Every week at Mass, the priest ushers us into a state of penitential introspection: “My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins.” A good priest will give an appropriate pause, and a good parishioner will use that pause to allow the Holy Spirit to convict. And somehow, the liturgy tells us, it is this interior action that helps to prepare us to celebrate.
In a flawed reading of this rite, one might mistakenly believe that the central experience of the penitent should be guilt: the experience of an individual acknowledging his own private sinful state. But the liturgy opens us up into a communal confession: I confess to Almighty God, yes, but also to you my brothers and sisters, and I ask the Blessed Virgin to pray for me, yes, but I also ask that of you. This communal element of penance suggests to me that the central experience should not be guilt, but rather remorse.
Guilt and Remorse are Not Synonomous
The crucial distinction between guilt and remorse as two responses to our sinful actions is argued well by the moral philosopher Raimond Gaita in his book A Common Humanity
. Gaita uses the example of the accidental killing of a beggar. Guilt might lead the killer to say, “I am upset because I know that I have transgressed the moral law” but remorse, a deeper and more complex emotion, would call to mind the face of the beggar and cause the killer to suffer as he reflects on how his actions have affected this particular person.
Remorse includes within itself the individual awareness of wrongdoing that is central to guilt, but it requires an affective contrition on our part that guilt need not demand of us, and this is because remorse recalls to mind the actual consequences of our actions in the lives of others. Put succinctly, guilt keeps our attention centered on ourselves: remorse pulls our attention toward those we have affected.
Guilt is painful enough, but remorse adds a degree of shame that compounds that pain. Because while we experience guilt privately and often self-referentially, the communal aspect of remorse leads to a consideration of ourselves as members of families, communities, churches, and not simply as individuals. It is one thing to know that I am a wretched sinner: it is quite another thing to know that you know this as well.
We might wonder then if the pain of shame is actually necessary for our moral growth. In his book The Problem of Pain
, C.S. Lewis argues emphatically that it is indeed essential. Lewis writes that “unless Christianity is wholly false, the perception of ourselves which we have in moments of shame must be the only true one; and even Pagan society has usually recognised shamelessness” as the nadir of the soul.” He further warns that “in trying to extirpate shame we have broken down one of the ramparts of the human spirit.”
Similarly to Lewis, Gaita argues that “if we seek to escape the severity of lucid remorse, then unless we are saints, we will estrange ourselves from one of the most effective ways of retaining a sense of the unconditional preciousness of each human being.” He explains that this is because while “our sense of the reality of others is partly conditioned by our vulnerability to them, by the unfathomable grief they may cause us,” even more importantly, “it is also conditioned by our shocked and bewildered realization of what it means to wrong them."
The lucidity of remorse and the painful effects of shame help to reorient us toward God, reorder our desires, purge us of ego and selfishness, make us sensitive to our own conscience - and all out of a holy desire to never again wrong someone in the way that we have previously done. And crucially, this desire to act rightly toward others is precisely because we have learned to seek their own good and not simply our own.
Our Lent is for Remorse
Lent is for remorse, and the penitential rite is certainly introspective, but it is also rather brief. I am reminded here of the advice of the poet W.H. Auden who wrote that “the same rules apply to self-examination as apply to confession to a priest: be brief, be blunt, be gone.” The point is not to wallow in our own brokenness (a misery which can easily become self-indulgent) but rather to arrive as quickly as possible to a true contrition in order that we will be genuinely moved to throw ourselves at the mercy of God through the prayers of the saints and of the faithful. Seen in this light, the purpose of Lent as an often moody, depressing, and introspective season is to enliven our spirit and make sensitive our conscience precisely so that long bouts of introspection are no longer required for us to feel the weight of remorse promptly after our sin, and so be driven toward reconciliation with God and with our neighbor.
After the penitential act, and the throwing of ourselves upon the mercy of Christ in the Kyrie, we find ourselves already hungering for the celebration. But in the prolonged penitential season of Lent, we do not sing the Gloria. This deferment of one of the most beautiful and joyful parts of the liturgy helps build an anticipation in us for the joyful feast of Easter. The shameful sense of our sinful state throughout Lent will eventually give way to the felicity of Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the reconciliation of all things in and through the resurrected Christ. As we slog through this year’s Lent, we are fortified in our experience of remorse by the abundant joy that is set before us. And so, like the souls in Dante’s Purgatorio, we sing together all the while.