It was a joyful reunion for me, as I haven't gotten back to HGA very often since returning (for now) to my Coal Region roots. One parishioner told me that he missed my blog posts. I soon realized that I haven't put anything on here all year. Focus has shifted to the social media, which provide their own forum for inspiration, information, and amusement; but it's as if my attention span has become attenuated as a result, less equipped for the work of ongoing reflection and composition.
To be fair, my parish bulletin has afforded me a wonderful chance to reflect and compose. In fact, I believe I considered this online forum as a second venue for those compositions, but have failed to act in that regard. Payback Time!
I'm not in the habit of doing "series sermons" like many of our Protestant brethren deliver, though some Catholics have found success in the practice. The closest I get to that is in my bulletin columns. That's good for any parishioners who may read them, but what for the untold handfuls of readers around the globe? Mindful of their plaintive pleas, below I have combined several weeks' dissertations on the Act of Contrition. May it serve as a good start, with God's help and renewed discipline (who says it has to stop with Lent?), to more regular posting.
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O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee; and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because I have offended Thee, my God, who are all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.
Sorry: the root, “sore,” is from the Old English for “painful, grievous, aching,” and its meaning is further expanded by the Old Norse sarr (sore, wounded). The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) "language", which forms the roots for a great many words across the world, oftentimes tells you a lot: “sai-” means “suffering.”
Our violation of God’s laws hurts us. We may suppose God (or more likely, the Church) enjoys telling people what to do and think. Rather, what God has revealed in Scripture and Tradition, further unpacked by the Church’s Magisterium (teaching authority), is for our health, safety, and salvation— what one moral theologian calls “Integral Human Fulfillment” because pursuing goods and avoiding evils is what enables us to be our best selves in community with others. Therefore, to quote St. Augustine, “we are not so much punished for our sins as by them.”
But we make contrary choices because what seems to be good about them overshadows the harm they bring upon others and self, and the affront they pose to God. Sin causes soreness: sin inflicts physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds, and wounds hurt. Wounds aren’t pretty, either: it pains people to witness what hurting people are going through. It is not al- ways their fault, but at a certain point, whose fault it is matters far less than what a fellow member of Christ’s Body is undergoing. Our compassion for hurting people does, however, move us to consider the origins of the hurt in the matrix of contributing choices.
Heartily: Not “hardly,” as sometimes the kids accidentally say. The grain of truth in it is something that adults don’t miss! “Heartily” is one of many words that has fallen out of usage, but the Church retains a lot of those words in theology, in public and personal prayer (think back to the changes in wording from 6 years ago), because our communally-learned communication with God very much shapes our thinking about divine and human realities. That’s not to say we can’t “take the gloves off” and be brutally candid with God with all our emotions—we most definitely should!—but what we say and do together “lifts up our hearts,” to borrow what the priest says in the Preface Dialogue before the Eucharistic Prayer. To be heartily sorry is to recognize how the core of our person- hood, the location of our thoughts and feelings, is affected by what we do and appeals to the One Who alone can undo it.
Offended: The Latin preposition ob and the verb fendere combine to mean “to strike against.” Our violations of God’s for-our-own-good laws are acts of rebellion that hurt us more than they hurt Him, but at the same time no lover, no sane person, enjoys rejection. God’s displeasure at being rejected is not, however, a wound of ego, as it can be for us. His desire for our fulfillment does not abide being thwarted, whether we are harming ourselves or fellow human persons. Violations of the first three commandments are harmful to us because those violations militate against our identity as children of God meant for eternal life with Him.
Detest: Hate, pure and simple. I hate my sins. I cannot undo an action or word in life, and there is no point in spinning my proverbial wheels in reverse. Fallen men and women some- times act contrary to the path of life that God has presented us, sometimes in a serious manner. Individually and collectively these sins have occasioned the death of the Messiah. I am not at all happy about that.
All: It is our fallen tendency to reduce many sins to “learning experiences,” and more fallen yet, secretly or openly, to savor the experiences for the pleasure we have derived therefrom. So we start to parse: “I am sad that God is offended by this bad decision, though, to be honest, I don’t even really consider it ‘bad,’ because—what the heck, it was spring break and YOLO!” We best savor the event by striving to act differently when confronted by similar temptations going forward.
Dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell / Your just punishments: Imperfect contrition (or “attrition”) is sorrow for sin in view of sin’s unsavory eternal consequences for us. It is enough that our minds still entertain a sense of invincibility, that somehow we can assure ourselves of immunity from the earthly consequences of our callousness or carelessness. Many of us have been gravely misled to believe that God really doesn’t care about sin—as if God happily violated wills steeled against charity, honesty, unselfishness, and purity. God’s justice is real because sin’s gravity cannot be ignored, and not because God is some kind of peevish meanie.
Most of all because I/they have offended Thee: Sinners with perfect contrition hate the fact of their participation in the crucifixion of Our Lord and the impoverishment of the world that He is nonetheless willing to love to death. If we hate our sins because of what they do to us, i.e. cause spiritual emphysema that makes it harder for us to breathe the atmosphere of divine grace we were made to breathe, I might call that an offshoot of perfect contrition: at least we have a sense of our true worth and its Origin.
All-good and deserving of all my love: That’s God for you.
I firmly resolve: The “Big Book,” the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous, famously says, “Half-measures availed us nothing.” Hand-in-hand with a hatred of past sins goes a sincere and steadfast determination to adopt virtues that run contrary to those sins. We are in respectable enough company if our experience resembles that of the apostles, whose spirit was willing but flesh was weak (Mt 26:41). Sometimes, I concede, my spirit isn’t even all that willing!
We contrast “perfect” contrition as that which arises out of love for God, to “imperfect” contrition owing to disgust for the ugliness of sin or the fear of punishment for sin. The Catechism (1452) mentions that perfect contrition forgives venial sins, but also can forgive mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to confess those sins as soon as possible in the Sacrament of Penance. Imperfect contrition cannot forgive serious sins, but it disposes sinners to obtain sacramental absolution (1453).
With the help of Thy grace: Confession restores us to God’s grace and unites us to His friendship. The 16th century Council of Trent also mentions the “peace and serenity of conscience” that Confession bestows upon the penitent who approaches contritely and with “religious disposition” (cf. CCC 1468). The last phrase speaks to scrupulous persons, who have a difficult time experiencing peace because of an overly sensitive moral conscience and a cripplingly fearful attitude toward God. These sufferers profit from gentle care and firm direction. Then there is the heresy of pelagianism, which insists that we earn salvation by our own efforts. To the contrary we affirm that God’s grace initiates every good inspiration and action in our lives (cf. Phil 2:13).
To sin no more: CCC 943 considers the avoidance of sin an exercise of the disciple’s “kingly mission.” Baptism invests us with legitimate authority to direct our wills and intellects towards goodness and truth, their proper objects. It takes determination and practice (i.e. trial and error), and, as noted above, it takes God’s help, always ours for the asking.
To avoid the near occasion of sin: We want to cultivate the good habits that support virtue. There are people, places, and things that simply may not be good for us to frequent if our engagement with them leads us to sin. To employ Our Lord’s hyperbole, there are plenty of eyes to pluck out and limbs to sever if we want to remain whole (cf. Mt 5:29ff). We may have to make some changes in our lives, and there is no time for fooling ourselves.