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.