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