Everyday Grace: Thoughts on Remorse

By Larry Cunningham | Winter 2011

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Friday afternoons before a home football game are quiet times for professors. Students are already gearing up for the game and rare it is that a student, on such an afternoon, feels a need to consult a professor. It was mildly surprising, then, when someone knocked at my door on a football Friday several years ago. My visitor, it turned out, was not a student but an elderly “subway alumnus” who was in town for the game but wanted to speak to a theologian. In his wanderings, he found me at my desk.

After the usual pleasantries, he told me the reason for his visit. A summation of his tale went something like this: as a young man he did a terrible thing that has haunted him all of his life. He has gone to confession to seek absolution many times, sought out priests for counsel, prayed incessantly, but he found no peace, nor a sense of forgiveness. In fact, he told me, not only could he not erase that event from his mind, but he was obsessed with the conviction that he was destined for damnation because of his youthful act. What, he concluded, was I to make of this and did I have any advice.

The ball, figuratively speaking, was now in my court. Just to get the ground rules in place, I told him that I was not a confessor, a professional counselor; not a spiritual director, nor a spiritual master. I study such people and their writings. Nor did I inquire about the nature of the act that so agonized him. He had confessed it many times and rehearsed it frequently in his own head, so any inquiry on my part was just picking at a wound that was already inflamed.

There is a useful word in the Christian spiritual vocabulary for such conditions; it is called remorse. The word itself comes from two Latin words: re and mordere which mean “to bite repeatedly.” It is that condition in which a moral failing in the past haunts the person by lacerating the soul. Remorse can take the form of those terrible words we say to another that we can’t take back or the lashing out at a loved one that is hard to heal. The variations are infinite, but they all hold this in common: they torture us as we rehearse them in our minds. My visitor suffered remorse to such a degree that it shaped his entire life by racking him with such guilt that he was near despair.

What was I to say? I resisted pinning a psychiatric label on his problem, although I was becoming convinced that he probably needed professional help. So, I did not say that my visitor was suffering from obsessive-compulsive behavior or what the spiritual writers call “scrupulosity.” My approach, based on my suspicion that he always received kindness from the various persons whom he consulted, was to give him a little tough love.

Look, I said, I don’t know what you did in the past but one thing I do know is that your greatest sin is that of overweening pride. When he simultaneously bristled and looked puzzled, I pressed on. You seem to think that of all the persons who have ever walked this earth, you alone have invented an act which is beyond the mercy and forgiveness of God. Go and talk to any priest on this campus who is an experienced confessor, and he will tell you that hearing confessions is a repetitive task for the precise reason that we are all pedestrian sinners. Rare is the moment when the experienced confessor says that he has never heard that transgression before. The most egregious sinners recorded in history have not done anything new but have merely multiplied the usual sins by magnitude. “The murder of one person is a tragedy,” the cynical Stalin once said, “while the death of a million is a statistic.”

Warming up to my topic, I concluded with the observation that my visitor had neither the wit, the malice, nor the intelligence to invent a sin so original that it was beyond the mercy of God. Finally, I said, that since he had requested my advice, he would get some at a very fundamental level: Ask for God’s mercy; Do not ever confess this sin again or seek anyone else’s advice; and keep repeating this truth: You are like everyone else, a sinner in need of the help of God. Ask and you shall receive. Period.

My visitor seemed to have taken this blunt talk in good spirit, so I wished him a good time at the game and concluded with the ritual, Go Irish. I would love to report that he was freed of his burden and praised my name as a spiritual genius. Such only happens in lives of the saints. I never did see him again. But some months later, he called me to say that he was still wracked with guilt. He resisted getting professional help, and I guessed that he was still seeking out confessors to assuage his guilt. This all happened many years ago, and I still have his meeting with me in my mind’s eye and still pray for him when the liturgy asks us to recall the departed and those in need of prayer.

It is the case that most of us feel remorse over past failings and such feelings are a good thing. At the same time, it is a truth of faith that our sins are not equal to the willingness of Christ to forgive us. After all, is that not at the very heart of what the Gospel is all about? My song, the psalmist sang, is of mercy. From the time we were children we were taught that the only unforgivable sin was the resolute unwillingness to ask for forgiveness.

A psychologist once said to me that his most guilt-ridden patients were disproportionately Catholic. To which I responded that in this world it is only Catholics who understand that there is much about which we should feel guilt.

At the same time, there was a tendency in the past to overemphasize sinfulness, guilt and the need for penance. My suspicion is that my visitor, many years ago, got a generous dose of bad theology in his diet, and that he could never quite dispel it.

Some years ago the distinguished Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a book, Dare We Hope?, in which he asked this simple question: Is it possible to hope that in the end everyone will be saved? If the answer is no, does it mean that the power of evil was stronger than the salvific grace of Christ? Balthasar simply asked the question. If we are inclined to answer yes, then my visitor is today before the Lord and the things that tortured him for so long and with such ferocity are now forgiven, forgotten. And he, like all the faithful, has eternal light shining upon him.