At the writing of this piece, I am in the ancient city of Krakow which most recently saw the great phenomenon of St. John Paul II—his life, his episcopacy, papacy and sanctity. The legacy of his greatness permeates this historic city. Today we went to the shrine of Divine Mercy. The spirit of Sister Faustina permeates this Church.
I want to interrupt this essay with a digression: What is it with these Nuns? Sr. Margaret Mary Alcoque permanently affects Western Spirituality with devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Sr. Faustina in a short life (33 years) developed an easy-to-use modern devotion to Jesus known as the Divine Mercy Chaplet that is used all over the world! I should also add to this catalogue of amazing women religious Mother Angelica who, from a small convent in Alabama, developed a worldwide TV empire named “The Eternal Word” that beat the entire Bishops’ effort and all their resources to reach the whole United States! Women of great power and authority, changing the spiritual world without benefits of power!
Back to the Shrine!
Mercy is so important in this world. Society has an ethos where everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven. Who can live in such a tension! How beautiful is the Christian Gospel that is ready to forgive anything that one has committed and enable someone to regain his or her dignity and start again! Of course, the Lord requires sincere repentance and a firm purpose of amendment. Mercy is indeed unmerited, but it requires certain conditions to reveal its full beauty. Once one accepts truly the merciful forgiveness of Christ, then one, in gratitude, wants to make some sort of amends for the tearing of the divine fabric of creation. This is what penance and reparation is about: it is done with joy and that mysterious virtue of compunction.
One never hears about this virtue, but it is the sadness that comes with repentance and forgiveness. In Greek, it is called ‘Penthos’. This sadness of what could have been makes one’s purpose of amendment that much more real and stronger.
This is borne out in a beautiful way by a dream that was had by the poet Auden. It is important to know in this story that Auden did not often live up to his ideals and was guilty of some profligate sexual behavior. In this dream, Auden is dead and stands before the judgment seat of God. Much to his relief and consternation, God begins to sing to him the poems that he would have written if he had been good!
Who knows the good we could have done if we had made better choices! This is the essence of Penthos and it is a virtue precisely for its medicinal benefit for future goodness. It is a constant theological and emotional reminder that every minute has the potential to bring us in tune with the will of God and hence into a creative and redemptive zone of endeavor; or we can go our own way and waste precious time building up what will not satisfy and growing what could devour us. The ultimate waste of time is to play a form of fairy tale and no longer walk in the real. The sadness of the past shock us into fruitful action.
Malcom Muggeridge lived a godless life until he made a documentary about Mother Teresa and then everything changed. He became a Catholic and an ardent defender of the Truth of the Gospel. The title of his autobiography is “Chronicles of Wasted Time”. He never lost a sense of the Penthos of his prior life. It made him determined not to fall a second time into the same mistakes. This is an act of God’s mercy that is undeserved but needed by us as we hold our heads in disbelief over how long it has taken for us to see the truth.
One element that is necessary to have in order to take full advantage of this true and fruitful conversion is the virtue of humility. Often called the mother of all the virtues, it is necessary if we are to admit that we are wrong, that we need God, and that we cannot do it on our own. Without humility, we will continue to walk the paths of falsehood trying to convince ourselves that what is bad is good and that we need not make any changes in our lives. God will just have to agree with us. We continue to believe that we are the center of it all.
False, false, false! Only in God can the truth be found, and we wander hopelessly until we fully accept this. Humility leads us to this and makes us receptive to the mercy of God.