The virtue which for obvious reasons we should consider first is contrition, for those who have lost their baptismal innocence can be saved only as penitents. Which of us can think that we have kept our garments in their baptismal purity? If we have not, then the foundation of our Christian character, upon which all must rest, is penitence.
So completely can this virtue stamp itself upon the whole character that we can describe many a person in one word — “penitent.” Just as innocence shines out through every virtue in those few choice souls who have preserved it, and gives a special radiance and light to all they do or say, so penitence marks the whole man: it gives its own tone and color to everything; it represents to us a definite character, in spite of all else that goes to make up the character, and leaves its impress upon every virtue and grace. The other virtues get a special tone from this: the purity of St. John is different from the purity of St. Augustine. In the one it was never lost; in the other it was lost, and fought for, and regained; one had the purity of innocence, the other the purity of penitence.
It begins, no doubt, in many less perfect forms. A real penitence may take its rise from the sense of one’s own personal loss. “How many hired servants of my Father have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger.” Such was the beginning of the life of penitence in the Prodigal, but it was only the beginning; it must rise higher than that. Such a sense of loss could not brace the will up; for all it has to do and to endure and to forgo, it can only lead the soul a certain way.
It can lead it back to his Father’s embrace, and then it passes under the control of a stronger and more enduring power, the love of the Father, who has been offended; then it cries “Against thee only have I sinned.”
Thus it may be said that there are two conversions: the conversion from sin to self and the conversion from self to God. In the first stage, the thought of God is indeed present, but the sense of one’s own misery and loss is the strongest. In the second, the thought of self has almost disappeared; the soul is glad to suffer, complains of nothing, rejoices if by all it has to endure it can make reparation to the love of God, against which it has sinned.
Contrition, then, in a more or less perfect form, is to be found at the very beginning of the spiritual life of all those who have ever sinned deeply. It is its first movement, that which causes it to say, “I will arise.” It is the first thought that breaks in upon the soul as it awakens to the sense of its sin. “When he came to himself he said, “How many hired servants of my Father have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger. I will arise and go to my Father!”
The Prodigal awakened to a sense of sin and its misery, and this produced a resolution of the will: “I will arise and go to my Father.” It was the dawn of the spiritual life amidst all the squalor and degradation that sin had brought in its train.
Where the sense of sin is not, the spiritual life cannot exist; as the life of holiness grows, the spirit of contrition deepens. It seems strange, but it is undoubtedly true, that contrition deepens in proportion as the soul becomes purer, that is, in proportion as the guilt of sin is removed.
This virtue stands, then, at the entrance of the life of devotion and prayer, waiting to receive the soul and lead it onward in the pathway of holiness, and there is no grace that it does not help to form, over whose development it does not preside, and into which it does not impart something of its own stern yet gentle spirit.
Yes, we can little tell the source of the power or the immeasurable strength of the force that sets the long clogged wheels and rusted springs of the spiritual life in motion and produces such a wonderful result; and least of all is that soul in whom this grace is working such wonders, conscious of what is taking place within it. For the strange thing is that while for the penitent contrition is the mother of all virtues, she is herself the outcome of sin, and while weaving the holiest virtues, she sees how stained her hands are and seeks to wash them with her tears.
For she can never forget the past; she is the child of that past, the offspring of the mystical union between the love of God and the memory of sin; and yet the remembrance of the evil past does not hold her back or make her timid, or morbid, or over-introspective; her very strength consists in, and depends on, the perfectly healthy tone of the mind. She knows the evil of the past, but she remembers it only in the presence of her Savior, who has pardoned her. She cannot think of her sins but as forgiven, yet the very certainty of the forgiveness makes the pain of recalling them more keen, while robbing it of every vestige of morbidness or self-consciousness.
And thus there is nothing that she will not dare. She will strive after the virtues that seem to belong only to those who have been always kept pure. Despair cannot exist where she is, nor timidity. Although in another sense there is none so timid, timid she must be, remembering the past, yet not timid in the sense that she is afraid to face dangers and to aim at the very highest.
In such persons, contrition is the life and center of all the soul’s strength and progress. When hope begins to get clouded, it is because contrition begins to fail. When faith grows dim and love grows cold, it is because contrition has lost her strength and is dying. Nay, so clear is her own vision of God, so certain is she of her own love, that she can encourage and sustain the soul in times of utmost darkness and deadness. At these times, contrition is up and awake, and all her strength and tenderness is expended in keeping the soul from fainting. She speaks to it again and again with accents of encouragement and inspiration. “You have deserved to lose the sense of love and clearness of faith. Why should you expect all to be clear when you remember the years in which you did not try, did not want to believe? Fight on bravely now, and the light and peace will come again.”
It is at such moments that contrition shows her unfailing strength, or at times that are even worse, when old temptations come back with redoubled force, when the power of habit reasserts itself, when all the succors of grace seem to be withdrawn and the soul is left face-to-face with the multitude of her enemies, conscious only that the will has no strength to resist. Then it is that contrition comes to the rescue, and her power is felt as never before. Her power — and yet she herself seems so weak — for the inspiration of love seems to have died out of her too; yet still she is there in the thick of the fight, standing by the will, urging it on with arguments, appealing to it, strengthening it; and when every fortress of the soul seems overthrown, contrition holds the will and gains the victory.
Thus, contrition is indeed the molding and controlling force that forms, restores, and preserves the penitent. Its transforming power is so great that it can fit the greatest sinner for the company of the saints. The Magdalene was not out of place by the side of the spotless Mother. Penitence can give to the soul what it would seem could be gained only by innocence. It verily can “raise up the poor out of the dust, and lift up the beggar from the dunghill to set him among princes, and to make him inherit the throne of glory.”
Contrition Is Patient
Contrition is ready to endure all that comes upon it, whether justly or unjustly; it knows what it deserves, and it knows that if others knew it as it truly is, it could be treated with no consideration or kindness. It recognizes that it has no rights; that the chief reason that it is permitted to live is in order that reparation may, in some degree, be done for the past. It bears about within itself an awakened conscience that speaks as the representative of the justice of the all-holy God; and the voice of conscience is ever passing sentence upon it, and the soul, in the spirit of penitence, is ever more and more ready to welcome everything as acting toward it for the satisfaction of an offended God. Nay, it longs to find new offerings to make, for it can never lose sight of God’s love, and it knows that whatever it may have to suffer is not a mere penalty sent in anger, but a loving chastisement to restore and perfect it.
And it accepts above all things the consequences of past sin without a murmur, the constant presence of temptation, the sense of weakness and of loss, the deadness of heart, the poverty of prayer, the very fear of self-deception, the agony of doubt that at times darkens all the path, filling it with uncertainty, whether its penitence is real or whether, after all, it is not a specious form of self-interest.
Even this it learns to bear, and, by bearing, to overcome.
Sometimes, when tempted to doubt whether there can be pardon for one who has sinned so deeply, it triumphs by an all-enduring act of self-surrender, saying, “Well, if I am to go to hell, even that I will bear as my desert. For hell itself cannot make me cease to grieve for having offended God,” and thus it conquers even the fear of hell. And it endures patiently the loss of all that it has forfeited, even its best gifts. As God has withdrawn them, it puts away the desire for them, and it knows if they are to be regained, it must be by a growing transformation of itself. It longs not so much to receive anything as to regain the love of God that it has forfeited.
And what if the power of old sin asserts itself and it yields again and falls? Even then it does not lose patience or despair but, with a deeper sense of need, strives to cling more closely to God. Despair or deep discouragement after a fall is the result of dependence on self, a subtle form of pride. True contrition knows that any moment in which the soul lets go of God, it plunges into the depths of its own weakness, and therefore if it fails, it takes the warning, saying, “Why art thou cast down O, my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me? Hope in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.”
Contrition Is Strong
Contrition shows its strength by what it puts away rather than by what it does. It puts away those things with which it has formerly sinned. If by necessity it has them as part of its life, it puts them away from the heart.
That which has been an occasion of sin must be a memorial of sorrow. We may be violent in active antagonism to sin while we are continually recurring to objects that have been the causes of sin; but contrition puts them away, and at whatever cost. We may hate sin very much and yet feel that we must have certain things, indulgences, and friendships that have been the cause of sin in the past.
So far we are lacking in contrition. We have the element of hate, but not of love. The love of God strengthens the soul to put away from itself what has caused it to offend God. How can it love Him and enjoy what has been the means of separating it from Him?
No, it has but one great longing: to return to God: “I will arise, and go to my Father.” And it has one great fear: sin. “Love is stronger than death,” and in the strength of love, tempered with the fear of sin, it can give up anything. No gain, no result, could make it tolerate the occasion of sin.
What strength it has to break with things that have become almost a part of our life from long habit; what strength to break with companionship that are so sweet, albeit so dangerous!
The penitent soul needs indeed to be strong, and strength is always calm. It is not merely in moments of spiritual excitement that it deals sternly with itself, relapsing into ease and self-indulgence when the clearness of spiritual perception has passed and dullness and chill have settled down on heart and mind. No, it is as calmly firm in the darkest as in the brightest times.
When all the lower nature cries out for rest and ease, and God has withdrawn every token of His presence and love, the will remains firm in the practice of self-denial.
And again, when God grants to it moments of joy, when it has no doubt, no fear, when the assurance of its acceptance and of God’s love comes upon it with an overwhelming rush of emotion, it does not permit itself to be carried away. In the midst of all that inner joy, there is the firm grasp upon itself and things around it, and it quietly perseveres in its penitential exercise. How strong it is! How faithful! How unbending toward the offender — the chief of sinners!
Contrition Is Tender
Contrition has no harshness. It springs from the love of God. It does not come before the mind as a duty; it springs out of the heart by the necessity of its own inspiration. It is the longing of a soul burdened with the sense of defilement to be conformed to the holiness of Him whom it loves. It springs from the love of God, not from the hatred of sin. We cannot rise to love by hatred, but we must pass on from the love of God to the hatred of what He hates.
The inspiration of contrition is love, not hate; there is no taint of bitterness or irritation toward self. Thus, stern and unbending in its self-discipline, it is nevertheless always tender. It bears deeply marked upon itself both the strength and the tenderness of love. It has a “heart of fire toward God, a heart of flesh toward man, a heart of steel toward self.”
There is an asceticism that is harsh and stern and cruel, but it is not the asceticism of the Christian penitent. There is none so tender toward others, so sensitive for their well-being, so slow to condemn or to see others’ faults. It seems to it as if all the world needs kindness and care except itself. Contrition closes the eyes toward the sins of others and opens them upon its own; it sees itself as the one culprit in the midst of a world that throbs with the love of God.
Patience, strength, tenderness! A spirit that can endow the selfish, sensual, worldly, easygoing nature with such graces must indeed be mighty. It is. It is as strong as God’s justice, as gentle as His love, as patient as His mercy.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Fr. Maturin’s Spiritual Guidelines for Souls Seeking God, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.