This past All Souls Day, I fell to my knees in Chicago. It was an involuntary response, but nothing to be ashamed of, as I was answering the beauty of a replica of a Polish altarpiece in St. John Cantius Catholic Church. Later, as I approached the altar rail to receive Communion, I was blessed differently. I was not just fearful, but terrified, of the Lord. Given the massive painting of Christ at the Last Judgement looking down upon the congregation and the truly haunting tones of the Dies Irae, a Latin hymn on the “Day of Wrath,” still sounding in my mind, this response too was understandable, even desirable.
Of course, these sentiments were strongly exaggerated by the setting. Fine liturgy can call our senses back to spiritual realities easily forgotten in hurried, daily life. The experience was a reminder of the vastness of God from which, as parts of Creation, it is impossible to extricate ourselves, even though we often tune Him out. We are fortunate to live in a time and place where the super-abundant mercy of God is a popular theme. Last November concluded Pope Francis’s Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, and we believe in a God whose “acts of mercy are not exhausted,” but are made “new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23). However, it is not God’s mercy alone—in isolation from all else about Him—that is greater than we can yet understand.
The seriousness of our own sinfulness must also, like God, be greater than we currently appreciate. Do not despair, because to think ourselves beyond God’s forgiveness, contrary to His mercy, is itself a sin against hope (CCC 2091). Jesus gave us the sacrament of Confession to reconcile sinners back to Church, healing the division we caused in our communion with Him (CCC 1444, 1440). Essential to the sacrament is contrition, “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (CCC 1451). Contrition moves us to seek Reconciliation and emboldens us to actually confess our sins to the priest. After the confession, the priest will offer absolution and we will perform certain acts of penance, completing the sacrament and restoring our relationship with the Father.
Today, when many people disbelieve entirely in “sin,” it can be seen as crazy and superstitious to follow this formula for forgiveness even in the most cursory of manners. Sights and sounds like those of All Souls Day Mass at St. John Cantius, however, draw us to remember that God’s ways are higher than our own (Isaiah 55:9). To go to Confession is a great good. If, however, on top of Confession, and despite the world, we nurtured in ourselves ongoing attitudes of compunction, we would do even better.
Compunction, as defined by Father Anthony Paone, S.J., is “a deep and lasting sorrow for your sins.” Compunction is not to doubt God has forgiven us; we are forgiven by Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. It is not to continue to chastise ourselves for past sins; although it sometimes takes longer to forgive ourselves than ask God’s forgiveness. It is not to fall into scrupulosity for our future sins; this would be an overcorrection. It is not an emotion making us perpetually downtrodden, but an intellectual recognition of reality.
True compunction originates from love of God, not fear of punishment, bringing us closer to perfect contrition for our sins. It is the persistent awareness that our sins keep us from fully requiting this love. This in turn reminds us of the gulf between ourselves and the immeasurable greatness of God, which evokes a still deeper love for the God Who forgives and deigned to dwell with us. This persistent awareness is a grace which can lessen our over-attachments to earthly goods, the root of sin, and reinvigorate our resolve “to sin no more,” as we pray in the Act of Contrition. Compunction’s calling to mind of the gambit of our own shortcomings can also deter us from passing judgement on others for their own sins. The saints even speak of compunction manifesting itself as weeping—weeping in grief for the distance our sins create between ourselves and God, in thanksgiving for His patient and generous forgiveness, and in anticipation of our heavenly home. These tears of compunction are a gift for both the weeping soul they soothe and for anyone who may see them and be inspired to remember God.
Whether our spiritual sensibilities are currently in the default, dulled state or we have received a recent shock, we can receive God’s mercy today. If we are to “truly know the Lord,” as Pope Francis said to the Communion and Liberation Movement, we must allow ourselves to be “caressed by the tenderness of mercy.” Resting in that mercy, we can ask God to use the graces of the confessional to help us grow into permanent attitudes of compunction. And above all, we can thank God that His mercy can prevail over our sins so that we may be with Him again someday.
Julia McKeon is a sophomore majoring in theology and political science with a minor in education, schooling, and society. If you too are slightly paranoid of private conversations with priests, she’d love to commiserate via email — firstname.lastname@example.org.