Friday, 30 August 2013

Cold Contrition

Sometimes I am tempted to think that I do not have sufficient sorrow for my sins if I do not feel any compunction, if I am not literally moved to tears or nearly so by the mere thought of my failings. But this is a misunderstanding of the nature of contrition, and of the nature of the spiritual life in general. All that is required for contrition, in its essence, is a conviction of the will that what one has done is wrong, and a genuine wish that one had not made such a mistake, and the hope not to fall into it again. But this is all on the part of the will. Nothing is required here on the part of the emotions. This is not to say that contrite emotions are a bad thing; on the contrary, there is nothing wrong with them, and they may even be a good thing. Indeed, they are often a sign whereby one may know that one is truly contrite. But the fact is that such emotions do not in themselves contain the essence of that contrition; rather, it is in the will that such contrition is found.

This is, perhaps, one of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life: to be truly contrite even if one does not feel contrite. This is one particular aspect of the spiritual life as a whole, which very often entails a true spiritual devotion, which is yet devoid of all affective or emotional significance. One may feel cold, empty, and stoic, lacking all experience of the feelings and sentiments which might otherwise be associated with spiritual devotion; and yet one must persevere in that devotion nonetheless. This is the great test of the spiritual life. For it is no great accomplishment to be devout when one feels devout – this is simply human, after all. But to be devout when one does not feel devout is more than human: it is divine. It is then that one is most definitively on the way to sanctity. 

This having been said, simply because it is possible and even necessary for one to be contrite without feeling so does not entail that one may dismiss the lack of these feelings as an altogether light matter. In so doing, one runs the risk of dismissing even the possibility of attaining true contrition. When one is aware that the sentiments and emotions of compunction are not sensibly present in the heart, one should focus one’s attention on attaining true compunction of the will nonetheless, rather than dismiss the matter altogether, as if it were something about which one need not worry in the least. 

Thus, while on the one hand it is not necessarily the case that one lacks true contrition if one lacks the feeling of it, on the other hand neither is it the case that one need not direct all one’s strength and attention to the arousal of true contrition nonetheless. Like all things, virtue is found in the mean between two extremes. In this case, the two extremes are similar to scrupulosity and presumption – both products of pride. Scrupulosity, on the one hand, moves one to an excessive fear that one has no contrition, simply because one cannot feel it; presumption, on the other hand, moves one to entertain a misplaced confidence that one has true contrition when one does not. This presumption is not only an error in virtue, but also in logic, for it is based on the assumption that from 1) “just because one does not feel contrition does not mean one cannot be contrite” it follows that 2) “if one does not feel contrition one is nonetheless still contrite.” While the former is true, the latter cannot follow from it. Presumption supposes that 2) is true simply because 1) is true, whereas in fact one must seek to attain the ideal expressed by 2) and not assume that it is already the case. In other words, the virtuous man, knowing that just because he does not feel contrition does not mean he cannot still be contrite, thereupon seeks to be contrite, rather than assuming that he already is so. 


  1. This is excellent counsel, especially for those who might be prone to despair for their lack of sorrow, at the same time avoiding presumption and complanceny.

    But just to be clear, you wrote:

    "This having been said, simply because it is possible and even necessary for one to be contrite without feeling so does not entail that one may dismiss the lack of these feelings as an altogether light matter. In so doing, one runs the risk of dismissing even the possibility of attaining true contrition."

    Do I understand you to mean that "true contrition" requires feelings of contrition?

    I think I would say that one may have *true* contrition without much in the way of sorrow or contrite feelings, but that *perfect* contrition is always accompanied with feelings of sorrow. The deeper one's sorrow (presumably short of excess), then, the more perfect one's contrition. Does that sound correct?

    This leads me to wonder whether it is possible for feelings of contrition to be excessive. It's hard to imagine excess of sorrow when it comes to offending God and contributing to Our Lord's agony. However, perhaps there is a "perfect" degree of sorrow for each person that correlates with one's limitations.

  2. No actually, I didn't mean to imply that true contrition requires feelings of contrition; I meant to imply just the opposite for much the first part of the article. But I also wanted to make clear that because one doesn't feel contrition, this doesn't mean that one may simply assume that one does have contrition and simply stop thinking about it altogether. While, on the one hand, the lack of feelings does not imply that one is not truly contrite, neither is that lack of feelings a reason, all by itself, to think that one IS contrite. That's the gist of it.

    As to the rest of your comment, the thought about whether it is possible to have excessive feelings of contrition is interesting... I remember reading Garrigou-Lagrange about the nature of hope, and the theological virtues in general, that one cannot have these virtues in excess. However, one may have a misplaced hope, which is not true hope at all, in that one presumes that God will grant a reward regardless of one's faults. This is not an excess of hope, but simply a misplaced hope, and not the theological virtue. Perhaps something similar or analogous could be said of contrition? Perhaps it is impossible to have an excess of contrition or sorrow, since, after all, sin is an offense against an INFINITE good... That said, when this "sorrow" leads to despair and discouragement, it is perhaps a misplaced sorrow, and not true contrition after all... I'll have to think about this some more.

  3. Also, I'm not totally sure whether *perfect* contrition, as you say, must always be accompanied by feelings of sorrow. Rather, it seems to me that one's contrition is shown and proven to perfect precisely when one maintains it but cannot feel it. This is true, I think, of all the devout life. But I might have to think about this more as well...

  4. Thanks for the response, Maestro. I'm still having a hard time accepting that *perfect* contrition can be attained apart from the feeling or emotion of sorrow. The *perfection* of contrition would seem to necessarily bring every human faculty into play.

    We also have Baltimore Catechism #2, Question 203:


    203. Q. What is perfect contrition?

    A. Perfect contrition is that which fills us with sorrow and hatred for sin, because it offends God, who is infinitely good in Himself and worthy of all love.


    Can one have sorrow or hatred apart from emotion?

  5. Well we can distinguish between sorrow or hatred on the part of the emotions and sorrow or hatred on the part of the will. It is possible to have sorrow or hatred in the will but not feel it emotionally.

    But I still need to think about whether *perfect* contrition necessarily requires those emotions... I think I remember Divine Intimacy having some good things to say along these lines, and perhaps some other works, but I'll have to go back and look for them.

  6. OK, after doing a little more reading, I think you're right that sorrow for sin as it relates to contrition resides in the will, and in the abstract may be exercised apart from the feelings/emotions of sorrow.

    If that is indeed the case, then the question remains as to why we cannot "dismiss the lack of these feelings as an altogether light matter". If the *emotion* of sorrow is not necessary for contrition (whether perfect or imperfect), why should we desire it when we don't have it?

    I want to say that we should desire the emotion of sorrow and try to awaken it, but I can't articulate why.

  7. Perhaps I could have been clearer when I said we may not "dismiss the lack of these feelings as an altogether light matter." What I meant to imply by that was that, knowing that our lack of emotional sorrow isn't in itself a bad sign, we still shouldn't simply assume that we ARE contrite, but should still actively seek to be truly contrite, despite that lack of emotion. I didn't mean to imply that we should necessarily desire those emotions, only that the lack of them does not mean that we can simply assume that we truly are contrite - but nor does it mean that we aren't.