Making a Splash?

Who does not love the story of Jonah? Every detail is perfect, with a rich vein of humorous exaggeration throughout. We’re told it took three days to cross the city of Nineveh, so this is conversion on a vast scale. Everyone, even the animals (!), put on sackcloth as as sign of repentance and joined in the general fast. Jonah himself comes in for some gentle teasing from the Lord, but it is clear he was an effective speaker and won the hearts of his listeners. Despite a regrettable tendency to run away and get cross when things didn’t turn out as he wanted, he was, ultimately, a success. We remember Jonah.

Jesus tells the crowds that ‘someone greater than Jonah is here’ but one wonders whether his rhetoric made as great an impression as Jonah’s is said to have done. Throughout the gospels we see him experiencing misunderstandings, opposition, and, ultimately, a kind of failure: death on the cross. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the failure was no failure at all; but at the time Jesus was not a big success. We remember Jesus, but we are conscious of the contradictions and the suffering that marked his triumph. The resurrection comes out of a dark place, darker than any whale’s belly.

And what of us? Do we want to make a splash, be celebrity saints, as it were? Someone once said rather cruelly of Thomas Merton that he was the kind of hermit who needed a neon sign outside his hermitage. We can be a little like that, wanting our good deeds to be noticed, especially during Lent, when we are trying harder to live holy lives. We can want to be remembered, have our fifteen minutes of fame as it were, but ideally without much hardship or contradiction. We forget that we are called to be followers of the Lord. We can never be holy except he makes us so, and that will always involve an experience of failure and, at times, discouragement. Let us pray for the grace to meet the challenge we face.

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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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