One of my oldest friends has become a stranger. Gradually, each yearly domino has come to bear on its predecessor, until the cascade has landed here: from closest of friends to bare acquaintance. My attempts at staying in touch are met with silence. Take a hint, I tell myself.
But I can’t. Moments of lonely thought, while driving or running or even vacuuming, of turning my relationship with my old friend over in my mind, have led me to a conclusion: that I believe in the possibility, however dim, of a change of heart, ceasing only with death. I believe in metanoia.
Metanoia is a word I love. It sounds like a medical condition or a punk band. I can picture it on a prescription bottle or a T-shirt. But it is a word that has stuck with me from university theology classes, Greek for “change of mind,” meaning a change in one’s life resulting from a spiritual conversion. Metanoia is more lasting than a momentary epiphany, more active than an intellectual revelation. Metanoia is a radical change of heart, forcing one to dig deeply. It is a prayer answered, but it requires a further response.
The potential to change, to see with new eyes, fires the imagination, fuels the visionary and changes the world. I need only look to my own formative years for the impact of metanoia, to see an atheistic college student turned director of religious education (albeit one who struggles with the qualifications for the job). I spent a semester of my sophomore year in Rome, learning required words like metanoia, but never once went to Mass. I visited cathedrals to study their architectural prowess (and sometimes excess) rather than to worship. I changed dollars to lire at the Vatican because it had the best exchange rate, and enjoyed the Swiss Guards’ funky uniforms, but never even thought about the pope residing there (at the time, Paul VI). I got drunk in Assisi, made out with my boyfriend in Siena, my sole temple being my own youth. Today I would behave differently at these holy places. I regret my former lack of awe.
But these foolish times mark a small demonstration of the power of metanoia. On a grand scale, we look to the likes of St. Paul, St. Augustine and Dorothy Day for the drama of life-altering change. Change can be incredibly difficult; it is also both possible and not to be expected. We read the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who experienced metanoia in the masked presence of the risen Christ, and we can identify. We have all had those moments when our hearts indeed burn within us, and we are aflame with the possibility and the consuming desire to be more. We want to reach beyond ourselves.
So I call my friend’s number and leave messages that go unanswered. I send e-mail. I send Christmas cards, photos of the kids, articles I have written. “Why bother?” ask some of my other friends. This is a person obviously not interested in reviving past intimacy. Why keep reaching out a hand that is certain to be unacknowledged, if not slapped?
Some days I am tempted to agree with them. Why do I bother? My friend has chosen distance, both physically and emotionally, and ignores weddings, births and deaths in our old circle of friends. For most of us, she is a memory.
But I can still remember that she was once my best friend, my hero, my kindred spirit. There was a time as teenagers when we communicated without words, when our wavelengths exactly touched. She was smart, witty, laid-back and the personification of cool. Later, she danced at my wedding, was amazed by my first pregnancy and was totally in awe of my new baby. I guess the pull of time is stronger than the tides, and perhaps stronger than the bond of friendship—because these are very much distant memories, shadowy and failing, the ghost of a Christmas long past.
It is easy to believe in metanoia intellectually, as an item on a list of concepts in which one believes. It is harder to believe in the face of strong opposing signs. And it is harder still to live it. Staying in touch, keeping channels (doors, windows) open, is a first step. Lately it seems a futile step.
My 12-step friends tell me I am wasting my energy on an impossible task. They say that while my efforts may make me feel better, I should not expect any results. The only person you can change, say 12-step programs, is yourself. I understand that principle as a practical way to keep from losing your mind and life to an addiction. But is that a reason to give up on others? Is that the death of hope?
I find that in order to believe in the power of prayer, which I do, I must believe in the possibility—even the probability—of a change of heart, in myself and in others. If prayer can move mountains and cure cancer, then surely it can mend hearts and bend minds. Surely that is our Catholic belief. As I get older, I realize that Jesus socialized with sinners not because the jokes were better (although I imagine the sinners were a jollier bunch than the Sanhedrin), but because he was about God’s work of changing hearts.
Is it Christ-like to open one’s heart again and again only to have it shrivel in the cold empty air, or is that self-abuse? It is the latter if I do not believe in the possibility of metanoia. But it must be the former if I say I understand the meaning of redemption.
We find and lose friends along the road of life. Perhaps I will never see my friend’s radical change of heart. But I know it’s in her, as much as it is in each of us, in each lovely image and likeness of God.