Sunday, May 2, 2010

Remorse and Reparation

I have been thinking about remorse and reparation a lot recently. Not just in the light of current Catholic Church affairs, but in a personal context. The Jesuit priest who sometimes comes to our station church has a death row apostolate. He said yesterday that the death row inhabitants, most of them murderers no doubt, had done something wrong but didn't deserve to live the way they did on death row. That started me thinking. On one hand, there are arguments for humane treatment even in prison. It is bad for a society to treat anyone as if they were less than human, even if they have done very bad things. If that is what my priest means, then probably he is saying something that needs to be said.

On the other hand, the older I get the more I realize that even "good" people are not really good. How many of us have never really transgressed formally against any of the Ten Commandments and yet are very bad? How is it even possible to do good? Sometimes the very good we try to do ends up with unintended secondary consequences as they say in economic theory. And what about all those negligences and omissions and silences and careless speeches and acts that impact our world every day? I started thinking that really, I deserve to be on death row. Who doesn't? To say that the murderers don't deserve punishment would be to distort the reality and horror of sin. The wages of sin are death. No one is exempt, though I can fool myself, and do every day, because it's hard to bear the reality otherwise.

"There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one."
We're none of us immune. Pope Benedict XVI has been a hero of mine for years and years, since just after I converted 20 years ago, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger. He is a holy man, brilliant, competent, gifted. Yet I know very well he too comes under the category described by St Paul.

So do I, so do I. Mea maxima culpa.

We are all exsules filii Evae -- poor banished children of Eve. Our only hope is our Lord.

We all cry out of the depths, whether we know it or not:

If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who can stand?
There's nothing so bitter as even a glimpse of this. So tempting to fly back into the refuge of goodness. "Hey, I'm a good Christian. I live my faith. I rely on God. He is the most important thing in my life. I don't do anything very bad. I do lots of helpful things every day."

But this is the refuge for scoundrels. I just read in CS Lewis's Mere Christianity that "sort of" bad people realize they are bad. But very bad people think they are not so bad. I am not saying I should fall into despair and get lethargic because none of those things are any good. They ARE good. But they don't in themselves make ME good. As CS Lewis said, it's not a bargaining position. Everything comes from the grace of God.

This makes sense of how Jesus treated the Pharisees. How He must have been repelled by these people who pulled righteousness around them like a borrowed white cloak! How much more attracted He was to those people who were wretched and realized it! They knew they had a problem, and knowing that deeply is the necessary precondition to any help. Only people who know they are sick look for a physician. People who think their sickness is health will walk around spreading their disease and not look for a remedy.

My problem here is that I may not do it consciously, like the Pharisees, but I do it all the time anyway. It's kind of the default mode. In that way, the death row inhabitants that my Jesuit priest loves have a chance to live more honestly than the vast majority of us. They have a chance to realize how bad they are and to depend radically on the One who can wash any sinner whiter than snow. The truth is that I hide it from myself because I'm afraid I won't be able to bear it.

All this is simply preamble. What I really meant to do was to put down a couple of quotes, but I wanted to put them in context of myself. As Chesterton said,

What's wrong with the world? I am.

This first one is from a 2007 address by Pope Benedict XVI on Reparation -- and it seemed apropos right now in the context of his address on the Irish scandal and the Fr Maciel investigation:

If we see the weight of evil in the world which is constantly increasing, which seems indisputably to have the upper hand in history, one might — as St Augustine said in a meditation — truly despair.....

But we see that there is an even greater plus in the fact that God himself entered history, he made himself share in history and suffered to the very end. This is the meaning of reparation....

In the past few days I have been reading the theological discourses of St Gregory Nazianzus, who at a certain moment speaks of this aspect and asks: For whom did the Lord offer his Blood? He states, the Father did not desire the Blood of the Son, the Father is not cruel, it is not necessary to attribute this to the Father's will, but history wanted it, the needs and imbalances of history desired it; it was necessary to enter into these imbalances and recreate true balance here...

Luther said: we cannot add anything. And this is true. And then he said: our acts thus do not count for anything. And this is not true, because the Lord's generosity is revealed precisely in his invitation to us to enter and also gives value to our being with him.
This last part is in reference to St Paul's words in Colossians:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church,
I like the way Pope Benedict (following St Gregory Nazianzus) frames it. Jesus chose to undergo a cruel death. There was a generosity as well as obedience in this that seemed to go freely way beyond the requirements of the case. Words fail here, obviously! but there is further generosity in letting us do our part, even if it ALL comes from Him. It's like the big brother who gives his little sibling a quarter to put in the offering plate. The little sibling gets the happiness of "giving" even though the value of the money comes from the big brother. Or like a big brother who lets the toddler sibling "help" even though he's just in the way. But the big brother, or father or mother, is letting the little one actually participate in the real work and in the process letting something real take place in his interior even though the outside value of the work or money is not his own.

In light of this here is a short article by Archbishop Fulton Sheen about reparation, telling about another pope who stood at the helm during some very rough times:

About a year ago (circa l970), I was talking to Pope Paul VI and I said to him, "You are well named." He was named Paul.

Paul went from city to city, was stoned from Lystra to Derby to Antioch to Pisidia, and so I said, "You were stoned by your own."

"Yes," he said. "I open my mail at midnight and in almost every letter is a thorn and when I put my head on my pillow an hour or two later, I really lay it down upon a crown of thorns.

"But," he said, "I cannot tell you what ineffable joy I have to suffer."

Then Pope Paul VI quoted to me the twenty-fourth verse of St. Paul's letter to the Colossians:

"Now I rejoice in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the Church...."
Even though I am a sinner, I can still pray for the Church, always dying, always in its infancy, always holy and immaculate by virtue of its Head, always populated by sinners:

The faith has not only often died but it has often died of old age. It has not only been often killed but it has often died a natural death; in the sense of coming to a natural and necessary end..... It has not only died often but degenerated often and decayed often; it has survived its own weakness and even its own surrender. ....An enemy might say that it was the official faith of feudalism; and it sounds as convincing now as to say that it was bound to perish with the ancient Roman villa. All these things did indeed run their course to its normal end; and there seemed no course for the religion but to end with them. It ended and it began again. The Everlasting Man


  1. Despair is something I struggle with at my weakest moments. Though, your points make me thing of how awfully some of the saints expressed their thoughts about themselves, and sometimes I want to despair for thinking too well of myself, lol. This is also perhaps why self-righteous speech is some of the hardest to hear--my instinct is to think that they can't possibly be as good as they seem to think they are. I love reading your thoughts, Willa, because you are able to challenge without any hint of self-righteousness. It is a gift!

  2. Thanks, Lindsay -- despair is a weakness of mine, too. I think when the saints speak so badly of themselves it makes me think I must be REALLY bad --LOL. I think they are able to be so critical of themselves because they aren't proud, if you know what I mean. They can bear to think of themselves that way because they are so radically dependent on God. I'm not there, so I have to cover up a lot more than they do ;-).

  3. I suppose for me it is more a remorse over not being *mindful* enough of my faults if THEY could be so mindful of theirs. It is amazing how they have become so humble that they can think of themselves that way and still remain hopeful and at peace because they EXPECT it, I guess, lol. Why am I always so shocked at how awful I am?


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!