His name was Tom. He was traveling on business and was staying at a motel in Arizona one night when he turned on the television and happened across our live show. He had never phoned in to a “call-in” show before. And for the first minute or so of his call, we thought he had just telephoned to say hi. He talked a little baseball and spoke about a few other odds and ends until finally the cameraman started encouraging me to help him get to the point.
Now I’ve been accused of many things, but patience is not one of them. Ordinarily, I would have been pretty blunt, but the Lord was telling me to go easy on this young man, so I did. “Tom, would you like to ask us a question tonight?” I asked, as gently as I could.
Then the dam broke, and it didn’t take a minute to understand why Tom, at first, was hesitant to tell his story. As we soon learned, he had spent three years in the jungles of Vietnam, like so many of our troops. He had killed dozens of Vietnamese soldiers; that was war. But Tom had also looked deep into the eyes of a young Vietnamese as he fired at close range. And though more than a decade had passed, that face still haunted him.
“I’ve been to Confession,” Tom said, “and I know theoretically that God forgives me, but God’s forgiveness seems so abstract and so far away. Frankly, I don’t believe God could forgive such a horrible thing, and if He has, then I don’t understand why I feel so guilty that I can’t see straight. And I’m so depressed — well, I even think about killing myself. I know it’s a sin, but I can’t help it.”
By the time he was finished there wasn’t a dry eye in the studio audience. And while some of the tears were no doubt for the reality of war, most of them were for Tom.
You see, Tom was not simply feeling guilt or the sorrow anyone would feel for taking a human life. Tom was not feeling guilt; he had become guilt. He was a living, breathing emotion, swirling in remorse, fantasy, and self-recrimination. To the outside world he was a responsible businessman. But inside he was living a secret life of dark emotions, and his depressions and suicidal tendencies were taking over his soul.
Clearly, he needed the help of a counselor or a psychologist, and I advised him to seek professional help immediately. But his soul — as well as his mind — was suffering from delusions and misapprehensions. It was as if, for fifteen years, he had walked around with a wound that never healed but only festered and worsened, so that it bore no resemblance to the original wound at all. Tom had a wound that only God could heal.
When guilt becomes twisted, when it becomes an obsession, as it had in Tom’s case, it is not God speaking to us. It is our own voice, and it is an abuse of our soul. Tom was about to despair . He had forgotten what so many of us forget: that God is merciful, that He loves, and that He forgives. Tom had forgotten that God is greater than our guilt. Saint John assures us that even if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart (cf . 1 John 3:20). It is with this in mind that we should look at our guilt, convinced that God’s mercy is no mere theory, no pat answer, but is real and always ready to forgive.
If you are wrapped in some kind of guilt, it might be God speaking to you through your conscience, which is a healthy, constructive guilt. Or it might be guilt of your own making, in which case it’s probably keeping you up at night for all the wrong reasons. Guilt can be God’s caution, God’s sorrow in you for your sin, an understanding of your sin that leads you to great grace — or it can be a misunderstood, distorted, and misapplied emotion that leads you down the path of pride. Whatever guilt is, it is not just an unruly psychological response to something you’ve done wrong, to failure, to blowing a test, or to an inability to realize your life’s dream.
It is much more than that.
Guilt and Your Soul
Now I realize that when I mention the word soul, a lot of people start to tune out. The soul seems vague to us; we know we have one, but we really don’t know how to talk about it. Most people can more easily discuss cholesterol levels or the stock market than the condition of their souls.
What does this have to do with guilt? Well, if you want to get at your guilt, you’ve got to understand how your soul operates. And if you want to know how your soul operates, then you’ve got to know what your soul is. That is why I want to digress for a moment and discuss the “anatomy” of your soul.
You’ve probably heard that you were created in the image and likeness of God. But that’s a difficult thing to imagine, especially when we consider that in the Old Testament God is described as a fire, a cloud, a voice, and a wind. Obviously, God looks different from us — so how are we made in His image and likeness?
The answer is that there is one part of you that is made in His image, and that part is your soul. When God created you, He breathed an immortal soul into your body in order that you would resemble the Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This act elevated you above all of creation, for it gave you the opportunity to imitate the Father’s mercy and compassion, Jesus’ humility, and the Spirit’s love.
This might seem complicated, but it’s easier than it sounds. All you have to do is picture a circle, which represents your soul, divided into three parts . A pie cut into only three pieces. The three parts make the whole, and each part — or faculty — corresponds to a Person of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit .
- You have a memory with an imagination, which resembles the Father . In this faculty you possess the capacity for mercy and compassion.
- You have an intellect, which resembles the Son . In this faculty you possess the capacity for faith and humility.
- You have a will, which resembles the Holy Spirit . In this faculty you possess the capacity to love.
I know that this is a subject for endless discussion and probing, but given this simplified explanation of the soul, we will now see where your sense of guilt arises .
Guilt originates in the memory and the imagination. We commit a sin, remember it, and feel guilty about it. If we are experiencing proper guilt, repentance brings us back to the Lord and gives us peace. We have guilt because we remember a sinful action, but our intellect tells us that if we repent and ask for God’s mercy, we will be forgiven. Guilt thus serves a purpose, because it leads us back to God and to His forgiveness. The problem occurs when you leave your intellect out of the equation, and your memory and imagination run wild. Your guilt takes on unreal proportions, and you begin to blame yourself for things that aren’t even your fault. Unfortunately, this happens more often than it should, because we don’t trust that God’s mercy is greater than our sin. Bear with me, and you will grasp a very important point. Feelings are not evil. But they are not reliable either.
When our memory and imagination are on overload, we lose sight of the issue at hand. It’s like those televisions that used to have three dials, one for color, one for tint, and one for hue. If you turned one dial all the way up, you got a distorted picture. This is precisely what happens when one of the three faculties of your soul gets out of balance. You get a distorted picture.
Once a sin has been committed, your memory is going to work overtime. You blew it. You lied to your spouse. You snubbed an old friend. You were impatient with your father. If you don’t let your intellect inform you that God is ready and able to forgive, you’re going to be in big trouble. Your memory will never let you forget your sin, and your imagination will probably exaggerate it. At this point, you don’t have much chance of healing or forgiveness.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. If you blew it, you should feel pretty awful about it. But you should not twist and taint your soul by allowing your memory and your imagination, without benefit of your intellect, to replay your sin over and over and to embellish it — and as a result, to become guilt itself. In your mind, you’re unable to do anything right, and all your actions become faulty and inadequate. Soon you’ve convinced yourself that there’s little reason to try to improve, since you’re only going to blow it again.
If you step back and take a look at yourself, you’ll see that you’re getting nowhere fast.
Wallowing in guilt doesn’t solve our problems or lead us to holiness. It is not God’s will that we become so strapped down with our guilt that we no longer accept His love, the love that forgives. When we become guilty we are not listening to Him, we are listening to ourselves. Our souls are out of kilter. We are paralyzed, frozen on our spiritual journey. The sorrow and the repentance that we should be experiencing are instead replaced by an overactive imagination.
Guilty until Proven Innocent
Understanding guilt is a very delicate business, because there is no handy rule book for figuring out what is good guilt and what is bad guilt. But you can be sure of this much — an enlightened conscience, one that nudges you toward right action, is good guilt. It becomes bad guilt when it leads to remorse, despair, and self-hatred.
Our goal is for you to stop living at the memory level, if that is what you are doing, and learn to use your other faculties properly. You need to understand your sin and to use your will to emerge stronger and holier from a sinful experience.
We all make mistakes that cause us guilt, all the time.
- We blurt out something to a friend that comes across as too sharp or mean and causes that person hurt.
- We forget an anniversary or a birthday and leave someone feeling unappreciated or neglected.
- We promise to meet our parents for dinner and cancel out at the last minute, making them feel disappointed and unimportant.
Why is it good to feel guilt in each of these cases? Because if we feel guilty, we are less likely to make our mistake again. Chances are, we’re going to be more careful about what we say to our friends. We’re going to remember our sister’s birthday. We’re going to make a more concerted effort to honor our commitments.
If we didn’t feel guilty in these situations, we’d turn into rude, forgetful, reckless people. This kind of short-term guilt teaches us something, and we can progress in our spiritual life because of the lessons we’ve learned. This kind of guilt doesn’t linger; we learn from it and move on. It is a healing guilt, because it allows us to examine our errors, make amends, and get back to the business of pursuing holiness.
A Drop of Mercy
The idea of hurting God is awesome. It’s hard not to get a little nervous thinking that your petty actions have an effect on the Creator of the universe. Most of the time, we protect ourselves from this truth by living a life of spiritual apathy. We go about our daily business without a care in the world, more concerned about our memos and our electric bills and our summer wardrobe than about our holiness. Thank God that you and I aren’t God, because if it were up to us, we’d probably wash our hands of these selfish creatures called human beings. But our God is all loving. And He’s just a thought away, ready to understand us, accept our repentance, and forgive us, no matter what we’ve done.
I was in California a few years ago preparing to give a talk when I decided to take a walk to the ocean. I love the ocean. I am really amazed at what God did when He created it, and when I see His power in the seemingly endless expanse of water and the rushing of the waves, I always like to play a game. On this day I was, as usual, wearing my brown Franciscan habit, and as I passed by the bathers on the beach, I could see that they didn’t know what to make of me. When I got to a good stopping point, I did what I usually do: I stood about twenty or thirty feet from the waterline and called the waves to me. I figured they belong to my Heavenly Father, so I could call them if I wanted to. The sunbathers looked at me as if I were crazy, but I didn’t mind.
“Come on, you can do it!” I called. And I was so surprised when one wave heard me. Suddenly I realized that I was about to be doused by one of the most gigantic waves I had ever seen in my life.
I was so stunned; I couldn’t move. Everybody on the beach was screaming, “Run, run!” but I could not move. My leg brace was firmly entrenched in the sand.
Suddenly, the wave crashed at my feet. My shoes were wet, my brace was wet, even the hem of my habit was wet.
When I looked up, I noticed that a tiny droplet had hit the top of my hand. It was so beautiful. It glistened like a diamond in the sun.
The droplet affected me so deeply with its beauty that I felt unworthy of it, and to my own surprise, as I stood there, I threw it back into the ocean.
My odd little peace was broken when I felt the Lord say to me, “Angelica?”
I said, “Yes, Lord?”
“Did you see that drop?”
I said, “Yes, Lord.”
“That drop is like all of your sins, your weaknesses, your frailties, and your imperfections. And the ocean is like my mercy. If you looked for that drop, could you find it?”
I said, “No, Lord.”
“If you looked and looked, could you find it?”
I said, “No, Lord.”
And then He said to me, ever so quietly, “So why do you keep looking?”
That episode at the ocean taught me a profound lesson. I think all of us fall victim to rehashing our sins and failings, reliving our guilt long after we’ve asked forgiveness. We fail to realize that once God has forgiven us, those sins are gone forever. Our sins disappear in the ocean of God’s mercy. We need not worry about them any longer — they are permanently enveloped in God’s everlasting mercy.
It is hard to work through our guilt, to be repentant, to seek the sacrament of Reconciliation, and then to accept God’s forgiveness fully. Believe me, I know in my heart what you’re going through, and I know what it takes to stick with it. But you must remember that God’s mercy is just as broad and encompassing as His love for you is deep and personal. He’s looking at you — yes, you — right now, and His arms are open wide. If you can give your guilt to God just as you give Him your sins, you will be healed.
Healing and Growing
“Repent.” God asks so little of us. And yet it’s so hard to know what to do when we are swept up in our own smothering guilt. In the past ten years, I’ve counseled so many women who have aborted children, and when they come to me, distraught, anguished, and bereft, I can see that they are devastated by the realization that they have taken a human life — and they just don’t know what to do about it.
I believe that the guilt over having aborted a child is one of the most severe pains a person can experience. I’m reminded of a letter I received from a woman in Michigan:
Mother, you won’t remember this, but four years ago I called you to ask you to save my life. I had attempted suicide twice, and a friend suggested that I call you.
It only took you a couple of minutes to get to the root of my problem. I had aborted two children within six months of each other. When I told you, I knew you were as heartbroken as I was. Well, I know you probably won’t recall our conversation, but you told me something odd.
You told me I was not alone and that I still had two children, even though they had gone to the next life.
You told me to name my children. You told me to ask them to pray for me. I thought you were some kind of weirdo, but I had nothing to lose. I did what you said to do. Over time, I realized that my children were not lost, but were created and loved by God even though they are no longer in this world.
Two years later I married a wonderful man, and last month we had a little girl. We named her Mary Michael. This is a birth announcement, Mother. I know I love her with a depth I could never have had were it not for God’s forgiveness and healing power. I’ve tried to warn other women about abortion, and I’ll fight it now with an even greater love for God and the life you helped me find.
This woman had experienced an extraordinary healing from God through the sacrament of Reconciliation. She had suffered tremendous guilt and remorse for her abortions and had asked God for His help and forgiveness. She had repented for her sins and was now healthy, fueled with a higher joy and understanding than most people today. She didn’t sugarcoat her sins. With God’s grace, she had overcome her guilt.
What I Have Failed to Do
At the network, we hear from people of all ages, all levels of education, all races, colors, and creeds. But for all the apparent differences, there are certain heartaches and grievances that no one seems to be spared. Most people call or write because of their inability to make God real in their lives; He just doesn’t seem to be relevant to them. Then there are calls that come from the crises of everyday life: divorce, rebellious children, alcoholism, drug addiction, death, loneliness, adultery, and financial worries.
But one of the biggest problems I’ve seen over the past few years is a tendency among Christians — usually very devout Christians — to get all wrapped up in “perfectionism.” These people set themselves up to suffer enormous guilt simply because they’re not perfect. As a result, they’re “perfectly guilty”!
Our mission in this life is not perfection, but holiness. God doesn’t want you to feel guilty because you can’t do it all. Perfectionism is, as a matter of fact, a form of pride, because you are not accepting yourself and your limitations. Some people get caught up in the “super” syndrome. Others start nit-picking at themselves over their own temperaments or personalities — and when they fail, as they often do, they are overcome by guilt and depression and sometimes despair. The only Person you have to worry about failing is God. If you fail Him, you should feel guilty. But if you fail some arbitrary standard of perfection, you should feel silly. You are running the wrong course.
The Right Course
If you trust in God and His mercy, your guilt will just be a station on the way to holiness. You won’t get stuck there, because you’ll know that He’s going to move you right along on your journey. You won’t look back; you’ll look ahead. You’ll see what you can do now. You will witness to the goodness and glory of God.
Whenever guilt and discouragement start to get the best of me, I think about Matthew the tax collector and his first encounter with Jesus. Now, you know that before his conversion, Matthew was no saint. He had his own theory of mathematics: ten for Caesar, twenty for Matthew, ten for Caesar, twenty for Matthew. So here was this petty, selfish man who was cheating the people twice over, merrily counting his coins in the little tax-collection stall at the market, when along came Jesus.
Jesus simply said to Matthew, “Follow Me” (Matt . 9:9).
When Matthew noticed Him, Jesus looked him in the eye. At that moment, the tax collector was converted. The moment Jesus called him, Matthew knew that he was unworthy, a sinner and nothing more. And this is why our Lord sought him out; Jesus knew that he had so much simplicity of soul and so much love to give that he would recognize his sinfulness, instantly accept God’s forgiveness, and immediately follow the Lord to a life of great holiness.
It takes many of us a lifetime to learn what Matthew knew in an instant: that God’s mercy is greater than any of us can ever imagine. Matthew did not put himself outside of God’s mercy. He didn’t pretend to be something other than what he was — a tax collector and a cheater to boot. He had the humility to repent and to accept forgiveness. And that is exactly what we should do with our guilt.
The soul is a wondrous thing. When our soul is in perfect balance, our memory can recall all our actions, good and evil, our intellect can inform us of God’s response to those actions, and our will can execute a holy response. When we experience spiritually prescribed guilt, we are responding with remorse to the reality of the sin we have committed. But as Christians, we go one step further. We repent with humility, ask for forgiveness, and know that God in His infinite mercy will wash it all away.
Your sins are like a drop in the ocean of God’s mercy. They are nothing unless you decide to cling to them and let them take over your life. Give those sins to God. If you are Catholic, receive the sacrament of Reconciliation; you will be astonished at the grace and healing that will enter your soul.
- If you have hurt someone, go to that person and ask for forgiveness, and then ask God to heal you both.
- If you are punishing yourself for a past sin, ask God for forgiveness and for the strength and the wisdom to forgive yourself.
- If you are engaged in a sinful situation, pray to God for the strength to get out of it, and ask Him for His mercy on your soul.
As John Henry Newman observed, to live is to change, and to enter the Kingdom of Heaven we must change often. Guilt precipitates change, the change that is our transformation to holiness. None of us can be spiritual pilgrims without throwing ourselves into the life that God gave us to live, and sometimes we sin. But knowing that we have sinned is a grace. Feeling guilt for our sins is God’s gentle hand opening our eyes, so that with our own free will we can find our way back to the path of holiness.
God forgives and forgets.
Throw your guilt in the ocean of His mercy.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Mother Angelica’s Answers, Not Promises: Straightforward Solutions to Life’s Puzzling Problems, which is available as a paperback or ebook from Sophia Institute Press. Also available is Praying With Mother Angelica: Meditations on the Rosary and the Way of the Cross.