going to do better v. doing better

This morning I telephoned one of our dearest friends. We speak often, yet this was an especial conversation on an especial day of commemoration after a year of great, grave loss. Our friend, one of the most honest, resilient, and courageous people we know, shared a variety of her thoughts and feelings about her grief and her growth.

Though acknowledging life’s difficulties and she’s known far more than her fair share, she’s never dwelled on her disappointments. (As one who long has wrestled with the overweening power of his inner grudge-bearing spirit, I could, perhaps should take or at least borrow this good page from her book!) Still, referring to occasions when she had received less than the support she desired and needed, she mentioned a conversation with a relative who, conceding that lack, confessed, “I’m going to do better.”

This particular encounter, for me, is a lens peering into the matrix of our universal human experience.

Who among us has not felt discontent with family members, however short-or-long-lived, however once-and-done or damnably repeated (thereby painfully validating the observation attributed to American author Edna Buchanan, “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves”)? I have.

And who among us, at one point or another, has not been that relative or friend who, in a time of another’s desire or need, could have done more, but didn’t or wouldn’t? I have.

And who among us, in her or his life’s pilgrimage, has not journeyed along the path of penitence whilst needing to take that road always less traveled of repentance? I have.

Penitence and repentance, as two heavily theologically freighted and weighted words, oft are confined to conversations about the relationship between humanity and divinity, between us and God, and used interchangeably. However, on both counts, I discern a need for the deepening of our understanding, thus, purposefully applying penitence and repentance to all of our human interactions and distinctly. On this latter point, penitence and repentance are related, but not the same.

Penitence connotes my regretting something I’ve said or done or not said or not done that has caused harm to another. Repentance (as the younger word, entering language-use roughly around the 13th century, a hundred years or so after penitence, thus, I think, remarkably, revealingly indicating a secondary, necessary enhancement of meaning) signifies my attempt to alter my behavior; no longer leaving undone things that I ought to have done and no longer doing things that I ought not to have done.[1]

By way of simplistic, yet concrete clarifying example…

I step on your foot (whether my act is careless or deliberate, your pain is the same).

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

Later, I step on your foot.

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

I, at still another subsequent moment, step on your foot.

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

You: Paul, I appreciate your penitence, but what I really desire and need is your repentance.

Penitence and repentance. The difference between “I’m going to do better” and doing better.

 

Footnote:

[1] A paraphrase of the Confession of Sin, Morning Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, pages 41-42

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Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

A conversation…a confession about race

Two men.

Different as different could be. Save for gender. And age. Both 60-something. And stage of life. Both retired. And, both Episcopalians, religious upbringing.

One. White. An attorney. The child of an old Southern family with roots tracing back to mid-17th century English colonists. His mother, a painter of note and an author. His father, a prominent attorney from a long, generational line of prominent attorneys.

The other. Black. An Episcopal priest. Midwestern born. His mother, an elementary school teacher. His father, a postal clerk.

Two men, largely different as the proverbial day and night, in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) encounter in a quiet corner of a coffee shop of a local bookstore, engaging in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) conversation about race…

A conversation that, once he discovered my vocation, became his chosen opportunity for his confession. “I’ve wanted, I’ve needed to share this with someone for a long time…”

He sat forward, clutching his coffee cup in his hands, first, looking down, averting his gaze, telling me of his formative years. His parents had taught him that his privileged life bore an obligation to care for those who were needy, which, he acknowledged, as he understood their instruction, meant those who were lesser endowed with the material blessings of life, which, he further admitted, meant those who weren’t white. His parents, “Good people,” he quickly asserted, did not teach him that they were “better than other people.”

Still, certain moments in his childhood were indelibly, painfully imprinted on his memory.

His nanny, “a lovely, kind lady”, who cared for him from his earliest days, wasn’t allowed to enter their home through the front door. One morning, he, then at the age of 8, seeing her approach the house and turning, preparing “to go around to the back”, opened the front door, happily welcoming her; an impertinence, his parents made clear, that prompted an unpleasant scene of his being corrected and of her being chastised…

On another occasion, he, accompanied by his nanny, rode the bus downtown. He could not understand why she had to leave him and go to the rear when there were plenty of empty seats in the front. When he asked her, she declined to say more than, “That’s the way it is.” When he later asked his parents, they simply affirmed, “She is right.”

But somehow, even as a child, he knew it wasn’t right. “What is right,” he looked up at me, his lips trembling, yet his voice firm, “is that we’re all equal because God made us that way.”

Then, as best as I can recall, he said something like this: “For a long time, I’ve thought about Jesus on the cross asking his Father to forgive those who were killing him. I finally decided if he, who died for me, could do that, I needed to forgive my parents for their ignorance. But,” he held out his hands to me, “I need to be forgiven for my silence. All these years, I’ve known what was right and I never said or did anything to make it right. I promised God I would do something, whatever I can, but right now I want you to ask God to forgive me. Please.”

Taking his hands, we said the Confession of Sin that Episcopalians pray every Sunday. Then, making the sign of the cross, I pronounced the absolution of sin. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He mouthed a silent, “Thank you,” stood, and departed.

For a while, I sat motionless; moved, stunned by the experience of his transparent honesty, his naked humility, his patent sorrow, and his evident need, and by the swiftness of our entry into the depths of our encounter and the abruptness – yet, in its own way, timeliness – of its end. I do not know whether we will see each other again. It’s doubtful, I think. But, if we do, I will say to him, “Thank you.”