Repentance: A Return to Our True Heart

Earlier this fall, I came across these lines from a sermon by Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century French abbot and the primary builder of the reforming Cisterian order:

“He calls upon sinners to return to their true spirit and rebukes them when their hearts have gone astray, for it is in the true heart that he dwells and there he speaks, fulfilling what he taught through the prophet: Speak to the heart of Jerusalem. You see, my brothers, how the prophet admonishes us for our advantage: If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. You can read almost the same words in the gospel and in the prophet. For in the gospel the Lord says: My sheep hear my voice. And in the psalm blessed David says: You are his people (meaning, of course, the Lord’s) and the sheep of his pasture. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

True spirit. True heart. It’s easy for me to hear the “sinner” language come with a tone of shame and even condemnation if I’m not careful. But if I recognize that “sinner” simply means one turned away from God–a wayward one—I can hear the invitation to return as a gift, a calling to return to reality, the longing of a Father’s heart to embrace His son.

What I was struck by here was the language of repentance focused not so much on returning to God as much as returning to our true spirit—our true heart—where God dwells and speaks. This is an intimate and integrating invitation. I can stray from my true heart and live from a false center. I can forget that God really does make Himself at home at the very center of my true self and communes with me there. I do not have a relationship with a distant Deity, but with an indwelling Lover. It sounds scandalous.

“Enable me today, Father, to return to my true heart. Cause me to see the reality of Who You are and who I am in You (and You in me). This mystical sounding language is merely an echo of how You speak, Jesus, in John 14:20, “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” Amen!”

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