Repent! the prophets cried millennia ago, knowing full well they were asking for something immensely difficult and profoundly personal.

Repent! cried the pundits more recently. Whether they knew what they were demanding is another question.

For the past few days and weeks, profound moral directives have been falling from the lips of the political and media establishments. The president must apologize. He must accept responsibility. Clinton's speech would be about "candor, contrition and closure," NBC's Tim Russert reported before Clinton went on the air on Monday night.

"It wasn't as contrite as I expected," George Stephanopoulos said when Clinton was done.

But does real repentance arrive on demand? Can contrition be summoned up for the cameras?

I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.

"Repentance is not a simple concept," says Mary Sulerud, rector of the Church of the Ascension, an Episcopal church in Silver Spring. But simple or not, "it's one of those words we throw around."

The Greek root of repentance "is usually translated to mean change your mind, but understand that mind means much more than the brain," Sulerud says. "In religious terms, in theological terms, we understand repentance to mean to change your heart and your mind and your whole being. It's to change the whole way you are formed as a human being."

To be truly contrite, she says, is to move beyond apologizing, beyond seeking forgiveness or approval, beyond speeches, beyond anything we say. Repentance requires action, upheaval.

"It's a lifetime's work."

It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.

Clinton did not apologize. This is fine with Brenda Smith. Apologies, because they can be faked, because they are finite, because they do not necessarily lead to actions, mean little to her, says the lawyer, who runs a law clinic at American University law school.

"I say this to my clients all the time: You can say you're sorry, but really the proof is in the pudding, and you have to be willing to take responsibility for what happened and everything that goes with it."

For the people she is defending, many of them on serious criminal charges, taking responsibility means "owning" what they've done, she says, accepting that they must pay the costs of their actions, not blaming someone else for their crimes.

Victims of crime yearn for explanations and apologies. Judges want to see remorse. But in these extreme cases, and in our everyday lives, how do we know when to trust an apology, when to believe that someone who claims to be taking responsibility for actions actually is?

What does moral responsibility look like, sound like?

"I think the only way you know it is over time," says Sulerud.

Smith tells the story of a former client of hers, a 20-year heroin addict who could not care for her son, spent years in jail, and then emerged and promised to remake her life. She got a job, made real money, and spent all of it on the boy her sister had raised for her, buying him presents, trying to make up for what she had done.

Finally, the members of a support group Smith ran told the woman to stop spending. " All those bridges you burned, you're not going to repair them with money,' " Smith remembers them telling her. " There is no proxy for going to that person and saying, I really screwed up that situation. I wasn't there for you. What I'd like to do is rebuild. . . . I know you won't see me as your mother, but maybe we can have a different kind of relationship.' "

And the woman did it. She spoke honestly to her son, and they built a bond based on the truth of what she had done and how she had changed. Then, "and I think this was part of taking responsibility for what she could do," says Smith, the woman reached out to a niece whose mother could not care for her. She took the child in, became her foster mother.

The past was not erased, but the present was changed.

Now, this matter is between me, the two people I love most -- my wife and our daughter -- and our God. I must put it right, and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to do so.

A kid on the playground slugs another kid. "Apologize!" a teacher demands, and the child, grudgingly, complies.

But spend time with a good preschool teacher, and you may see her try to help the slugger recognize how her actions have affected another. See the tears? See the anger? The teacher is attempting to foster empathy and an understanding of consequences, rather than just elicit a hollow apology.

"You can train a child to say almost anything," says David Fassler, a child psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt., "but that does not necessarily mean they understand the concept. There are plenty of kids who know the right thing to say, and can say it with a straight face and are frequently lying. They've learned how to say the right thing to get out of trouble.

"The scarier thing is when they get to the point where they believe their own lies."

I ask you to turn away from the spectacle of the past seven months, to repair the fabric of our national discourse.

Gestures have meaning. The rituals of repentance possess a power. Clinton and his advisers realized that when they crafted his speech. Whether his message was anything more than a collection of public words, whether Clinton has actually begun the lifetime's work of moral change, remains unknown.

In the Catholic Church, what was once known as confession is now often called the sacrament of reconciliation.

"Today we use the word reconciliation because that incorporates the sense that sin is not breaking a law, but breaking a relationship," says Robert Friday, a Catholic priest and professor of moral theology at Catholic University. "To be reconciled is to renew that relationship. You can talk about broken relationships with God, with neighbors" -- he pauses -- "with Hillary.

"I assume Hillary may say, I forgive you,' but that doesn't restore everything, restore the lost trust that was there."

To repent demands accepting that something has been broken. "He needs to live within that," says Friday. "He needs to live with the burden of that." CAPTION: President and Hillary Clinton flank Chelsea yesterday as they prepare to depart for Martha's Vineyard. Experts say he can show true contrition only by his future actions. CAPTION: If confession is good for the soul, the president might be feeling at least a little better.