by Maria Grizzetti
It is striking to think that receiving a sincere, transparent, unbeguiled human apology might usher a longer and profound reflection on contrition. Human rapports being what they are, most cases of wrongdoing result in extended separation. We shun, we move away; friendships fizzle out or they just die; grudges grow, loves disintegrate, differences widen and sorrows expand. The heart is sensitive and only sensitivity will heal it. Forgiveness is made from sensitivity to charity — love unrestrained and yet just — that is either asked for or lavished upon another.
There is something about being sorry that requires us to not simply to acknowledge we have been or done wrong, but demands the further act of making this acknowledgement public — making it personally manifest to another. Since this is difficult, few people truly apologize. Genuine apologies are a lost art. IMessages have flippantly denigrated the serious and replaced the personal, and they do not measure up. The moment we encounter genuine acknowledgement of wrongdoing — if we receive a genuine and personal apology — we are amazed. So amazed, in fact, that we may even fail to remember the purported wrong done to us, and be led to reflect on what this all means for us, existentially.
Taken further, taken theologically, the reflection goes deeper still.
What if our relationship with God were much the same?
Could it be possible we have forgotten how to be sorry for the wrongs we have done God, and the wrongs we have done each other which effectively wrong Him in whose incarnate image we are made?
There is power in sorrow for wrongdoing that is expressed or received. While there is no bad time to engage in a meditation on what this power looks like, Lent is a particularly good one.
So here, certain thoughts on contrition and asking forgiveness.
If we are truly sorry, our hearts would ache. Ache, because love is hard to refuse, and love lasts apart from the depths of wrong.
If we are truly sorry, which implies we truly love, we would want to make this known. To be sorry is to experience sorrow. Sorrow is hard to hide unless it is false. Genuine sorrow — sorrow that is born of true repentance — is not complete unless it is offered to another. And it is offered to another only if there is first love for that other.
The case for contrition: sorrow for sin, is not just a case of feeling guilt for sin. While yes, guilt is real and wounds our already existing woundedness further, it should not be the motivating factor for the sorrow we express. Love should be the motivating a factor: love so deep and true, that it conquers our shame and even our guilt.
If this love exists in our souls, is would pierce through the paralysis of fear that doing wrong and knowing it bring us. Fear of opinion, fear of embarrassment, fear of comparison — all these would wield less control on how we express sorrow, or whether we do so at all.
Reality is such that each case of wrongdoing is unique, individual. Context, circumstances, interior dispositions, and a plethora of other factors contribute to making the wrongdoing singularly different even from seemingly similar circumstances we may conjure up. And it is this singularity that we should experience with a singular sorrow.
God treats our sins just this way. He is wounded by them as we are, and yet He does not compare us to one another as we do ourselves. Sin reminds us of our dependency, but it does more than keep us dependent: it asks us to choose to ascend to Mercy from the depths of our misery. In this way even our abuse of freedom requires an engagement of freedom for virtue. Christ holds us, sinful as we are, to the standard of His perfection — the perfection of virtue and grace that we are called to in Him. ‘Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (cf. St. Matthew 5.48) is both a command and a promise of help. Apart from Him this would be impossible. In Him we are asked to believe even this is possible.
It is so that, forgetting this, or even remembering it, intentionally or unintentionally, we actually are free to be our own judges. A well formed conscience will alert us to our own straying from virtue. The tragedy of modern distaste for contrition is that it has disassociated us from ourselves. We are no longer capable of seeing ourselves as free to judge our actions. Nor do we think it is necessary to do so. As a result, we are not free to respond to the demands of conscience — we are no longer free to experience true contrition. We are numb interiorly, shrouded in confusion, and at worst, simply resentful. Further, we no longer think we owe others, or God for that matter, some form of sorrow, some request for clemency, mercy or forgiveness.
Confession, the place of mercy, and yes, privacy, wherein the acknowledgement of our sins takes place, is therefore seen as an unwelcome and unnecessary experience. We are too modern, too self-reliant, too sure of ourselves for it. We seek not holiness but the feeling of self-righteousness. As we have forgotten how sin is first and foremost an aberration within ourselves, we no longer see the need to offer a public acknowledgement of it. This, compounded with the significant paralysis of fear so common to our woundedness, leads us to stray further and further away in what becomes a vicious cycle of soul-neglect. As we cannot ‘get ourselves’ to ask for mercy, we begin to think we do not need it. And from this privation is born both the death of belief in the seriousness of sin — denying God what is His, and ourselves the inheritance of His grace — as well as the further slow deflation and later paralysis of faith.
Asking forgiveness breaks this cycle, if we are so entrenched in it, or it at least sets the precedent whereby it become increasingly more possible for us to return to believe in our need for forgiveness.
Asking forgiveness of another may be the one time they are offered the opportunity to reflect on what it means to receive so personal, so edifying, so loving an expression of trust as is presumed in our admitting to them, personally, that we have been wrong. Asking forgiveness of another may be the one time in a long time they are called to express the mercy they themselves may no longer believe, or believe necessary. Asking forgiveness of another may enable the other to do the same in turn. Should this happen, our own sorrow may become the wellspring of another soul’s hope.
For it is only in charity — only when we drench ourselves in charity, only when we opt to shower others in charity, and only when we live charity in the fullness of our beings — that it is possible to approach another and actually say, ‘I am sorry. Please forgive me’.
When we do ask forgiveness in this way, when the apology is sincere and unfettered by excuses, when the intent on attempting reparation is real; when the other senses the depth of our sorrow manifest, acknowledged, genuine; when they are perhaps for a first time surprised by the genuine charity of humility — it may be then, and only then, that the beginnings of conversion take place; that the paralysis of their own shame is loosened. And like the paralytics and the blind ones of old, they also may then begin to gaze upon their Savior — come near Him on their own two legs and with two seeing eyes — and choose to follow Him.
May this Lent then be a time to pray from the apex of modern Calvaries for the grace to forgive those who have wronged us, and to pray for the humility to truly beg the mercy of those whom we have wronged. May we be given the grace to realize how much in need we are of offering God the acknowledgement of our sins. May we experience that old and lovely compunction of heart known by the saints, whose holy sorrow for their sins was nothing short of holy love for the Love that sets souls free. May we experience the sorrow that makes the heart ache; ache, because Love is hard to refuse, and love lasts apart from the depths of wrong in the bounty of Him who lavishes infinite mercy.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,
and done that which is evil in thy sight,
so that thou art justified in thy sentence
and blameless in thy judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Fill me with joy and gladness;
let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice.
Hide thy face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence,
and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors thy ways,
and sinners will return to thee.
—Psalm 51.3-13, RSV
And like the Savior, who crucified, looked upon the world in all its straying agonies, in all its woundedness, in all its chosen privation and distance from God, and begged forgiveness for those who knew not what they had done, may we also have the freedom to shower mercy as He did from the agony of the cross.
So that hope might triumph over despair, charity over greed, mercy over misery, and joy amid the gloom of sin and suffering in this, the vale of tears.
You may reach Maria Grizzetti at IncarnationandModernity@gmail.com