Lessons from a Lily: What My (Lack of) Green Thumb Taught Me About Repentance

I’ve never had a green thumb. Unfortunately, very few plants I’ve ever tried to nurture have enjoyed long lives. After awhile, their perfect posture and vibrant colors give way to a sagging, crumpled, brittle version of their former selves. Although I have been a poor custodian of the plant life in my care, I have found them to be generous teachers in return, teaching me more than the obvious fact that I have no business owning plants.

The best lessons of all, though, came from a spunky little peace lily I received once as a gift. Against all odds, this fearless little creature seemed determined to survive despite my neglect. Once, after a couple busy weeks, I found its stems flattened pathetically against the soil as though it was hanging its head in disgust. But just a couple hours after a long drink of water,  it was standing up straight and tall looking as healthy as ever.

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Perhaps its most powerful lesson came when we rearranged the furniture in our house, and I moved the lily to a different spot, one without as much direct sunlight as its previous home. Over the next week, I noticed a fascinating transformation. The stems of the lily started to curve, slowly moving upward and toward the right. My lily had changed its overall shape. After a few days, I realized what was happening. Lacking adequate sunlight as a result of my ill-fated home décor project, it was actually turning itself, stem by gentle stem, toward the closest window where it might open itself to more light.

I think of that courageous lily every year during Lent, and it never fails to lift my spirits. Unfortunately, many people find Lent to be a bit of a drag, a sort of purgatory one must endure before a heavenly Easter celebration. For them, these 40 days are all about giving up the things they enjoy the most, dwelling on their failures and shortcomings, and attempting to “make up” for their sinfulness by doing good works, none of which feels very joyful. Focusing on these things as ends in themselves leaves me feeling like my little peace lily after being forgotten for a while, stems drooping against the weight of unmet needs.

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We hear the words of John the Baptist from Scripture very clearly during Lent: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). But I think the common understanding of the word “repent” may be anything but clear. “Repent” means to feel great sorrow about one’s wrongdoing, which may lead us to think of Lent as a season of guilt and condemnation. But it’s important to remember that the word repent is a translation from the Greek term originally used, metanoia, which means changing one’s mind. The difference in the two translations is profound.

To me, Lent is a joyful opportunity to change my mind – to think differently – as Jesus taught us. Through word and example, he taught us to welcome the stranger, turn the other cheek, give to those who hurt us, welcome suffering, and accept the need for sacrifice. That kind of thinking is counter-cultural, at the very least, if not downright subversive. But that’s what Jesus came to help us do – to change our minds. To think differently about our desire to store up wealth as a means of security. To think differently about our usual view that we are responsible only for our individual selves. To think differently about our inclination to shut out people who have views we despise and values we don’t understand.

For me, Lent is less about wallowing in my sinfulness and more about stretching toward the sunlight, inch by inch, stem by stem, until I am fully opened to the nurturing warmth of life in God. It’s about giving God the time and space to invite us to further renewal. It’s about changing our minds, thinking differently, making room for more sunlight.

Mary Ann Steutermann is currently the director of campus ministry at Assumption High School, an all-girls Catholic high school in Louisville, Kentucky. A career educator, she has more than 20 years experience as an English teacher, assistant principal, and principal and does freelance writing on the side. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and two master's degrees in education. Mary Ann lives in Louisville with her husband and son.