Most words that carry much weight in any language have more than one precise isolated meaning. Language is richly textured. Creativity is impoverished when we determine that wordsnmust mean and imply only one thing.

Words have meanings at many levels. We will always do violence to our traditions and to our ability to communicate when we demand that a word means only one thing.

It is particularly important to respect the multiplicity of possible word meanings when trying to speak about the spiritual life or trying to do theology.

In the New Testament, the word translated into English as “repent” is the Greek word “metanoia“. I suggested on February 23 that “metanoia” is a compound word made up of the prefix meta meaning “change,” and noia, which means “mind”. So “metanoia” means, “to change your mind”. I went on to suggest that repentance involves thinking in more healthy life-giving ways.

This usage of “metanoia” connects the word “noia“, whose root is “nous” with the rational cognitive processes we normally associate with the human brain. To “repent” is to change our mind. The cognitive process is one meaning of the word “nous“, but only one.

Nous” also implies a dimension that is deeper than the rational cognitive functions of the brain. English does not have a good word for “nous” in this deeper sense. We sometimes speak of soul, or heart, but there is no exact equivalent in English.

The poet Scott Cairns in his book Adventures in New Testament Greek attempts to evoke this deeper sense of “nous” in his poem called “Nous“.

(nb: I doubt there is anything I can do to get WordPress to format the following poem the way it is intended to appear. So you would be best served to visit the poem here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177144)

Cairns writes,

Adventures in New Testament Greek: Nous

You could almost think the word synonymous
with mind, given our so far narrow

history, and the excessive esteem

in which we have been led to hold what is,
in this case, our rightly designated
nervous systems. Little wonder then
that some presume the mind itself both part
and parcel of the person, the very seat
of soul and, lately, crucible for a host
of chemical incentives—combinations
of which can pretty much answer for most
of our habits and for our affections.
When even the handy lexicon cannot
quite place the nous as anything beyond
one rustic ancestor of reason, you might

be satisfied to trouble the odd term

no further—and so would fail to find
your way to it, most fruitful faculty
untried. Dormant in its roaring cave,
the heart’s intellective aptitude grows dim,
unless you find a way to wake it. So,

let’s try something, even now. Even as

you tend these lines, attend for a moment
to your breath as you draw it in: regard

the breath’s cool descent, a stream from mouth
to throat to the furnace of the heart.
Observe that queer, cool confluence of breath

and blood, and do your thinking there.

For Cairns, “nous” in its deepest sense is a whole new way of being. For most of us much of the time it is a neglected faculty that lies “Dormant in its roaring cave… unless you find a way to wake it.”

To repent is to accept the necessary changes that enable this “dormant” capacity within our being to awaken.

Lent calls us to find ways to wake up to the deeper realities of what it means to be truly human. It call us to explore “the heart’s intellective aptitude” and “do your thinking there”.

The journey to “nous” requires something much more physical than intellectual.

Cairns wisely directs the reader to the breath, instructing us to “attend for a moment/ to your breath as you draw it in.”

Breath is life. Paying attention to our breath has the power to awaken the depths of our being, ushering us into that “roaring cave” where we open to a deeper awareness of God’s presence in all of life.