Remorse and Repentance

SORROW for sin has two aspects, two slants as it were, one backwards and one forward. Looking back, the penitent regrets and detests sin; looking forward, he determines to avoid it.

Determination to avoid both sin and its occasions, in other words, firm purpose of amendment, is the crucial test of the reality of contrition. He who is determined to do his best to avoid sin, undoubtedly has true repentance, even though he feels spiritually dry as a desert and indevout as an iceberg.

The proof of contrition is in the effective will to reform. It is all-important that there should be no misunderstanding about the true meaning of contrition; remorse must on no account be confused with repentance.

Judas said: "Peccavi" --- "I have sinned"; David said the same. Judas had remorse; David had repentance. David was contrite, Judas was not. Both were sad about sin, both regretted it, both did not have repentance. Judas made a public confession of sin: "I have sinned in betraying innocent blood"; yet, despite his remorse and confession and restitution of his foully-gotten gains, he did not have effective repentance.
Remorse is a product of wishful-thinking and implies the wish to avoid sin; repentance implies the determined will to avoid it. Remorse is conditional; repentance is absolute.

 The remorseful would like to avoid sin if doing so did not entail so much effort and sacrifice, and if he had enough faith, hope and charity. Contrition admits neither "ifs" nor "buts," and does not recognize the sacrosanctity of ruts. The remorseful would like to undo his sin, but he has not the requisite determination to remove the occasions of sin and surmount the obstacles to reform.

On his death-bed de Medici was filled with remorse and confessed to Savonarola. He would not, however, remove certain voluntary and unnecessary occasions of sin, so Savonarola rightly refused him absolution. His sorrow was selfish and sentimental, not effective.

A well-known principle of scholasticism: "qui vult finem, vult media" --- "he who wills the end, wills the means," suggests the only true practical test of contrition, which is --- willingness to use all the necessary means to avoid sin.

If we truly hate sin, we shall do all in our power to avoid it. If, however, we are unwilling to use the means, we deceive ourselves if we fancy that we will the end. Pilate wished to release our Divine Saviour; had he willed it, he could have released Him at once.

We must be careful not to confuse velleity and volition. A firm purpose of amendment implies more than a wish or desire; it implies determination.

The firm purpose of amendment is the most difficult act of the penitent. It is easy enough to have remorse for sin; in fact, unless our conscience has become completely atrophied, remorse is inevitable. It is not so easy to have effective repentance. St. Alphonsus says that most bad confessions are bad through lack of practical amendment; and authorities and citations to confirm his opinion could be multiplied.

Owing to the subtleties of self-deceit, it is fatally easy to mistake remorse for repentance. A penitent says, for example: "I am sorry for my sin, but do not ask me to break off abruptly and completely from the occasion of sin. I could not bear to appear unkind to one who has been so good to me. I do not want to hurt his feelings." Such a soul, like Pilate,  is trying to serve two masters and have it both ways, and that is certainly not effective repentance.

Sometimes a penitent confesses theft. "When are you going to pay back the money?" asks the priest. "What are you going to do to get the money together?" The penitent has not thought of that; he has a vague intention of paying back at some uncertain date when he can do so without the slightest inconvenience, but the idea of doing anything practical here and now has not entered his head. That is not effective repentance either; in fact, such a confession is probably only a sop to conscience.

The story is told of an old woman on her deathbed, who was asked to renounce the devil. "Father," she replied, "is there any need to make enemies unnecessarily?" We may easily laugh at her naiveté without having even a suspicion how often we do the same sort of thing ourselves. Often we neglect our Divine Master through human respect, i.e., because we don't want to make enemies unnecessarily; we don't want to offend Caesar nor Jones. Effective reform of human respect is very difficult, and in this matter we are extremely prone to mistake remorse for repentance.

It is to be feared that the confessions of pious people are often deficient in true contrition. St. Francis of Sales complains: "Many confess their venial sins superficially and from sheer habit, without giving any thought to amending their lives." [1] They get "into the habit of thoughtlessly rattling off a list of habitual sins, which they have never seriously resolved to correct." These habitual sins they commit without remorse and confess without repentance.

I am not suggesting (and please note and remember this well) that the confessions of the pious are frequently bad. Not at all. Their confessions are saved from invalidity because they are habitually sorry for their more serious past sins, and probably for some of the less serious sins which they confess. Not infrequently, however, they are not sorry for all the sins they confess; and St. Francis of Sales says: "It is an abuse to confess small or great sins, if we do not intend to avoid them." Although we are not obliged to confess venial sins, we are obliged to be sorry for them if we do confess them; otherwise our confession is insincere, irreverent and pointless.

It is easy to imagine the following dialogue taking place in the confessional. After the usual preliminaries, the penitent begins to rattle off his customary list. The priest interposes:

"Now, look here, you have often confessed this sin before, haven't you?"

"Yes, Father."

"Any improvement?" "No, Father."

"Well, what have you decided to do about it? What practical steps have you decided on to combat the sin?" Silence; and then the penitent blurts out:

"I have resolved not to commit the sin again."

"Very well! He who wills the end, wills the means. What means have you chosen to help you to avoid the sin?" The penitent has not thought of this and has contented himself with a vague resolution to avoid all sin. Vagueness in resolution creates suspicion of the reality of repentance. Whoever is very keen about a project, instinctively begins to consider ways and means of promoting it.

A woman, for example, who wants a new coat or another pair of stockings, and has used all her coupons, instinctively begins to look around for a likely donor of coupons; and the zeal of her search reveals the measure of her desire. During the war a man who was due for Home Guard duty on a particular night when he wanted to go to the theatre would naturally try to get a substitute or an exemption from duty. If he was very keen on going to the theatre, he would go to great trouble to make it possible; if he was moderately keen, to middling trouble; and if he was merely wishful, to no trouble. It is hard to conceive a keen desire that does not automatically lead to accurate planning and a careful survey of ways and means of achieving its purpose.

This reasoning makes our vague and general resolutions seem very unreal and suggests wishful thinking rather than contrition. The way to Purgatory is paved with good intentions born of wishful thinking.

These considerations emphasize once more the folly and danger of dedicating the major part of preparation for confession to examination of conscience. If we are not sorry for sins, to confess them is humbugging irreverence; and if we have not decided to do anything practical to avoid the sins which we confess, there is serious reason to suspect that we are not really sorry for them. If we confess a big list of sins, it is hard to see how we can possibly have decided to do anything really practical about every single item on our list, and this for many reasons:

1. There isn't the time. The evolution of such a scheme of resolutions would require hours. Then,

2. We should require pencil and paper and many notes or an unusual photographic memory to enable us even to remember, let alone practise, our resolutions.
3. We should require very strong determination and unusually intense sorrow to be able to conduct a wise attack on such a broad front; and it is difficult to see how we could be roused to such resolve by a preparation for confession which leaves time for only a casual attention to contrition and amendment.

4. Vague resolutions leave a large loophole for subconscious self-deception; for example, a vague resolution to be kind to everyone may easily overlook the one person about whom it should principally revolve, i.e. that person at home or in the office who is really difficult and gets on everybody's nerves.

Quite a number of people go regularly to Confession and yet never make the slightest effort to be less surly at home or more kind to someone at the office whom they dislike or of whom they are jealous. They go. straight home from Confession and without any remorse are as cold and forbidding as ever. If they were taxed with this, they would immediately attempt to justify themselves by saying: "Why should I make all the advances?" Not only do they make no positive attempts to overcome their fault, but they don't even see why they should make any attempt; and yet they fancy that they mean what they say when they make a vague resolution to be kind to everybody!

People often sigh and look round for opportunities of proving their love of God and neglect the opportunities on their doorstep. Providential crosses are hard to bear, and we readily make excuses for dodging them.

Philanthropists are legion who will organize collections and raise funds (and take their expenses!) for destitute people in distant lands, and yet remain quite unconcerned about the destitute at home whom they shun with a shudder, fearing contamination for their hyper-hygienic selves. Philanthropy is an excellent exercise of charity because it enables one to feel self-satisfied, altruistic and important and does not disturb one's comfort, and it is quite compatible with emotional religion and fine resolutions.

There are plenty, too, of ranting sociologists who prate incessantly about social justice and Rerum Novarum wages and pay their own maid a mere pittance and their workmen the lowest wage they can "get away with."

"Humanitarians," says G. K. Chesterton, "go to look for humanity in remote places and in huge statistics. ... But humanitarians of the highest type ... do not go to look for humanity at all. For them ... the nearest drawing-room is full of humanity, and even their own families are human." [2]

Theoretical virtue is one of the scourges and scandals of humanity. If we content ourselves with fine ideas and grand, untried resolutions, we shall practise fairyland spirituality and fail to see that in cold fact our virtue is all "in the air." It is comforting to feel how wonderful we are, even if it is only in the land of dreams; our fantastic eminence is a soothing compensation for our paltry achievement in the land of reality. Beware of fine-sounding, sweeping and vague resolutions!

5. Unnecessary compiling and reciting of a big list of sins may be subconscious escapism, a subtle evasion of the difficult task of really tackling them; in colloquial language, a "get-out."

When we have made a big fuss and worked up considerable remorse and sentimental sorrow, it is easy to deceive ourselves that we are really contrite. Punctiliousness about peccadilloes makes us feel how careful and conscientious we are, and so restores our damaged self-respect. We are not so bad after all, and if you are sceptical enough to want proof, you have it abundantly in our fussiness and distress of soul.
Sensible sorrow may be a snare and a delusion, because a penitent who rests content in it may not trouble to get down to brass tacks.

Confession without repentance involves self-deception and does us positive harm. The Sacrament of Penance does not operate like a charm, and absolution touches only those sins for which we are truly sorry.

It is possible to have a genuine general purpose of amendment against any and every sin, without an explicit purpose against each sin; but it is never wise to rely on such a general resolution, because, besides being in all probability ineffective, it does not enable us to discriminate surely between remorse and repentance. We should test our repentance by testing our resolution. "Am I willing to employ all the necessary means to avoid this sin, no matter what the cost?" --- that is the crucial test of repentance. If we are determined to avoid a certain sin, we shall inevitably, and as a natural consequence of our determination, consider haw we are going to avoid it.

Father Walshe, S.]., says very wisely: "Prayer, examination, confession, the act of contrition, all taken together, are easier, require less grace and far less mortification than conquering the dominant sin which I naturally like and that dangerous occasion which I naturally love."

The purpose of amendment is the most difficult act of the penitent, and therefore we should dedicate to securing it the major portion of our time and energy. At least a third of our preparation should be given to consideration of the motives for contrition; at least a third to formulating our purpose of amendment and preparing our plan of campaign; and never more than one third to examination of conscience, and sometimes not even that. Put first things and essential things first. Remember it is on contrition and amendment (which are really different aspects of the same thing and are not usually separated in the decrees of the Council of Trent) that the reality of our repentance and the value of the Sacrament depend.

It is not easy to detect our most real and insidious faults, and one of the chief reasons for our blindness is failure really to tackle the faults we do know. Perhaps the best way to discover the faults we don't know is to fight the ones we do know. In battle the weaknesses of an army become painfully evident, whereas in reviews and military exercises they may easily be overlooked. If we engage in real spiritual warfare and attack our enemies wherever we find them, our real deficiencies will soon become painfully evident.

It is not wise to spend almost all our time of preparation trying to find out faults, because we shall be better employed facing the faults that find us out and doing something practical about them. If we fight bravely and skillfully, our faults will find us out.

To sum up the whole matter in one sentence: Do less fault-finding and more fault-facing.

1. Introduction to a Devout Life, Bk. II, Ch. 19.
2. Robert Browning, "English Men of Letters" (Macmillan).