Balm of Penance

by Brent Klaske

The following article is the from the November-December 2012 issue of The Angelus and is written by Fr. Dominique Bourmaud, SSPX.

“I would rather feel compunction than know its definition.” These words of the Imitation of Christ express the purpose of the penitent approaching the confessional. Of the three acts which he poses, contrition, confession and satisfaction, the first is the one condiment essential for salvation. It echoes St. Augustine’s statement about baptism of water (De bapt. c. Donat., IV, 22): “[It] can be supplied by faith and the conversion of the heart if, in case of emergency, one cannot attend the baptismal celebration.”

The Meaning of Penance

Contrition and compunction are synonymous with penance seen as virtue, used no less than 56 times in the New Testament, e.g., “Do penance, for the kindom of God is at hand” (Mt. 3:2). It translates the Greek term metanoia, which literally means to know after, to reflect and revise. It acquired in Scripture the sense of regret and change of attitude, referred exclusively to the unbelievers and sinners returning to God. It shapes into a new theological concept of “conversion” to Christianity. No need to distinguish a change of thoughts, of heart or of action. The change is integral, of the whole soul, producing a new creature purified from its faults. John the Baptist exhorts his penitents to enter God’s kingdom by the purification of their sins. This purification is an affliction and remorse, accompanied with the will to repair and expiate. In this sense, Christ said: “I did not come to call the just, but sinners to penance” (Lk. 5:32); He sends His Apostles “to teach to do penance” (Mk. 6:12). The first teaching for baptism demands the “repentance from dead works and faith in God” (Heb. 6:6). It is the opposite of “the impenitent and hardened heart” (Rom. 2:5), which is the lot of the apostates and of a long list of sinners (Apoc. 2:3).

Penance or repentance is an interior movement of the soul away from sin and creatures and back to God who must be adored “in spirit and truth.” All knowledge carries with it a special responsibility. The knowledge of God, if received in a proud man, drags him down to vanity, whereas in a soul inflamed with charity, it will unfold into adoration and praise. Likewise, the knowledge of our sins begets thorns and thistles in a soil unprepared by humility, but in souls imbued with humble love of God, it begets a genuine compunction of heart.

What purpose fulfils this pricking within our soul? Why is it that the limb which has been pierced with a thorn swells and hurts so much? Because it thus prompts us to action and to extract the dangerous body from rotting within. The hurt felt is a merciful warning of nature. Likewise, the divine Physician has set the sting of remorse to urge us to apply the scalpel to our sore soul: remove the alien body; take away this occasion of sin; reject these foolish thoughts of hatred and passion which blindfold your heart, and you will again recover mastery over your soul.

The Apostle tells us there are two kinds of sorrow: one is sorrow unto death, the other sorrow unto life. The former is a sorrow for sin which causes fresh sins, by filling us full of irritability both towards others and ourselves.

The sorrow which is unto life is of two kinds. The first is that which works conversion. It is impetuous, outwardly demonstrative, full of self-revenge. This sorrow is naturally transient; for it has an end to accomplish and then it goes. The other is the sorrow which we should wish to retain with us always. It is affectionate and not reproachful. It knows how to deal gently with self, without dealing indulgently. It is humble, and never downcast at falls. It inclines to prayer, brings pleasure in prayer, and though a sorrow, is itself a sweetness. It is very confident, and its confidence rests solely upon God.

Abiding Sorrow for Sin

Few pages have been written by spiritual authors which rise very close to divine inspiration as Father Faber’s “Abiding Sorrow for Sin” taken from his book, Growth in Holiness. Extracts will not do justice to it but might give us a taste for this Must Read. The author is enquiring about the one thing missing in most souls who never reach the spiritual growth God expected of them. After bringing to the bar of judgment such culprits as the lack of persevering prayer, the want of bodily mortification and the feverish ways of acting, he finally points to another one.

“Just as all worship breaks down if it is not based on the feelings due from a creature to his Creator, just as all conversions come to nothing which are not conversions from sin, just as all penances come to nought which do not rest on Christ, just as all good works crumble away which do not rest upon Our Saviour,—so in like manner all holiness has lost its principle of growth if it is separated from abiding sorrow for sin. For the principle of growth is not love only, but forgiven love.”

Father Faber then goes to extremes to define its nature. This sorrow consists of a constant sense that we are sinners, yet is less occupied at recalling precise past offenses than at sitting at God’s feet. It consists in an unceasing prayer of pardon, echoing the penitent king: “Wash me more and more, O Lord” (Psalm 50). Our sins are past. They have left only scars. And yet, they leave within the soul the sorrowful and healing fire of gentle love, not unlike that of souls in Purgatory. It consists in a growing hatred of sin, in an increase of the spirit of Gethsemane within us. It is the Sacred Heart touching our hearts, and leaving faint stigmata of His own life-long sorrow upon them.

Given such peaceable reproach, it is little wonder that this sorrow shows the paradoxical characteristics of sadness and joy. It is the divine sadness watching our past entangled deeds in a confusion of infirmities, which humility and faith will not allow to be disquietude. Yet, it is our joy to “call His Name Jesus, because He saveth His people from their sins.” It is impossible to resist quoting Father Faber developing the characteristics of this forgiven love: life-long, quiet, supernatural, and a fountain of love.

“It is as much life-long with us as anything can be. It is a prominent part of our first turning to God, and there is no height of holiness in which it will leave us. It is the interior representation of our Guardian Angel in our souls, and the disposition and demeanour he would fain should be constant and persevering in us.

“It is quiet. Indeed, it rather tranquillizes a troubled soul than perturbs a contented one. It hushes the noises of the world, and rebukes the loquacity of the human spirit. It softens asperities, subdues exaggerations, and constrains everything with a sweet and gracious spell which nothing else can equal.

“It is supernatural. It is all from God, and all for God. It is forgiven sin for which we mourn, and not sin which perils self. And this very fact makes it also a fountain of love. We love because much has been forgiven, and we always remember how much it was. We love because the forgiveness has abated fear. We love because we wonder at the compassion that could so visit such unworthiness. We love because the softness of sorrow is akin to the filial confidence of love.”

The Confessions of Saint Augustine

Many of the psalms of David remind us of God’s goodness towards the timorous soul, prey to trials from without and to temptations from within. In more ways than one, the Confessions of St. Augustine remind us also of the attitude of the sinner and his misdeeds, in prostration before the God of mercies, who has absolved him from his past foibles. It has been called the Psalm of the New Testament. It is not only a classic of literature for its sublime Latin style, it has been an immortal monument of piety and a spiritual guide to souls. Even the great St. Teresa said of it: “I saw myself there described.” The author gives us a sense of the folly of sin, as in Book II, ch. 4:

“Theft is punished by Thy law, O Lord, and the law written in the hearts of men, which iniquity itself effaces not. For what thief will abide a thief? not even a rich thief, one stealing through want. Yet I lusted to thieve, and did it, compelled by no hunger, nor poverty, but through a cloyedness of well-doing, and a pamperedness of iniquity. For I stole that, of which I had enough, and much better. Nor cared I to enjoy what I stole, but joyed in the theft and sin itself. A pear tree there was near our vineyard, laden with fruit, tempting neither for colour nor taste.…And this, but to do what we liked only, because it was misliked. Behold my heart, O God, behold my heart, which Thou hadst pity upon in the bottom of the bottomless pit. Now, behold, let my heart tell Thee what it sought there, that I should be gratuitously evil, having no temptation to ill, but the ill itself. It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to perish, I loved mine own fault, not that for which I was faulty, but my fault itself. Foul soul, falling from Thy firmament to utter destruction; not seeking aught through the shame, but the shame itself!”

The miracle of the Confessions is that St. Augustine not only unearths intimate traits to draw universal considerations and noble principles, but he turns everything into a prayer of praise and thanksgiving. Here is one example among a thousand (Book X, ch. 43): “How hast Thou loved us, good Father, who sparedst not Thine only Son, but deliveredst Him up for us ungodly!…Well then is my hope strong in Him, that Thou wilt heal all my infirmities, by Him Who sitteth at Thy right hand and maketh intercession for us; else should I despair. For many and great are my infirmities, many they are, and great; but Thy medicine is mightier. We might imagine that Thy Word was far from any union with man, and despair of ourselves, unless He had been made flesh and dwelt among us.”

What we see in St. Augustine’s Confessions is the effusion of compunction from start to finish. All the charm of the work consists in his elevation of mind and eye fixed on God’s merciful love to him. There is nothing of the psychotic or the scrupulous soul in Augustine the bishop. The past life is absolved and only an occasion to confess God’s love for us sinners. Or in the words of Bishop Sheen:

“There are two kinds of personal confessions: The purpose of one is to extrovert vice and experiences of love life, that the reader may live the experiences vicariously; the purpose of the other is to arouse the reader to the purging of those passions for the sake of regeneration. The first gives a thrill to the jaded and makes the reader envy the author’s transgression; the second gives praise to God’s Mercy and makes the reader envy the author’s repentance. When one finishes the first type of confession, the reader remembers the experience; when one finishes the second type, the reader remembers the Goodness of God.”

The Confessions of St. Augustine seem to be the living commentary of the gospel account of the public sinner who sat at the feet of Christ, begging for pardon. Our Lord’s parable to His host Simon led us to understand that one loves more the one who pardoned us more. Yet, at the end Christ said to the penitent woman: “He who loves more is pardoned more.” This can be rendered thus: The more we love, the more we are pardoned, and the more we are pardoned, the more we love. O happy circle and cycle of mercy and benignity on the part of the God who knows our weakness and how much we are in need of His loving forgiveness and forgiving love.

Brent Klaske
Brent Klaske


Director of Operations at Angelus Press. I have worked in Catholic publishing for more than 20 years. I currently live near St. Marys, KS with my wife and 10 children.

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