Cultivate True Contrition

The end of sorrow, both natural and supernatural, is correction, change. Supernatural sorrow must wean the soul from sin and turn it to God; it must, in other words, work repentance, for to repent is to change. The pun­ishment of sin is meant to deter from sin. It is first cor­rective and then penal.

Moral lessons inculcated by the dire effects of sin do not impress themselves upon us so directly, although they are just as efficacious.

Sorrow, therefore, is a divine power when it restrains the soul from sin; in short, when it “worketh penance, steadfast unto salvation.” The soul honestly appraising its past sins and their consequences cannot but be deeply touched with a sorrow prolific of perennial penitence. Holy Scripture insists on lifelong repentance. “Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord.” “With fear and trem­bling work out your salvation.” “Be you humbled under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in the time of visitation.” 

One thought underlies all these texts; they express one dominant truth. And this momentously significant verity that comes out of them all is the idea of constant repentance. For what are sorrow, humiliation, fear, and trembling but emanations of a deep and lasting realiza­tion of sin? They are at once the most becoming livery and the most powerful panoply of penitents, and their striking feature is their enduring character.

An inquiry into the cause of penitence reveals the same truth. Penitence is born of a consciousness of sin, and a consciousness of sin deepens with the passing of life. Repentance, therefore, intensifies as we grow older. This progressive development that we experience of the knowledge of sin is seen also in Sacred Scripture. As in ourselves, so in the Bible, the depths of sin are only gradually unfolded.

The social aspect of sin likewise forms the burden of the Ten Commandments. The greater part of the Gospels themselves deals only with the external results of sin: its hideous deformity, its hateful selfishness, as contrasted with God’s infinite love and His eternal beneficence.

Even more graphically than the books of the Old Testament do the Gospels describe these outward ef­fects, because the light of God’s incarnate presence is focused upon them. Only in the letters of the apostles, especially those of St. Paul, is the nature of sin thoroughly analyzed, its intrinsic malice clearly shown, and its deadly effect upon man’s soul brought to light.

As we grow older, we be­gin to feel the actual consequences of sin, the evils flow­ing from it that afflict us and those we love. Gradually the knowledge of its real nature, the secret disorder wrought by it, and the ruin and desolation that it brings into the soul unfold themselves to the mind.

As the years pass, this inward working of sin be­comes more vivid, more terrible. It deepens more and more as the end of life approaches; and at the hour of death, even when our lips have been purpled and our souls washed with the blood of our God, even then, just because of the soul’s brilliant spiritual beauty, sin be­comes all the more foul and ugly. Since, therefore, the keenness of the sense of sin measures the depth of re­pentance, penitence must grow with advancing years.

Bearing in mind this truth, who can understand the soul’s consciousness of sin after death? Then indeed, in the full blaze and radiant splendor of eternal justice, vice will appear ineffably hideous, while the appraisal of sin will be deepest precisely when the soul, after its complete purification in Purgatory, wings its flight to the eternal embrace of its God.

The momentous truth of the need of lifelong reparation for sin is exemplified in the three terms which Holy Scripture uses to denote penitence: conversion, repentance, and contrition; and each may signify either a transitory act or a perennial state. As separate acts, they are like the roots of giant oaks and pines, which often rise to the surface, only to return beneath it and deepen their growth. The act of penitence mounts to the surface in currents of feeling, while the state of penitence ever deepens below. But conversion, contrition, and repentance all indicate a perpetual progressiveness, a state of soul never becoming absolutely perfect, but constantly growing with advancing years.

Conversion is, literally, a turning — the turning of the soul and all its faculties from sin to complete identi­fication with the will of God.

Repentance (from the Greek metanoia) is the mind itself changed and transformed. It is the supernatural conquering the natural. It is the assumption of the spirit of Christ according to the words of St. Paul: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.”

Thus it is evident that penitence, in its entirety, is perennial. It has not always the same quality, however. It assumes different phases, and in this respect it is like a lifelong grief. The first outburst of sorrow will subside. The wilderness of desolation will bloom again with fra­grant flowers. In resignation to the divine will, the soul will be flooded with light, peace, and joy. Then will it glory in the consciousness that it is suffering with Christ. Its sorrow is now more abiding; it has taken root in the very depths of the soul’s consciousness; it clings to the soul far more tenaciously than the first convulsive par­oxysm of grief.

Without any external evidence, sorrow has silently transfigured the soul’s life, uniting it more fully, more intimately, more consciously with its God. A calm and permanent sorrow, which at first terrorized the soul, now lovingly embraces it and gradually sinks into its extreme depths, while externally there may have been no sign of its existence.

This article is from a chapter in Fr. Kane’s book. Click to order.

Penitence acts likewise. The initial expression of grief will cease; the tears will by degrees diminish; the wound inflicted by sin will gradually close. The first instinctive feelings of disappointment with self, loathing, and re­morse will quiet down and become more reasonable. But the awful realization of the soul’s spiritual state, the one all-absorbing thought of the horror of sin, will be more vivid, immeasurably truer, and will assume a more disciplined form. And as the interior spirit of repen­tance grows and at the same time becomes calmer, gen­tler, and more enlightened, the sense of the meaning of sin will intensify, and the thought of God’s mercy to sinners will rouse the soul’s hope and dispel the mists and shadows of that first anguish of somewhat unreasonable sorrow and remorse. The soul’s powers, thus re­newed, will now live their life in the eternal sunshine of the mercy and love of God.

To the superficial observer, repentance may then ap­pear to have ceased. It has, however, only sunk deeper into the soul. It is invisible because it has rooted itself in the soul’s innermost being. Its very hiddenness robs it of all external assertiveness. It has thoroughly intermin­gled with the soul’s deepest source of life, like food com­pletely assimilated by the body. It has made the soul far more responsive to grace; it has sensitized the soul’s fac­ulties; it has silently and secretly developed the soul’s realization of God’s most wondrous prerogative: mercy.

The soul now serves God more freely and more lov­ingly because it realizes the contrast between its past sinfulness and its present holiness, and the marvelous way in which the mercy of God has effected the change. This perennial penitential state, because of its hidden and profound depth, is all the more real. It is a creature of intelligence and calm confidence, not of blind instinct and selfish sorrow for sin. It transcends the natu­ral because it is born of faith.

A pious legend states that even to the day of his mar­tyrdom, St. Peter, whenever he heard the crowing of the cock, wept anew. The mighty flood of sorrow still flowed that broke forth within him when, on the night of his denial, he went out and wept bitterly. In his epistles, penitence is not mentioned. But no other letters are more replete with soul-stirring pleas for humility, watch­fulness, and fear.

St. Paul’s letters, on the contrary, are striking for their tone of repentance. The great apostle cannot for­get the sins of his youth. “I am,” he says, “the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, be­cause I persecuted the Church of God.” 

Penitence deserving the name, then, is not a mere passing act but a permanent state — a supernatural sor­row not fitfully but continually welling up within us, a condition of soul lasting until death. At no stage of the spiritual life may we dispense with it. It is necessary for the one who has advanced in virtue, as well as for the hardened sinner.

We are reminded of this in Confession. When slight imperfections form the subject matter of our accusation, the priest may ask us to recall, in a general way, some former mortal sin, if any, or other venial sins, and to in­clude them in our act of contrition. This is done to en­liven our sense of sin and to increase our repentance.

Wondrously retentive is the sinner’s memory. The reason is that the remembrance of past guilt and of God’s grace, which raised the sinner from spiritual death to supernatural life, can coexist in the soul. God’s own eternity seems to be stamped upon the sinner’s con­science, that he may not be without fear for forgiven sin, that the abiding knowledge of former sin and the punishment thereof may, all his days, wring from him the wail that will finally remove the least vestige of both sin and punishment. “Wash me yet more from my iniq­uity, and cleanse me from my sin.”

As, in the physical order, there is no light without its shadow, so, in the moral order, although the light of grace illumines the soul, the dim reflection of the hated past still remains. The God who assumed our flesh so that sinners might “have life and have it more abun-dantly,” the God of infinite compassion who came “to seek and to save that which was lost,” would have us ever reflect on our past sinfulness — not to weaken our confidence in His unspeakable mercy and to fill us with despair, but to enliven our sorrow and to strengthen our love of Him, so that “where sin abounded, grace might more abound.”

The habitual thought of former sin will invigorate present repentance. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” True self-knowledge will beget “the sorrow that is according to God,” which “worketh penance steadfast unto salvation.”

Thus, the prayer of the publican — “O God, be mer­ciful to me a sinner” — we can never repeat too often; his humility we can never assimilate too well. The yearning to return to the God whom he had outraged, the conscious recognition of his sin, which convinced him that he was utterly unworthy of pardon, justified him fully in the sight of the divine majesty. “I say to you, this man went down into his house justified.”

Realizing that we are sinners, we must have a godly, and thus a deep, humble, sincere, perennial, and effica­cious sorrow for our sins, a sorrow that forces us to quit the broad, rough road of sin and, with renewed spiritual strength, to advance in the way of God.

If we evade the stern obligation of repentance, we shall be lost. “Unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish.” Sorrow for past sin is the infallible means of avoiding future sin. Penitence is, then, the rock foundation of a virtuous life. We must clothe our­selves with the penitential garb here, if we would escape the terrors of the judgment hereafter. “If Thou, O Lord, wilt mark iniquities, Lord, who shall stand it?”

Editor’s note:This article is adapted from Fr. Kane’s How to Make a Good Confession and is available from Sophia Institute Press. 

image: Jan S. / Shutterstock.com

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Born in Philadelphia, John Kane attended St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland, and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, Pennsylvania, and was ordained for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1912. Fr. Kane was the first pastor in his archdiocese to introduce all-night adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. He initiated a weekly adult religion class in his parish. He died in 1962.

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  • joan

    For years i did not pray for myself because i truly believed it was selfish. I stopped praying for myself. How sinful is that? Who did i think i was? The evil one is so clever – how do i get rid of this pride………… i want to crawl inside Jesus and hide from myself.

  • Anonymous

    The last time I went to confession, I told the priest that I had lost that wonderful sense of exuberance and lightness that I used to feel after confession when I was young. I felt like I probably hadn’t made a good enough confession because I never felt really happy after confession anymore. The priest so kindly told me in effect to stop thinking about myself and to start focusing on God. I’m not doing a good job of explaining, but basically that Jesus had forgiven me and now it was time to forgive myself.

    I wonder if you and I are a little alike? I agree the devil is clever. Perhaps you need to let go of the past now, forgive yourself and hide yourself in Jesus as you said (What better way to get back at the devil?!). No matter how many times we sin, we need to pick ourselves off, beg God’s mercy and try again. The priest also said something along the lines of that it’s through our faults and failings that God shines his light.
    Wishing you peace and mother Mary’s prayers for you.

  • joan

    hi, i read this last night and slept on it. Thank you for your prayers. You speak the Truth. This lines up with something i read the other day: ‘Obey God and humble yourself.’ This speaks volumes to me.

    i thought my cross was heavy, now i believe it’s not heavy enough. i truly am distracted by my own self. All this time i’ve thought the past has brought me closer to God, and while it has, the pain of what happened is still there after almost 15 years. God has been my stronghold all this time that i’ve been hanging on to a loss. i don’t think that’s pleasing to God. God IS merciful and His Love, well, only God could hold my hand that long. My heart is very heavy to become aware of this offense to God and His plan for me. You are so right, and i am so grateful for your guidance.

    This is not an easy thing to do. Forgiving one’s own self for hanging on to a hurt. I’m not angry, i don’t hate, i just hurt. I talk too much, and It’s all about me again isn’t it. God help me.

    You are a friend to me. May God continue to bless you richly. thank you so much.

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