Repentance for me is a bloody process. I’m stalking 40 years of age, and my understanding of repentance is a much darker, more violent and powerful star than the “repentance is like a bar of soap” example given in the Primary cosmos. Just as “milk before meat” is a component of the gospel, so is the real awareness of bringing “a contrite heart and broken spirit” to our personal altars before the Saviour. The blood and profound change to His feet is as painful and fundamental as our own pivotal experiences are, leaving us marked and leaking on our way.
I’m searching for deeper examples of repentance, forgiveness, charity and patience not only because I’m parenting teens, but because my own heart and dedication wobble in the course of my days. Soap’s useless when the issue at hand is internal, gory and nasty. Being washed clean as the first person in an entire family to join the church is a wonderful occasion, but the washing doesn’t rinse away generations of abuse, dysfunction and family habits. Sometimes the repentance process involves not taking the sacrament, leaving deacons anxiously pressing trays to knees, encouraging to take the morsel, accept the love, unaware of the gnawing of bone going on inside, worrying our broken shards towards redemption somewhere further ahead.
Years ago, I cannonballed in love. I was gleaning my confidence back after divorce, and kung fu pushed my shoulders back, ju-jitsu taught me to throw my frustrations to the floor, while the men at the kwoon showed me respect and encouragement. I loved my gi (sparring jacket), the people I met, the strength I found in my muscles and my focus. I met the guy on the training mats, where we annoyed and bemused our sifu (sensei) by discussing Russian literature and movies while blocking punches. He was devoted to the woo, sending me text messages of support, appreciation, flirty little notes and book recommendations. He made love to my mind long before we kissed in the rain, the universe staggering around us from the colossal impact of lips, nerves and fluttering hopes.
I didn’t care he wasn’t LDS – he was kind, thoughtful, smart, attractive, attentive. Because for months before I met him I had an understanding blooming from my history and experience; while I knew God and Jesus Christ loved everyone, God loved me just a little bit less. So I knew that my happiness wouldn’t matter as much, that it would be lower on His To-Do list… So I would take the happiness I could, and love it.
I loved him. Me, who never thought I’d ever be able to love someone again, had somehow grown a Frankenstein’s monster of a heart, and danced in his arms alive, alive, alive! I told my bishop, who cried, and I stated frankly that I wasn’t sorry. I wasn’t. Not then.
Two weeks later, I broke my own heart. Do not doubt this: I loved that man. But it was realising in my bishop’s office the previous Sundays that I already missed my God more than I would ever miss him, that I knew I had to stop what I was doing. I broke up into pieces telling him we were done, having no answer that made sense to him, with no sense but bloody brokenness while I told him over and over again “I’m sorry, I can’t, I won’t, I’m sorry.”
My tears and leaky clumps of heart were the first things I put on the altar. As I worked through my grief, my fury, as I stood at the fragile edges of my belief of Christ’s love for me, I bled great whorls onto the stone. My lack of understanding was crumpled onto the altar. I stumbled my way along repentance, accepting I couldn’t soothe the anxious deacons during sacrament, that I couldn’t avoid apologising to friends, that I wasn’t nearly as alone as I had felt before just lonelier…all rocks and barbed wire, spiny weeds and glowing embers added to the pile. Repentance takes sacrifice, and part of mine took more than a tithe of embarrassment, vanity, truth telling and gut wrenching regret.
I also left my gi on the altar. I didn’t go back to kung fu, stopped my martial arts lessons, for a whole handful of reasons the pile of black soft cotton was as tearstained and worthy a sacrifice as anything else I’d given. Given, given up, it’s all accountable, known and weighed before God.
Repentance is simple, and awful, joyous and profound. Sometimes the altar may be two pebbles balanced on each other when a jerk cuts me off in traffic, sometimes it’s as huge and dangerous as my pride. What is left on the altar as a sacrifice before God, before Christ, are as individual as we are. For some it is like washing with soap, leaving the stone slick and shiny. Sometimes glistening comes from tears, sex or best intentions. I know of family left on the altar, jobs, cakes, sarcasm, jokes, marriages, self-abuse, lies, books, habits and truth – every person a different collection, a different donation, a different broken heart and spirit. The power of a broken heart is that it doesn’t work the same way ever again, that we break bones and spill blood to fix it, that we have to almost gut ourselves to get it working again, and then keep watching it, in case of ourselves. It’s bloody, vital; it stains and sustains us.
I still wake, sometimes, feeling the edges of my gi between my fingers. I know where it is, symbolically stacked neatly on my personal altar way back then, left to Christ for proof of my dedication, my determination to repent, to return to Him. Sometimes though, I want to take it back, just for a minute, just for half a second… But my broken heart thuds and reminds me that what I left on my altar wasn’t only proof of sin, but proof of life. A new life, this life, with all its mess and epiphanies, trials and thunderstorms, grudges and forgottens, back aches and heart breaks, altars spilling over, and each bruised hopeful step closer to home.
What symbolism or imagery do you have about repentance? Do you prefer the soap example given to kids, or prefer another example? How do you discuss repentance with different ages? Has your understanding of the process of repentance changed with age, experience and/or consideration?