Anatomy of Contrition

Several weeks back, we had a series of articles that touched on guilt, conscience, and shame, all in light of God’s overwhelming mercy. The whole Church is celebrating the gift of mercy this year at the direction of the Holy Father, Pope Francis. Then, just last week, Fr. Steven mentioned a number of things that surround the Sacrament of Reconciliation, including the Act of Contrition, a prayer that expresses sorrow for the sins we have confessed and the firm resolve to “change our ways ” and avoid sin.

Much of what the Pope has published and said in these past six or seven months, during the special Jubilee Year of Mercy, is focused rightly on the confounding breadth of God’s willingness to forgive. Sometimes to the consternation of many in the Church, His Holiness leaves out one single, but centrally critical point – that of contrition.

As noted before, the Act of Contrition is an expression of two things: sorrow for sin and what is called a “firm purpose of amendment” – that is, the will to change our lives so as to sin no more, including keeping ourselves from situations in which we know we will be tempted.

In today’s Scriptures, we hear stories of contrition, from the tale of David confronted with his sin; to Psalm 32, a highly renowned prayer of contrition; then an explanation of how forgiveness reaches us; and finally, to the story of the woman who bathes Jesus’ feet in her tears.

Certainly, contrition looks different from one person to the next. For one, it is the humble admission, “I have sinned against the Lord,” but for another, tears. However, for both, contrition is incomplete if not accompanied by a renewed and changed way of life. Acts of contrition are meant to be the last time those sins are addressed.

The sense of the forgiveness we have in Christ is that the old ways are ended and shall not be visited again. That is, the Lord will not throw those very sins in our face again down the road with the accusation that we’ll never be good enough or that we’ll always be failures.

Therefore, the only fitting response to forgiveness is to forsake the ways and patterns that so wounded us and offended the love God offers us. We should never find ourselves in a position of sorrow, begging forgiveness. That is what we mean by purpose of amendment — “Lord, I will never so reject your love again.”

Of course, our fallenness never quite lets us enjoy that restored status for long. However, like nothing had ever separated us before, the Lord is ready to restore us again. So great is his mercy to those who ask.

The fact is, that by virtue of our free will, we lock behind one impassable gate a literally inexhaustible flood of forgiveness, tenderness, love, and acceptance that is completely free. The very thing which gives us the seeming freedom of sin also gives us the ability to seek our Divine Lover’s forgiveness.

Even still, as we grow in Christ, we do not aspire to a lifestyle of holiness that is interrupted by episodes of sin and disintegration. Our goal is holiness like the Blessed Virgin Mary, at our best, and like any of the Saints, at our “worst”.

How does that even become a viable possibility? The short answer: grace. But how do we find that grace?

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is among the greatest avenues for receiving grace to heal the spiritual wounds that cripple our spiritual life or hamper development. When I was really growing into my faith, I would confess somewhat frequently. Though I won’t say it was fun trying to come up with new ways to tell the priest the very same sins into which I had fallen, I will say that very many of those things do not trouble me any longer. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, Jesus has delivered me. The tears of contrition give way to the laughter of freedom in God’s love.

David M. Dunst

Music Director




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