness’ without a related renovation of the heart. Or perhaps a purely sacramental version; confess to a priest and perform the penance assigned.

Certainly, it could be read that way. It has been used that way.

For Ivo of Chartres, who has come up on this blog a few times lately, paenitentiam agere may better be, to carry out penitence. It is interesting what happens with the switch of verb and the switching out of one English derivative from paenitentia for another. Ivo is insistent in his letters that just because a person — be he king or bishop — has performed some outward act of charity or discipline does not mean that true paenitentia has occurred.

Paenitentia involves the inward workings of the human heart. These are visible to God alone. However, for Ivo, as for medieval culture more generally, the inner person will manifest itself in outer deeds. Thus, to carry out penitence will necessarily involve both true contrition for sin and behaviour that shows a desire, a willingness, to change.

Today’s Protestant is probably still wary of this question of the outer behaviour.

For Ivo, as represented in the Prologue that he wrote for his canon law collection (the Decretum — a title it shares with many other canon law collections!), the canons of the church are remedies for sin. These canons include the order for administering penitence. I am not going to get into the concept of temporal penalties for sins in mediaeval theology for two reason: 1. I don’t feel like offending any Roman Catholic readers; 2. I am not sure what it’s development looked like in the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, whether someone believed that penitential acts could get them time off Purgatory, Ivo’s argument is fairly simple: they help you become holier. That is, with the aid of the grace of God working in you, your penitential actions will help make your soul healthier (remember the medical imagery he uses) and thus more able both to perform virtuous deeds and resist temptations to sin.

This, I think, carries with it a fuller understanding of repentance than our usual English translation of metanoeite in Matthew 4:17. Is it biblical? Well, I hope so. Here is a brief thought on metanoia: it is a word used in various situations to refer to a changing of directions — perhaps changing sides in a war, for example. To risk the etymological fallacy, it seems to have something to do with changing your nous, your mind/intellect/heart/however you wish to translate that word. In that case, Jesus is referring to changing the direction of your life and heart to live in the Kingdom of the Heavens.

To effect that change — well, here we fall back on St Paul’s various lists of virtues and vices, of fruits of the Spirit, and his exhortations to pray, to worship God, to rejoice in the Lord, to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. It strikes me that what Ivo is doing is trying to find specific applications of St Paul’s general principles for the health of those Christians who write him letters or who use his canon law collection.

And one last thing — Ivo’s Christian is not alone, not sitting about performing penitential deeds in isolation. Ivo’s Christian, clerical or lay, is part of the militia Christi — the army of Christ. He or she is a communicating member of the local Church, having received the sacrament of holy baptism and partaking of the blessed sacrament of Holy Communion. He or she is a hearer or reader of God’s word, whether in sermon or from a book.

This is the context of ideal mediaeval penitence — the real life of the church as lived in community by real people.


Christof Rolker, Canon Law and the Letters of Ivo of Chartres

Ivo of Chartres, Prologue, in Somerville and Brasington, Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity, pp. 132-158.

Blogging Benedict: Punishment

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Here are the notes I wrote down while reading the chapters of the Rule, 23-30, about punishment:

23: Corporal punishment sounds harsh. I’d say it is, but in RB’s context, many other rules are much freer with the rod.

  • Note that excommunication is here rooted in biblical principles, Matthew 18.

24-26: Cutting people off from community probably very harsh in the communal world a monastery, of the sixth century. But sin damages community. Excommunication gives time for the community and the sinner to heal before restoration and reconciliation. We want these matters to be instant, but what if they cannot be, due to our own timebound nature? Then, indeed, we will need periods of separation for spiritual healing.

27: The abbots goal with the excommunicated is to heal them. Penance and consolation are both remedies. Ivo of Chartres:

Indeed all ecclesiastical discipline chiefly has this intent: either to tear down every structure that raises itself up against the knowledge of Christ, or to build up the enduring house of God in truth of faith and honesty of character, or if that house of God be defiled, to cleanse it with the remedies of penance. The mistress of this house is charity, which sees to the welfare of our neighbours, commanding that it be done for others what one wishes to be done for himself. -Prologue to the Decretum and Panormia, trans. Somerville and Brasington, Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity, pp. 133-34

The abbot ‘must bear in mind that he has undertaken the care of weak souls, not a tyranny over those who are strong.’ (p. 52 English trans.)

GRACE – Example of Christ the Good Shepherd.

28: If all else fails, expel the unrepentant from the monastery.

30: Beating the young vs. Anselm. [Anselm argued against beating the youths in monastic care but sought their shaping through love instead.]

What takeaway might there be? First, a good abbot/spiritual leader seeks the spiritual health of the individuals and the community. Second, sometimes this might mean a period of separation with the goal of reconciliation. Third, assigning penances is not simply a matter of purgatorial satisfaction but rather a means of helping our souls grow stronger.

How do our communities deal with unrepentant, repeat offenders who tear at their fabric? How do we balance grace and justice, mercy and the need to protect the community from destructive behaviour?

Burchard of Worms on the distracted mind

From the preface of Burchard’s Decretum (ca. 1012-1023):

I was unable to proceed [with this project] for two reasons: because of various and inevitable ecclesiastical obligations, which emerge daily just as waves of the sea, and, moreover, because of responsibility for secular affairs relating to imperial commands. These greatly blunt the mind of one zealous and striving toward higher things, because the mind of anyone, while it is divided among very many things, will be weaker for each one. (Trans. Somerville & Brasington, Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity, p. 100)

This final clause is exactly the result of spending too much time on social media and not enough time in deep reading and personal interactions.

Makes me seriously consider taking another techno-fast, or getting off Facebook & Twitter altogether…

Extract from Burchard’s Decretum, taken from Wikimedia Commons.