I grew up in a milieu that was attuned more to psychoanalysis than to religion, and as a teenager I ridiculed religion as the refuge of people who felt neurotically guilty about their “sins.” Repentance was just a word in a cartoon showing a wild-eyed, bearded figure carrying a sign that read: “Repent Now! The End Is Nigh!”
But when I came to Meher Baba, my understanding of religious concepts such as sin, repentance, and forgiveness were transformed. I began to have an appreciation of repentance as a central necessity of spiritual life, and the word that I once laughed at became strangely beautiful to me.
The words for repentance in Judaism (Hebrew teshuvah) and Islam (Arabic tauba) have the connotation of turning back, retracing one's steps in order to return. The Christian idea of repentance is expressed in the Gospels by the Greek word metanoia, which means “thinking in a new way.” In all three traditions it means turning away from one’s sin and back toward God.
In the discourse entitled “The Removal of Sanskaras, Part I,” Meher Baba discusses repentance as an effective means of unwinding sanskaras, the binding impressions deposited on the mental body by our every thought, word, and deed down through the ages. Baba seems to use the word “repentance” interchangeably with “penance.” However, there is a distinction between the two. Repentance is an internal, mental and emotional event in which we recall our wrongful thoughts, words, and deeds with a “remorseful heart” and “acute disapproval.” By contrast, penance is an external act that expresses one’s repentance. An example that Baba gives is “self-humiliation,” or cultivating humility toward others. Baba discourages the practice of self-mortification as penance, which He says is best accomplished under the loving direction of a master.
Repentance, however, is a meditative act that we can do anytime. For example, as a nightly practice, we could review the day’s actions, identifying those that are undesirable and summoning up feelings of remorse and resolve in connection with them. We might ask God for forgiveness for disobedience to Him and apologize to people we have wronged. An especially important practice is to mentally give the results of all our thoughts, words, and deeds—both bad and good—to Baba.
An ideal way to get acquainted with repentance is to recite the Prayer of Repentance given by Baba in 1952. This prayer not only teaches us what kinds of things we ought to repent for, but actually enables us to arrive at true repentance. This is because Baba participated in the recital of the prayer in order to help anyone who would say it in the future. For that reason, I believe that it is beneficial to practice this prayer even if we only say it mechanically. However, making an effort to say the prayer with deep feeling is more rewarding.
Baba says, “Self-condemnation accompanied by deep feeling can negate the sanskaras of anger, greed, and lust.” By “self-condemnation,” Baba does not mean “gloomy pondering over one’s own failings”; repentance must not lead to “lack of self-respect or self-confidence.” Its purpose is merely to “render impossible the repetition of certain types of action.”
It is essential that we completely turn away from the object of repentance. Baba says in The Everything and the Nothing: “. . . people ask God's forgiveness, and He forgives them. But they, instead of forgetting that for which they asked forgiveness, forget that God has forgiven them, and, instead, remember the things they were forgiven—and so nourish the seed of wrongdoing, and it bears its fruit again.”
Those who have studied the art of repentance agree that it is an ongoing process, with many different states and stages. One Sufi master, Dhu’n-Nun, links repentance to the two divine qualities Majesty (jalal) and Beauty (jamal)—that is, His Wrath and His Mercy. Those who perceive God’s Majesty repent out of fear of the consequences of their bad behavior, while those who gaze upon God’s Beauty repent out of shame before His generosity. “The people of shame are the companions of intoxication; the people of fear the companions of sobriety.”
The different levels of repentance have been analyzed by Sufi masters. For beginners the task is to turn away from wrongful actions. The intermediate level means turning away from inappropriate thoughts and intentions. And the advanced stage means that one turns away from even one’s own self, for to maintain a separate existence is to deny the Absolute Being of God. A Persian poet wrote:
When I said, “I did not sin,”
She said in reply:
“Your life is a sin
to which no other sin can compare.”
The spirit of repentance may be born with a simple willingness to look critically at our own life and behavior, an openness to change and to new ways of looking at things. The results can be amazing. A Jewish saying asserts that “repentance is a key that opens any lock.” The Sufis call repentance “the beginning of all happiness.”
God is always ready to forgive, so the gates of repentance are never closed to us. In fact, as Baba says, “Forgiveness of the created was already there in His act of creation,” so in reality forgiveness precedes repentance. Someone once asked the saint Rabi‘a, “If I repent, will God forgive me?” She replied: “No. But if He forgives you, you will repent.”
Although God has already forgiven us, our repentance pleases Him. I think here we find a secret of repentance. As we turn toward Baba with a simple act of wishing to please Him, and turn away from something that displeases Him, a key turns and a door opens. Repentance may seem difficult, but He can make it easy. We have only to take a first step to find out what treasures it unlocks.