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Teach Me How to Repent

April 14, 2021

Sheila Vamplin


Holy Sonnet VII

John Donne


At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow

Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise

From death, you numberless infinities

Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go;

All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,

All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,

Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes

Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe.

But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,

For if above all these my sins abound,

‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace

When we are there; here on this lowly ground

Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good

As if thou hadst seal’d my pardon with thy blood.

Strange that we now speak, or write, the word pandemic so easily, when most of us could hardly have defined it over a year ago, when debate occurred whether it was even the proper word to describe what was happening around us.

A year ago, which seems in some ways like ten years ago, the word plague came up pretty often, too, with nods to Camus and sometimes the book of Exodus. Then quarantine joined us, with mention of Venice and sometimes Dubrovnik.

Somewhere in the strange parade of words, plague must have connected to ague in my mind, and John Donne’s sonnet followed, set to music by Willametta Spencer. I’d sung it years before, in high school. And anyone who sings much knows that the best way to memorize anything, especially 16th century poetry, is to sing it when you’re young, and it’s with you for life. Throughout the past year, the poem has come to mind occasionally, as I’ve found myself singing snatches of it.

In fact, in a year when singing together was risky, even deemed dangerous, I’ve been struck by how the gift of choral singing has played such an outsized part in my pandemic experience.

Although I realize with gratitude that I’ve come through 2020 with minimal suffering, it started out hard. I agonized seeing the images coming from Italy of caskets too numerous for the cemeteries, of doctors who’d lost patients and colleagues, of young people who’d lost grandparents pleading with people to take the novel coronavirus seriously, while some friends in America wondered if it were a hoax. In those days, we feared and prayed for close friends over 65 sick at home in Bergamo— described in a later NYT article “one of the deadliest killing fields”—where the virus raged and hospitals overflowed.

Our friends recovered.

In late March an earthquake hit Croatia, where our friends and family live, causing severe damage and suffering. Throughout those early months a dear older friend in Florence suffered with cancer, not corona; but with the cancer came the fear of having to go to the hospital and die there alone while the virus raged throughout the country.

She died at home in early April, with family beside her.

We are grateful for the blessings; even so, it was a hard start.

And then, it seemed, significant parts of hell broke loose, if not quite all of it. Social struggles, political division, anger, riots, fires, tyrannical movements in various quarters, laws challenged, despair voiced and analyzed. No wonder Donne’s poem kept coming to mind, with its list of various ways people suffer and can die.

But the list of ways to die is not what made me want to write about it. Instead, it is the wonderful “arise, arise.” It’s the angels blowing their trumpets, and it’s the moving way Donne writes about repentance.

Early in the 2020 experience, not really knowing what to expect but expecting something terrible, some of us were praying, “If nothing else, dear God, may this coming struggle bring people to You, remind us of our need for You, humble us and clarify our vision.” We dared to hope. We had to hope.

History is filled with plagues, floods, and fires. If suffering always brought repentance, we’d be living in a very different world. Clearly, suffering alone is not the answer.

But the hope-filled truth is that sometimes suffering does cause people to look deeper inside themselves, look up beyond themselves, and look around themselves in ways that bring an awakening. People struggle and suffer, and something inside wakes up, and life is not the same again. They repent.

Teach me how to repent.

That word repent has suffered a bit itself over time. For many it comes to mind only with stern, even angry faces or voices attached, and it carries along a narrow context of specific personal sin and some kind of psycho-emotional purgatory of sorts.

But as Kallistos Ware has put it, “Repentance is not a paroxysm of remorse and self-pity, but conversion, the re-centering of our life upon the Holy Trinity.” It surely involves sorrow in those who become aware of their sin in the light of God’s goodness, but it doesn’t stop there.

When my Italian friend died, I had been hoping to see her that May, as part of a trip that the pandemic took away. The grief was great. Comfort came in part from Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna,” music written to accompany ancient Christian texts, written as a requiem for his own mother’s death. It entered my heart’s repertoire 20-plus years ago through chorus, led by conductor Tim Sharp, who brought Lauridsen to Memphis to work with us on it; this led to eventually performing it in Carnegie Hall. This meant singing “Lux Aeterna” off and on over a few years, and the music and words have stayed with me.

When thinking of repentance, especially the ancient words of “Come, Holy Spirit” strike me:

O lux beatissima, reple cordis intima tuorum fidelium

O Light most blessed, fill the inmost heart of all thy faithful….

Cleanse what is sordid,

moisten what is arid,

heal what is hurt.

Flex what is rigid,

fire what is frigid,

correct what goes astray. . .

Grant the reward of virtue,

grant the deliverance of salvation,

grant everlasting joy.

That joy is what draws me to John Donne’s sonnet and to Spencer’s joyful musical setting of it.

My humble understanding of the biblical word repent and its Greek root, metanoia, is that it’s a much bigger idea than only feeling sorrow for known sin. If we actually do the words that Ware uses to describe the metanoia experience, re-centering our lives upon the Holy Trinity, our whole way of thinking and living must, over time, change in fundamental ways. We will see the world differently, see ourselves and other people differently, we will speak and act differently, based on a new value system, a different reality than the one we thought we knew. And while this re-centering of our lives often leads to intense struggle, it also awakens us to everlasting joy, which we taste even here and now.

I have often tasted that joy through singing. And singing has often moved me to repentance. Singing in church, singing at school, singing in choruses. So like many I was greatly saddened when that novel coronavirus took that away, too.

As it happens, that chorus director responsible for my learning Lux Aeterna was among the first people I knew to fall ill. Both he and his wife contracted COVID-19 early in 2020, leading to hospitalization and fearful days.

Writing about it later, he talked about how musicians tend toward high levels of control, working to create music as perfect as possible. But in confronting this virus, “If there is any blessing at all in this painful season, this time in our collective experience has affirmed beyond any doubt that we are not in control and whatever we do, and however we live, we do so as a result of the kindness of others.” He felt so strongly about the changes the experience had brought about that he shared his experience in a moving essay shared on his platform as Executive Director of a national group of choral conductors, writing about faith and church and how important they are. It was a metanoia experience.

Very close to a year later, my high school chorus director—the one who taught me the Donne— became ill, along with his wife. He was hospitalized twice with COVID-19, spending a week in critical care the second time.

This man entered my life when I was in fifth grade. He touched my life on a daily basis for the next seven years through chorus, band, other music classes, and at least three years of Bible classes. There were lengthy conversations after school, and smiles and laughter at ballgames and on chorus trips. God used him as a teacher and comforter in some hard struggles in those years of my life. Later, he was in charge of the music at our wedding.

I learned just weeks ago that he was in critical care, and the report at that time said it was sepsis. I don’t know if that was confirmed, but I know that it was a metanoia experience for me. It’s hard to believe that after this year of so much illness and death, any of us can still fail to realize that we must not take anyone’s presence for granted. We cannot assume that the people we love, the people who’ve made us who we are, will always be around. But we still do it. I still do it. Then the thought of losing this dear friend shook me out of that enough to have me writing about this now.

“Teach me how to repent,” Donne wrote. I find myself asking the same. I don’t want to go from paroxysm to paroxysm of remorse and self-pity, or even to move from one powerful epiphany about what’s important in life to another. In order to experience the re-centering of our life, we need God’s help. We have to be taught how to translate the remorse, and the epiphanies, into real life changes.

Repentance means creating new habits, developing disciplines, to overcome the general lostness and blindness we live in as creatures in a fallen world. It’s practicing seeing people for who they really are—souls beloved of God. It’s structuring our time in ways that show who and what we really value.

It’s re-centering our lives so that we do not falsely live as if we were in the center, but instead focus our lives around the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It’s seeing the pandemic differently. It’s listening to the news with a different perspective. It’s realizing that every trial, every moment of suffering that occurred in 2020, can be used by God who is capable of turning it to good, who is working for good in the midst of it all.

2020 really can be a year of improved vision, of seeing more clearly, if we can join Donne in asking God to teach us how to repent. The sonnet speaks of souls arising from physical death in the resurrection. Surely we can, with Donne, ask God now, here on this lowly ground, to help us arise from the spell of sleep that spiritual sickness casts on us.

I am thankful for the lives, the illnesses, and the healing of Tim Sharp and Craig Jones, whose musical gifts have blessed me for years, and whose faith and pandemic experiences are blessing me now. 

May God, who is able to do more than we can ask or imagine, wake us up.


Imagin’d Corners

(after John Donne)

Sheila Vamplin


Wake us up, dear God, from arrogance that blinds us to your angels,

Makes us imagine that those before us saw your earth as flat–

That angels in their words and lives were only in their heads.


Wake us up, dear God, from fear that makes us dread to think of death,

Makes us forget we are each one with countless others,

Forget that soul and body–even when scattered–matter.


Wake us up, dear God, from reductive -isms that hide from us the whole,

Make us see only this, only that; forgetting each frightening, seeming foe

Can also be a friend if it turns our hearts to you.


Wake us up, dear God, with every trial we face; if slain or spared,

Make us through these woes behold some truth, some strength, some light,

Some way to see beyond, believe and hope, behold and hold…on.


Wake us up, dear God; while sleeping spirits await the Day,

Teach us here to mourn, to weep, become vessels for true comfort.

Break through the husks of ignorance, arrogance, comfortableness, to see our sin

And seeing, become awake; mourning, become alive; give us this space for hope.


Wake us up, dear God; before it is too late, when heart has turned too hard,

Teach us here to listen, feel our beating hearts and turn to You,

To know that even here we walk on holy ground but are profane

And need Your healing love to hollow hearts and hallow them for You.


Wake us up, dear God; help us re-pent, re-think, re-learn to live.

Give us the second baptism, the tears that let You wash our sins away.

May every ague, every plague, every earthquake, fire, and fear

Become a path to You. And voice and trumpets ring with joy that Day!

Kallistos Ware, “The Orthodox Experience of Repentance,” Epiphany Journal (Summer 1986) 12.

The featured image is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and used with her generous permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.


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  1. Oh, Sheila, I really needed this today: the John Donne poem, the words from “Lux Aeterna,” and the beautiful reminder of what repentance TRULY means. I’m the kind of person who tends to succumb to paroxysms of “remorse and self-pity”–but you’ve reminded me today that it really means radical metanoia. And there is nothing despairing or groveling about THAT. Thank you for sharing this!

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