Many blessings to you, my friends, who read and pray with me. We embark on most interesting chapter on contrition that has some unexpected twists and turns.
Indeed, an unexpected twist and turn delayed my completing this post – but I return to you a more contrite person and therefore perhaps more prepared to write on the topic. God allowed me to be waylaid and humbled. Seldom pleasant but a valuable experience nonetheless.
Fr. Matta starts us off on this journey into contrition by noting that the “intensity of the saints’ humility, their contrition, and their incessant self-reproach was only a realization of their nothingness before God’s glory”. At the same time, he warns us that we cannot simply copy this in order to become like them. To know who we really are in relation to God, “we have to advance properly in the life of grace”. The saints, he tells us, did not pursue humility because it was an attractive virtue and neither can we. Rather, we must feel convinced in the depths of our hearts “that we have provoked God to anger”, that we could have grown closer to God but freely chose the “lust of this world” instead.
- We are returned to awareness of our “nothingness” before God – that which we were told in an earlier chapter would ultimately free our souls. The saints, having realized this, experienced true humility and contrition because they saw who they were before God. What experiences have I had of so seeing myself? Is it joyful humility – like the self-emptying of a lover? Or is it more painful humiliation that cries out in utter helplessness? Perhaps both – or neither?
- Fr. Matta tells us that we must be deeply convinced that we have provoked God’s anger to know contrition. How do you find yourself reacting to the notion of God as being “angry” with you? How would it change if you used a different word – such as “disappointment” or “sadness”? Do you think Fr. Matta is referring to the human emotion we call anger or something else? (What else might it be if something else?)
Fr. Matta offers some examples of thoughts or facts that “should shame us all”, e.g. that God is compassionate toward us and loves us no less despite our persistent sinning. However, perhaps more importantly, he instructs us that, “Contrition cannot be grasped in a day or be taught from a book. It is life that flows between the soul and God.” His teaching hints at his own experience on this path, reassuring us that, as difficult as this road appears, once cleansed of our pride, “the life of contrition becomes a poignant, sweet melody that makes shorter the soul’s long journey to God…A contrite soul is full of peace…Any perversion toward pride or vainglory makes it shudder as a musician shudders at a discordant note in a beautiful symphony.”
- This talk of contrition involving shame (a most unpleasant experience) but also melodies and symphonies may leave us feeling confused. Or at least it left me wanting to take a few steps back to ask myself: what is contrition, really? Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on this…
- Our secular dictionary defines contrition as “a state of being remorseful” – and I think this is what many of us associate with the word. As a child being prepared for confession in the Catholic Church, I was taught the Act of Contrition, a prayer in which I told God I was sorry for having offended Him with my sins. There is nothing wrong with this; but Fr. Matta’s words suggest that he is telling us of something broader, deeper, than remorse for specific sins – and that is why we cannot learn it in a day.
- If you are at all like me, sometimes you may not feel contrite. At some moments, we may minimize the degree to which we have separated ourselves from God, e.g. “I’m not really so bad”, etc. At other times, we may pay lip service to the reality but be unable to conjure up much feeling about it. And there may be other times when we become lost in a toxic shame that is not true contrition, as it is born more out of self-hatred than love for God. Let us find comfort in knowing that the desire to be made right with God, even if experienced only faintly, will be developed into true contrition if we pray for that grace.
It is interesting that Fr. Matta refers to the “biblical idea” of contrition using the word “crushing”, clarifying that contrition does not mean to break down or damage the soul created in God’s image. I have virtually no knowledge of ancient languages and was fascinated to learn that “contrition” comes from the Latin contritus (“ground to pieces”). If there is any destruction, he writes, it is “aimed against the parts of the self that are false and conceited. In this way, the soul can return to its authentic and simple bounds.” Destroying this false self enables a rebuilding of authentic self in its original image – a very good thing. Fr. Matta tells us of two levels of contrition. One level, referred to as the “negative, voluntary honing of the soul”, is our responsibility as we seek to rid ourselves of the false parts of ourselves found in our character, behaviors, ambitions, etc. The other level, “positive, involuntary honing” is a great gift from God in which He humbles us to our “original littleness and authenticity”. No matter how diligent our efforts, we could never bring ourselves to this humility properly without God’s gift.
- As I ponder this, the question arises in me, “How did I become so false?” I am sure there are a great many answers to this question but pursuing them would serve only to distract from the task at hand…
I do not wish to pause too long here because the next few paragraphs are extraordinary. Fr. Matta writes: “Honing one’s soul is a delicate and serious operation that requires faithful discernment. In practicing lowliness, man should learn how to stop at the level that is proper to his soul.” He explains further that one of the dangers of contrition is that we can engage in hypocrisy “under the pretense of humility”, e.g. pretending to be weak when we are not so weak, etc. Hence, we are to confine our spiritual sight (as St. Paul calls it), “with discernment and balance, within the limits of the gifts that Christ has apportioned to us”. We should not deny God’s grace and work in us, ambitiously portraying ourselves to be below the level of gift and faith we have been given. If we do this, our soul will lose contact with God and “faith will then shrink, and grace will withdraw”. It is true and authentic contrition that “leads to true contact with God and to the fullness of grace”. Contrition is “a reality to be lived out”. Fr. Matta acknowledged that his descriptions of it sound dreadful: “Words about it are as bitter as gall, but its taste is sweeter than honey.”
- You might wonder why I described these paragraphs as “extraordinary”. Perhaps as much for the questions they open up as for the answers they give. I do not know how others experienced it, but for many of us receiving Catholic education years ago, much emphasis was put on both humility and false humility (have the former and not the latter). When one is in second grade, these concepts are very hard to understand! Even in adulthood, for those of us blessed with obsessive minds :-), a potential quagmire exists in such quotes as this delightful one by William Law: “You can have no greater sign of confirmed pride than when you think you are humble enough.”
- My reading of this segment is that my humility needs to reach all the way down to my nothingness before God – and therefore is limitless on the one hand. On the other hand, I must gratefully acknowledge God’s gifts and work in me and not pretend that His goodness in me is not good. On the other hand (I must have 3 hands here), I need to faithfully work at my humility while never taking pride in it – for I could never do it properly myself. I am to be always ready for God to “hone” me further, directly or through the circumstances of my life, knowing that it may hurt – but the joy of the healing far exceeds the pain.
There are many questions I could ask – but none of them have answers.
May God continue to bless us on our journey to Him. I welcome any comments or questions you might like to post here for our small community of praying readers.