BY REV. F. QUIRIJNEN, S.J
II. WHAT IS CONTRITION?
Contrition is an act of sorrow and detestation of sin committed, with a firm resolve it sinning no more. The sorrow and detestation regard the past, the purpose of amendment is meant for the future. DETESTATION is an act of our reason, a judgment of our mind by which we acknowledge to God that we have done evil in His sight: ―Father, I have sinned against heaven and in Thy sight. This detestation is followed on the part of the will by a movement of displeasure and grief, which we call SORROW:
―How have I been able to offend God, my Creator and Supreme Good! Had I but never displeased Him!
Finally, as nobody wants to commit again what he is sorry for having done, detestation and sorrow for sin, if SINCERE, necessarily contain the purpose of AMENDMENT or change of life: ―I firmly resolve never to sin again. O my God, I want henceforward to remain Your Child; strengthen me against my malice and my weakness; do not allow me to be ever separated from You again.
It is advisable to express this purpose clearly. Call to mind the occasions in which you have sinned and beg God for strength to shun them altogether, or, if this is impossible, to overcome the temptations that will arise again. Yet, this purpose of amendment need not be explicit, nor expressed in words.—Every- sincere conversion to God contains the will to please Him henceforth by the observance of all His laws and hence already implies the purpose of amendment.
THE QUALITIES OF CONTRITION. NOT EVERY REGRET FOR SIN IS ACCEPTABLE TO GOD. IT MUST BE SINCERE, UNIVERSAL AND SUPERNATURAL
1. Sincerity is the first requisite. Suppose a man came and prostrated himself before his king, protesting that he was sorry for having offended him, but all the while was harbouring a murderous plan in his bean. Would such conduct not imply treachery worse even than the previous offence? How much more then ought we to be sincere with .God in our protestations of sorrow:
―Be converted to ME WITH ALL YOUR HEART.
2. Sincere contrition is also UNIVERSAL or complete. It must extend to all the mortal sins—which we are conscious of having committed and which have not yet been forgiven.—We must not except a single one. As long as we cherish even one mortal sin, we cannot be reconciled with God. Every mortal sin destroys the bands of friendship with God. We cannot be at the same time God’s friends and God’s enemies. We may dupe ourselves with words, saying: ―O my God I am sorry for having offended You; but as long as we cling to so much as one mortal sin, we are but aggravating, our guilt before God; we add this new act of insincerity to the burden of our previous offences. ―Cast them from you ALL your transgressions . . . do penance for ALL your iniquities.
Often one is more strongly attached to some particular sinful object. In exciting oneself to contrition one must be careful not to overlook these besetting sins, as one may easily do, owing to the strong inclinations one feels to them.
On the other hand, God is a Father. He does not expect the impossible. Even when some sins have escaped our memory, they will be forgiven with those for which we make our act of Perfect Contrition.
As for VENIAL sins, although Contrition can exist even if we remain wilfully attached to them, yet it is highly desirable to arouse sorrow for them also, at least for those that are more deliberate. For they obstruct the full inflow of grace, make Perfect Contrition more difficult and easily lead to mortal sin.
3. Thirdly, our contrition must be SUPERNATURAL. It must arise under the Inspiration and impulse of God’s grace, be rooted in divine faith, permeated with trust in. the merits of Christ, and offered in union with HIS own sufferings and satisfactions.
Thanks to divine grace, instead of being merely a necessary and hard duty of Justice, our contrition becomes an honour and a privilege. For it consists in co-operating intimately with Christ the Redeemer in the destruction of sin-as intimately as in a body a member cooperates with the head. Contrition consists in ―that wondrous divine dispensation whereby those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ are to be filled up by us, and which made St. Paul exclaim: ―I rejoice in my sufferings.
Perfect and Imperfect Contrition. Our repentance can be more or less generous. If we fully co-operate with grace, we shall reach Perfect Contrition. A less generous co-operation will produce only imperfect contrition. Both have certain elements in common: both are a sincere, or interior and universal sorrow for sin, produced by God’s grace. But in other ways Perfect Contrition surpasses the imperfect.
Imperfect contrition is a certain displeasure of our sins but not so great as it ought to be. Hence it does not by itself reconcile us with God. Yet it is produced by grace and therefore is good and acceptable to God; it prepared the way to reconciliation with Him, leads us to Perfect Contrition and, IN THE ACTUAL reception of the Sacrament of Penance, becomes a sufficient disposition to obtain forgiveness.
Perfect Contrition, on the other hand, is a thorough displeasure of our sins, a detestation of sin as great as it ought to be. We ought to love our last end, God, the Immutable Good, above all things. Now, sin turns us away from God. It is clear that we ought to detest sin above every evil, ―above all things,supremely, more even than the punishment of hell or the loss of heaven.
But to detest sin supremely because it is an offence against God is equivalent to loving God for His own sake. From this act of perfect love of God contrition derives its perfection. Hence it is best defined as a sorrow and detestation of sin that are animated by the supernatural love of God for His own sake. It is ―contrition perfected by charity, as the Council of Trent declares.
The following are prayers expressing Perfect Contrition:—
1. ―O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, because Thou art so very good, and I firmly purpose by the help of Thy grace not to offend Thee again.
In 1921 the Holy See declared the English text here given to be an accurate version of the original Italian. And in December, 1937, Pius XI (in the new ―Preces No. 26) granted an indulgence of three years every time for every act of faith, hope, charity, or contrition in any form of words found in approved catechisms.
2. The following formula is by St. Leonard:- ―O my God, because Thou art so good, I am very sorry that I have sinned against Thee, and I will not sin again.
Other formulas might be cited. They are helps to arouse our souls to Perfect Contrition, but no one is strictly necessary. Contrition resides in our mind and will, not in words. Whenever our sorrow for sin is animated by the pure love of God, our contrition is Perfect. This excellence of Perfect Contrition appears best from a consideration of its effects. But before we begin this study, let us add a few remarks.
1. Perfect Contrition, we said, is a sorrow for our sins, ―above all things.
Yet, it is unnecessary, even imprudent, to test our contrition by making comparisons between the evil of sin and the evil of some terrible torture, and asking whether we would choose the torture rather than the sin.
―The contrite sinner, says St. Thomas, ―must, IN GENERAL, be prepared to suffer any pain rather than commit sin, but he is not bound to make a comparison between this pain or that pain. On the contrary, it is foolish to question oneself or other persons on the choice that would be made if confronted with any particular suffering.
2. Perfect Contrition proceeds from the pure love of God. Have then motives other than pure love to be excluded? By no means. The love of gratitude towards God, the hope of heaven and the fear of hell, can very well move me to detest my sins SIMULTANEOUSLY with the love of God for His own sake. In practice, therefore, if we feel moved to sorrow for our sins by these lower motives, we must NOT try to eliminate them, by saying, for example, ―O my God, I detest my sins, not because through them I have deserved hell or lost heaven, but purely because they have offended Thee who art my God and King.’ Far better is it humbly to acknowledge:
―O my God, I detest my sins because I have deserved Thy just punishment in this life and in the next, and have lost heaven. Only let us not stop here; let us use these motives as steps to ascend to the motive of love: ―but grant me the grace, I beseech Thee, O my God, to detest my sins chiefly because they have offended Thy infinite Goodness, Sanctity and Love.’
3. Perfect Contrition is often accompanied by sensible emotion which, if it is strong, may manifest itself outwardly in sighs and tears. This is common with the Saints. The innocent little Aloysius of Gonzaga, when going for the first time to confession, was so overcome with sorrow for his tiny faults that he fell senseless at the feet of his confessor. Then there is the touching Gospel scene of the woman sinner, who came to Jesus, ―and standing behind at His feet weeping, began to bathe His feet with her tears. . . .
Likewise we read of the Apostle Peter, who had denied His divine Master, that ―the Lord turned and looked at him . . . , who going out wept bitterly.
Instances could be multiplied. Must we conclude that without sensible sorrow Perfect Contrition is impossible? No. The saints are intended by God to be our models by their heroic virtues. Their contrition is most perfect. The sensible emotion and outward manifestations of contrition are the outcome of the intensity of their sorrow. They are due to special graces which are, both supernaturally and psychologically, powerful helps in our fight against sin. Nevertheless, no sensible emotion is required for contrition to be perfect.
The reason is simply because we cannot command our emotions as we like; to a large extent they escape the control of our will. Hence God does not require any sensible sorrow. The child, at grips with a burning fever, cannot feel just then that it loves its anxiously watching mother. Does it love her the less for it? The mother herself will be the last to believe so. Again, a mother may usually feel far more affection for her child than for God, yet her love of God-perhaps not felt at all-will be perfect if she is ready to give up her darling rather than see him commit a mortal sin. The child’s love for its mother and the mother’s love for God are independent of their feelings.
Similarly, a sinner may feel little sensible sorrow or even none at all, and yet in his mind detest sin as the greatest of evils and be resolved to give up everything rather than to offend God again. If he is thus disposed, his contrition is perfect, as was the case with the good thief and many other penitents, of whom we do not read that they broke into sighs and tears.
Here one might object: ―If I feel no sensible sorrow for my sins, how can I know for certain that I have Perfect Contrition?
Even sensible sorrow and tears are only probable, not infallible, signs that our contrition is perfect. Their absence is no indication that our contrition is but imperfect.
Absolute certainty in this respect no one can reach-except through a revelation from God. In His wisdom and mercy God always keeps us in sufficient uncertainty that we may continue working out our salvation in all humility. On the other hand, if we do what lies in us to acquire Perfect Contrition, especially by frequently praying for it, we may be confident that God will grant us this grace. If, further, we carry out our purpose of amendment by avoiding the proximate occasions of sin and profiting by the first opportunity to approach the Sacrament of Penance-this will be a sure test that our contrition was perfect.
Is then Perfect Contrition something hard and complicated?-To overcome this false impression look for a moment at Perfect Contrition as it sprang up under the touch of divine grace in a model penitent.
Jesus chose not to be crucified alone: ―At the same time two robbers were crucified with Him, - two thieves, two criminals.
How hideous must their degraded souls have looked in God’s eyes!
Jesus was now the object of scoffing and derision on the part of the mob. One of the criminal’s joined in this insolent mockery, but not so the other. Had he heard Jesus praying for His executioners, and at this extraordinary manifestation of goodness and mercy recognized God in Him? Had he, in his agony, caught a glimpse of the superhuman patience and peace of Jesus? Had the Blessed Virgin all the while been offering Her Divine Son for his conversion?
In any case, grace entered into his mind and opened his eyes to the wretched state of his soul. He began to acknowledge his guilt: ―Justly indeed are we condemned, for we are receiving the due reward of our misdeeds. This humble confession was at once rewarded by further light; he recognized the innocence of Jesus and proclaimed it in the face of his enemies:
―This Man has done no evil. Finally, the light of grace still increasing, he realized there was a secret connection between his own awful sin and the sufferings of this Innocent Man and that this Just One offered Himself a victim and sacrifice for the guilty. Shame and sorrow now make him address Jesus with a prayer, as bold in confidence as it is simple and deep in humility: -Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom.
No sooner were the words uttered than Jesus, slightly turning His head towards him, said:
―Amen, Amen, I say to thee, today thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.
―Words full of consolation, says St. Augustine, ―for it leaves place for hope up till the last breath.
-―Who could have believed, exclaims St. Robert Bellarmine, in his turn, ―that the thief would have been transferred on a sudden from a cross to a kingdom?
All this in virtue of one act of Perfect Contrition. For, asserts St. Thomas, ―today thou shalt be with Me in Paradise was said to him for one act of penance.-Such is the liberality of Our Divine Saviour and the wonderful power of Perfect Contrition.