Sin, Prayer, and Forgiveness

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we find King Claudius being tortured by his sins.  He has killed his own brother and deceives the people of Denmark to his advantage by telling them that King Hamlet died of natural causes.  Therefore, he is a murderer and a liar.  By marrying his brother’s wife, he becomes Hamlet’s father-in-law in addition to being his uncle.  He has good reason to be wracked with guilt.

“O, my offence is rank,” he states in his soliloquy, “it smells to heaven.  It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t:  A brother’s murder.  Pray can I not:  Though inclination be as sharp as will, my stronger guilt defeats my strong intent” (Act, 3; scene 3).

He is able to mouth the words, but he is unable to pray.  He cannot attach his heart to his prayers:  “My thoughts fly up, my thoughts remain below.  Words without thoughts never to heaven go”.  Whereas he cannot pray, his is able to reflect with candor.  This only increases his self-torture.  He realizes that he does not want to let go the reasons for his crime:  “My crown, mine own ambition and my Queen”.  Because he is unrepentant he cannot prayer with sincerity.  And because he cannot pray, he cannot be forgiven.

Prayer is the middle term that allows sin to be forgiven.  God’s mercy is not bestowed indiscriminately.  God is just and will not dispense His forgiveness as long as the sinner remains unrepentant.  Claudius is unable to act because of the weight of his sins.  He can neither pray nor find peace.  He finds himself in the throes of a dilemma.

By contrast, St. Augustine was able to pray with heartfelt sincerity and therefore be absolved of his sins.  At the beginning of Book X of his Confessions, Augustine writes:  “For behold Thou lovest the truth, and he who does the truth comes to the light.  I wish to do it in confession, in my heart before Thee, in my writing before many witnesses”.

Augustine could say what Claudius could not say:  “My words fly up un-severed from my heart, words conjoined with the heart always to heaven go”.  Augustine also wants the world to know about his confession so that others can learn of the nature of prayer and a forgiving God.  In his book, The Conversion of Augustine, Romano Guardini states that “the real meaning of confession is the soul’s attempt to reach God in order to attain to fullness of being and self-realization”.  Augustine thanked God for forgiving “my past sins and [drawing] a veil over them, and in this way you have given me happiness in yourself changing my life by faith and your sacrament”.  Confession and conversion was the turning point in his life.  He went on to become the Bishop of Hippo, author of numerous books, and one of the most influential of all the Doctors of the Catholic Church. 

Prior to his conversion, Augustine had said, “Lord make me chaste—but not yet”.  In this instance, he was merely flirting with prayer and not being either sincere or repentant.  This flirting—a halfway house of prayer—is something with which many people can identify.  Prayer demands a willingness to serve God with truth as well as with a firm purpose of amendment.

Prayer, as we have stated, is the indispensable link between sin and forgiveness.  Life is difficult and temptations can be both seductive and demoralizing.  People make mistakes that they soon regret.  In many instances these mistakes are grievous enough, as in the case of King Claudius, to stand in the way of their making a confession.  However, one must keep in mind two things:  Confession and forgiveness are available for the most serious of sins.  The life benefits that prayer can bring about can give the penitent a new and richer life.

In his book, Prayer, the distinguished theologian Hand Urs von Balthasar writes about the life-rescuing and life-restoring benefits of prayer.  Prayer, he remarks, “is like a rope-ladder thrown down to us in danger of drowning, so that we can climb into the ship; or, a carpet unrolled before us leading to the Father’s throne; a torch shining in the darkness of a silent and sullen world, in whose light we are no longer harassed by problems, but learn to live with them”.

Women who have had an abortion, especially those who are Catholic, commonly believe that their sin is unforgivable.  After all, Vatican II states that abortion is “an abominable crime.”  Some have stayed away from Mass and the sacraments for long periods of time.  Some fear that the penalty of excommunication imposed upon them is irrevocable.  While it has been difficult for many of these women to go directly to confession, it should not be as difficult to pray.  Prayer is an important stepping stone toward confession and ultimately forgiveness. In his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (the Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II states that “Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong.  But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope.”

There is something far worse than sin.  It is allowing sin to rule one’s life.  In this way sin is multiplied over the course of one’s life.  This thought provides an added incentive to begin praying, praying for hope, and the courage to confess.  One’ future is at stake and it should not be place in the hands of sin.

Photo by Jacob Bentzinger on Unsplash

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He is is the author of 42 books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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