Detestation of sin is not the whole of repentance; or if it is, such repentance is fruitful only if it is accompanied by confidence in God’s mercy.
When Judas came to consider the sin he had committed, he was horrified. The purse that he carried scorched him, so that he could not carry it with his fingers. Haggardly he wandered for a while through the sleeping city, and then went to find the high priest. “I have sinned,” he cried, “betraying innocent blood.” He had a horror of his sin. As in the case of David, “his sin was ever before him.” How is it that his repentance was abortive? Peter sinned, too, sinned lamentably; but Peter, as soon as he realized what he had done, did not doubt that his Master would pardon him. It was enough to see Him for a moment in the hall of Caiphas. For him it was a sovereign manifestation of sovereign mercy. Jesus said nothing to Peter, nor Peter to Him; but Peter’s look uttered a cry for mercy, and the look of Jesus was eloquent of pardon; and Peter was saved.
What was lacking to Judas? Detestation of his sin? No. He lacked knowledge of the love of his Master. Judas did not believe in love. All the difference between a great sinner and a great saint may be a simple act of confidence.
A priest in Paris was explaining to the children the treason of the faithless apostle, when one of his pupils held up her hand. “One minute, one minute,” said the priest. But the hand was still raised insistently, claiming attention; the child wanted to have her say.
“Well, what is it?” asked the priest impatiently.
“I wanted to say what I would have done if I had been Judas.”
“Well, what would you have done?”
“I would have hanged myself too.”
“Would you? And you interrupt me simply to tell me that?”
“Yes, but I would have hung myself around the neck of our Lord.”
The little one had a good understanding of her divine Master. To detest sin is not enough, unless one makes an act of full confidence in Him who has been offended.
This would seem to be easy enough. Since it is so natural to us to commit sin, our first gesture, it would seem, should be instinctively to throw ourselves at the feet of the person we have offended, to express our repentance and our hope of pardon. Experience, however, proves the contrary.
Too often the sinner’s instinctive movement is not toward God but away from Him. God is so pure, and we are guilty. After their sin of disobedience, Adam and Eve, hearing God walking in the garden, hid themselves. Also we fear God’s displeasure, and we imagine in a foolish way that God will find us less easily if we “pretend to be dead” and hide from Him. It requires great faith and deep humility, an intimate knowledge of our own resources and of the infinite goodness of God to get the better of this double fear that paralyzes us.
In fact, what those souls need that have fallen momentarily and are daily experiencing their own frailty, is confidence. And in this there are few that know how to strike exactly the right note. For if excessive confidence is a temptation familiar to sinners — “Never fear; God will always pardon you” — excessive distrust is a frequent error in those souls that, in spite of their weakness, desire to serve God: “How can God forgive you such thoughtlessness!”
Such timid souls may find helpful the following words of Julian of Norwich:
God wants us to see His love in everything. This is where we are so blind. Some of us are ready to believe that God is all-powerful and all-wise; but that He is all love they do not realize. And it is this that prevents many of those who love God from making any progress. One begins to detest sin and to make amends; but there is still a paralyzing fear; for some, it is the thought of the sins of their past life; for others, it will be the faults they commit daily as they break their good resolutions. This fear is sometimes taken for humility; in reality it is inertia and foolish blindness. Just as God tenderly forgives us our sins as soon as we have repented of them, so He would have us pardon them too, and not spend time in abasement and paralyzing worry.
Undoubtedly God is justice; He possesses infinitely that attribute which leads Him to claim from His free creature the tribute of His homage, and to punish Him in case of rebellion in proportion to His sin. But if God is justice, He is also mercy, and mercy, too, is infinite. The one is not intended to moderate the other, as we in our feeble way imagine. In God, these two attributes are identified in one supreme reality. It is better to say, “God is justice, God is mercy” than “God has justice, God has mercy.” Since we are able in our minds to oppose one of these attributes to the other — and rightly, up to a certain point — it may be noted that, although they cannot be separated in God, the one may manifest itself more clearly than the other in certain cases.
Thus, during man’s life on earth, it is God’s mercy that appears predominantly. God can wait; He has the whole of eternity. He bides his time, hoping for the return of the errant sheep. If the sinner persists in going astray and if his wickedness triumphs over God’s mercy, then justice must intervene to adjust the balance. God will not be eternally mocked. It is already a great deal to have allowed man to resist His grace. But now this creature has willfully turned from his last end and has doomed himself to eternal punishment. It is not God who damns him; it is man who damns himself. Man alone is responsible for his everlasting misery.
But in such a case, with what solicitude does not God watch over the prodigal son, until he has sealed his own doom? This would be a subject for everlasting tears of gratitude if the lost soul were capable of them. Even the very menace of hell is a great mercy. For those who, fascinated by the lure of sin, have forgotten how to love God, the fear of eternal punishment may well be the means of a salutary repentance.
But if the prodigal son, however wicked he may have been, for however long he may have strayed far from his father, will but consent to ask for pardon, God can no more punish him. Péguy has described with characteristic originality and force the demands of God’s justice and the triumph of His mercy as soon as the sinner asks for pity. God, he says, will judge us as the father judged the prodigal son.
Péguy’s favorite idea is that confidence in God has not a sufficiently prominent place in our prayer of repentance:
Why tremble at the thought of God? Do we think He spends His time setting traps for us and enjoying the sight of our falls? Why do we consume ourselves with anxiety? These sins that cause us so much worry, well, we ought not to have committed them; but now it is too late; yesterday is done, let us think of tomorrow. When the pilgrim has walked along a muddy road, before crossing the threshold of the church, he carefully wipes his feet. But once he is in church, he thinks no more of his feet. He has eyes and thought for nothing but the altar where Jesus
Christ is truly present. It is true that we are sinners; but if we left out of account all sinners, there would be few Christians left. There are three theological virtues. Faith and charity are the two elder sisters, and between them is the young one, hope. The two elder sisters walk in front, busy with the present time. The little one holds the train; she is occupied with the future.
Hope works miracles; it makes new souls of old. “I will arise and go to my father.” Hope does not blush to come in search of man even in the shame of sin. No virtue is more active in the heart of man. Hope is like a Little Sister of the Poor who does not mind handling a sick man. It is precisely when the heart is sick with sin and shame that hope opens into bloom. “I will arise and go to my father.”
How is it that this spring of Hope perpetually flows, and flows ever young, ever pure, ever fresh? Where does this child draw so much fresh water? Does she create it as she wants it? No: her secret is not a difficult one to understand. If she wanted clear water to make her clear springs, she would never find enough in the whole of creation. But it is of murky water that she makes her springs of pure water, and therefore she will never want for it.
This theology of hope, popular, but at the same time sublime, needs especially at the present day to be made familiar to all.
“Have you noticed,” writes Durel, “how sad we all are? Take any man of the present generation, and you will not have to seek far below a surface of mockery or indifference to find a spirit of deep melancholy. When we think that one day we shall have to appear before the Judge, we are seized with fright, for it seems impossible that we should be saved. There can be no state more displeasing to God than this, no state more indisposed to His grace, for there is none that is more insulting to His goodness.”