AN ABIDING SORROW FOR SIN: WHY IS IT SO CRUCIAL?

(Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!” (John 19:15)

“The common cause of all failures in perfection is the want of abiding sorrow for sin…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.” (F.W. Faber)

There is a fascinating scene in Milton’s Paradise Lost where the fallen angels, having been cast down into hell after losing their battle to overthrow God, have a rap session about what went wrong, and come to the conclusion that they just didn’t realize how powerful God is. It was, sad to say, the wrong time to learn that lesson. In a similar vein, the right time to discover God’s vehement dislike for sin – sin being completely contrary to God’s Infinite Sanctity –  is not at the final judgment! We are called to be a repentant people, and the “fruition of [this] repentance” is true sorrow for sin. And yet we so often find ourselves committing the same sin today that we confessed last week, which raises the question whether we have nurtured a true sorrow – indeed, even contempt – for that sin (or whether, in actuality, we still harbor a secret affection for that sin which we need to wage war on?). The “moral imperative” of the Gospel to be holy (as one theology professor taught me)  goes to the very essence of what the Gospel is all about.

Father Faber has a chapter called “Abiding Sorrow for Sin” in his excellent book, Growth In Holiness. I skipped the chapter initially because it didn’t catch my interest, but when I finally read it I was deeply moved by it. Faber states that he spent much time reflecting on what hinders devout persons from moving on to greater perfection in the spiritual life, and he came to the conclusion that it is the failure to enkindle in one’s heart an abiding sorrow for sin – not one’s particular past sins already forgiven, but a sorrow in general for our past sins and all the sin in the world that opposes our great God. It is this abiding sorrow for sin that maintains a true humility in our souls and makes us genuinely thankful – indeed overwhelmingly thankful – for what Jesus did for us. This sorrow also makes us genuinely eager to spread the good news of salvation, thus making us productive workers for Jesus’ interests.This attitude of sorrow and thankfulness makes us fall more deeply in love with Jesus.

How do we nurture this abiding sorrow for sin?  Faber says it is done by meditating frequently on the passion and death of our Lord. The more deeply we enter into our Lord’s passion, the closer we draw to His Sacred Heart. Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is thus highly efficacious for this purpose. Finally, Faber says don’t confuse a loving, heart-felt sorrow with a self-centered sadness. The former is good and the latter harmful. Faber states:

“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. Thus abiding sorrow for sin is the only possible parallel in our souls to the mysterious life-long sorrow of Jesus and Mary; and the fact that sorrow clung to them characteristically in spite of their sinlessness seems to show how much of the secret life of Christian holiness is hidden in its gentle supernatural melancholy” (p.265)

If you have the book All for Jesus, take a look at Chapter Three, “Be Sorry for Sin” (“Love Wounded by Sin” in the unabridged TAN version), and you will find a powerful explanation of this concept of nurturing an abiding sorrow for sin (and you will be thankful for it). Faber spent an enormous amount of time studying how the saints grew in holiness, and this nurturing an abiding sorrow for sin is a fruition of his efforts (much to our benefit).

This sorrow for sin corresponds to our love for God. We are sorry for all the sin in the world precisely because sin robs God of the glory he intended for creatures. We therefore begin to see sin from the perspective of God’s Infinite Goodness, and for this reason we begin to sorrow over all the harm sin causes in the world. We therefore begin to dislike sin because it is so contrary to God’s plan for our lives and so harmful to Him who is “deserving of all our love.” Pray for the grace of an abiding sorrow for sin. This abiding sorrow for sin will help to console the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Tom Mulcahy

Image: Ecce homo by Antonio Ciseri (between circa 1860 and circa 1880). Public Domain, U.S.A.

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