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.
Causes of Penitence
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.”
Penitence is Perennial
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.
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.
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.
True Sorrow for Sins
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 abundantly,” 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?”
This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Kane’s How to Make a Good Confession: A Pocket Guide to Reconciliation With God. It is available as an ebook or leatherette at Sophia Institute Press.