Repentance v. Remorse

Everyone knows that there are subtle — sometimes not so subtle — differences in the way we use words. We talk of Britain and the U.S.A. being divided by a common language, for example, and smile at the joke. Sometimes there is no joking and precision must be sought. The media seem to use repentance and remorse almost interchangeably, but not the Church. I think there is good reason for that, one that may illumine our understanding of today’s Mass readings (Jonah 3. 1–10 and Luke 11.29–32) and the practice of sacramental confession.

Take remorse first. How often do we read ‘The prisoner showed no remorse’ or some such phrase? My response tends to be, ‘Why should they?’ Although there is a tendency to equate remorse with regret, the origins of the word show that it is personal to the point of selfishness. It literally means being bitten by something — the recollection of wrongdoing, but chiefly as it affects the wrongdoer (from the Latin, remordere, to bite again, bite fiercely). Repentance, on the other hand, means sorrow for wrongdoing, an attempt at restitution (making good), and commitment to change (from the Latin paenitere, to be sorry). Repentance looks outwards as much as remorse looks inwards. It joins us to others rather than separating us from them.

When Jonah preached to the Ninevites, they didn’t just put on sackcloth and pray, they renounced their evil behaviour and it clearly wasn’t easy. Jesus uses them as an example in his preaching today. The Church is insistent on the effectiveness of sacramental confession and the way in which it restores a right relationship with God, with others and with ourselves. People sometimes say it is just a way in which Catholics delude themselves — confess, perform a quick penance and go on sinning. Confession is rather more demanding than that! It requires us to change, to try to make good that in which we have offended. Most of all, I think, it asks us to be honest about our neediness; and we know that God will always stoop down to the lowest part of our need. There is nothing we cannot take to him for healing.

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A Forgiving God?

On the memoria of St Ambrose the ‘godly internet’ will be awash with a single quotation: ‘No one heals himself by wounding another.’ Very few, however, will read what St Ambrose has to say in his treatise, Concerning Repentance, from which it is taken. You, dear reader, can, and in English, too, if you follow this link: St Ambrose on Repentance. If you do, you will find something that may make you think about two things that are very important this Advent.

First, Ambrose wasn’t judgemental in the way that we habitually use that word. He knew what he believed and was anxious to win the Novatians back to Catholic unity, so he advocated gentleness and patience rather than blistering attacks on the integrity of others. He could only do that because he believed in the forgiveness of God. I sometimes wonder whether we do. Do we really believe that others can repent, and that God’s mercy will embrace their desire to be reconciled? Some of the ‘debates’ taking place in the Church and the fierce and unforgiving language in which they are expressed might make an outsider question that. We are often more demanding than God, more certain that everyone should believe as we do — in short, more exacting, less forgiving.

Second, forgiveness is personal. During Advent it is important that we should, if possible, make our confession and be reconciled with God and one another. The sacrament of confession isn’t an endorsement of sin, as some maintain. We genuinely do have to repent, to seek forgiveness, be prepared to make amends and avoid sin for the future. Sometimes we will be asked by our confessor to go to someone we have injured and say ‘sorry’ if we haven’t already done so. That can be very hard, especially if the person we’re apologizing to is in no mood to forgive. We have to believe in the reality of grace before we can allow God to forgive in us, or accept forgiveness ourselves.

So, today’s Advent challenge is very simple. Am I willing to forgive and be forgiven? Do I believe in a God who forgives or do I not? Will I make my confession, or will I refuse the coming of God into my life?

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How to Be a Good Sinner

Sometimes my readers make me feel knee-high to a grasshopper. They manage to lead lives of great generosity and holiness in the midst of circumstances I would find unbearable. Here I am in the monastery, well-fed (too well-fed, to be honest), surrounded by books and music and gardens, with a handsome hound (a.k.a. Bro Duncan PBGV) and a very holy nun (a.k.a. Quietnun) to cheer and chivvy me by turns, the liturgy and sacraments of the Catholic Church to inspire me and the Rule of St Benedict to guide me, yet I still don’t quite make the grade. I fail as often as I try. I am a sinner through and through. And that’s not a little bit of hyperbole, like that of the Spaniard who had ‘El Gran Peccador’ carved on his tombstone, it is the simple truth.

Can anything redeem that bald statement, or is it all negative? I think being a sinner, and knowing and acknowledging that one is a sinner, means one is open to grace, which is what really matters. Our very need cries out to God for help, and we know he will never spurn our cry. I like to quote the example of the Desert Father who described his life as falling down and getting up again. To be a good sinner all we need do is follow his example, trusting in the mercy of God and asking his help to amend for the future. Grace will work its miracle in us, if we allow it.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Shrove Tuesday 2014

Last year, when Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had just announced his resignation, I said we faced a Shrove Tuesday like no other. I little thought that this year I would say the same. The situation in the Crimea casts a long shadow, making the delights of pancakes and carnival seem trivial by comparison, yet the more solemn aspect of the day, the going to Confession, seems especially apt. Personal sin and what one might call communal sin are related. The standards by which we live our private lives inevitably spill over into our public lives. I am sure we can all think of instances of greed, brutality and dishonesty which first manifested themselves in domestic situations but then went on to create terror and havoc on a much larger scale.

While we pray today for the people of Ukraine we might also examine our own consciences about the ways in which we have lived a double-standard and the consequences for others of our own sins. Repentance isn’t just about saying sorry to God and having a firm purpose of amendment. It also means trying to put right what we have done wrong. Thank God we are given forty days in which to work hard at that.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

All Souls 2012

Catholicism can be an uncomfortable religion to live by, but it is a wonderful religion in which to die. As death draws closer we are surrounded by prayer, our bodies are anointed and we receive the Viaticum to help us on our way. At the moment of death a singularly beautiful prayer is prayed, and after death our bodies are accorded the simple rituals I described in an earlier post. But that is not the end of of the matter. The Church goes on praying for us, perseveringly. November, in particular, is a month when we pray for the dead with special earnestness. Today, on the feast of All Souls, everyone will join in praying for all the faithful departed — not just the people known to us, but those unknown, those who have no-one else to pray for them. The feast of All Souls thus unites the living and the dead.

Last year I summed it up by saying

Instead of pushing the dead out of sight or surrounding them with euphemisms, we state the facts baldly and pray for the dead as we pray for ourselves, asking God to remove every trace of sin from those not yet ready for the blessedness of heaven. We believe that our prayers can help those who have died and are undergoing the final purification of purgatory, when the soul is prepared for the vision of God. To pray for the dead is thus a work of charity, a way of helping those who cannot help themselves.

Inevitably, there was a clash with some of my Protestant friends who reject the idea of purgatory. I very soon realised that few of my objectors knew what the Catholic Church teaches about purgatory (as distinct from what they thought the Church teaches) so in later posts I went into it in some detail. Underlying such misunderstandings is a much bigger question which no amount of explanation will ever really help. I would have liked to have taken my friends on a journey to a cemetery in southern Europe on the eve of All Saints, or transported them through time to the tombs of the early Christians. Possibly our very correct English sensibilities would be a little shocked but perhaps the sense of ease with death would take away some of the terror of death and dying that afflicts many people. All Souls is a reminder of the importance of death, and our part in assuring the entry into blessedness of all our fellow Christians.

Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Sacrament of Penance is Not For Losers

Year of Faith 2012 to 2013 logoReaders will know that I am rather keen on the Sacrament of Penance (Confession, Reconciliation), which is as it should be, since individual confession was originally a monastic practice which spread to the whole Church. It also means that I am for once ‘on trend’ since we are all being encouraged to revisit the sacrament during this Year of Faith, and it is my hope and prayer that we shall rediscover its spiritual benefits. We won’t do so, however, unless we are clear about what is involved. Catholics of my generation will be able to name the essential elements for valid reception of the sacrament: contrition, confession, absolution and satisfaction (reparation) — see The Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos 1422 to 1523. Of these, reparation is often overlooked yet it seems to me so fundamental that I find myself wondering how we can have forgotten it.

The truth is probably that we find it difficult and therefore try to have forgiveness on the cheap, so to say. Reparation, seeking to make amends for what we have done, brings home to us the ugliness of sin and reminds us that absolution and performance of the penance given by our confessor are really only the first steps in putting things right. Having to apologize to someone we have treated badly; having to admit that we are responsible for some failure or other; having to put right an injustice, these are not easy options. It becomes much worse when we feel we cannot right a wrong because the person or persons we have injured is dead or in some way unreachable. Then we must rely on prayer and the grace of God to effect what no amount of human striving can achieve.

In the end, of course,  everything depends on God, from the first movement of contrition to the final act of reparation. Only he can make right what we have done wrong, but while we rely on his grace, we must never fall into the sin of presumption. The Sacrament of Penance treats us as responsible human beings and invites our co-operation in grace. It is definitely not for ‘losers’.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail