She's in a spiritual quandary right now. When most of my sisters- there's a crowd of us- got together over pad thai and wine about ten days ago, I put her on the spot. The conversation turned, as they say, to a topic we've revisited many times in the past decade: the predominance of fear and guilt that came out of our early spiritual formation.We went to a church that my therapist calls 'spiritually abusive.' Ten days ago, at that conversation, I started to wonder. Just how bad was all this guilt? I'm not giving in on the dangers of the fear, for the record, but I hold Hal Lindsey and Scofield to blame for that.
I have a wonderfully developed sense of guilt. Many of my sisters do too. My daughter is developing it. I apologize so much that it annoys friends. I heap on self-abuse to keep myself disciplined and bring my deepest sins to confession, where my Father Confessor reminds me to see the love in the lives of the Saints and in our Christ. I have an abiding hope in that, but mid-conversation that recent Sunday night, I stopped and asked my sis a hard question. What did she think of all our exploring of fear and guilt? Then I apologized for missing the mark and focusing upon the negative and broken rather than the light and life of Christ.
It took her a while to answer my question and in the interim, other siblings were disturbed that I should be apologetic. I stated that I was seeing sin not as an intentional crime, but rather a kind of inadvertent wounding of souls, as Elder Porphyrios writes about in Wounded by Love. We need Christ and salvation, says I, as we need a hospital. Christ came to bring sinners to repentance, sick to healing, as the Scriptures read. So while I'm trying to cover an understanding gap in one nature of sin, I'm waiting to see how my sister will respond to the question.
She drops a kind of time bomb.
All this talk doesn't connect, since she didn't grow up in the same spiritual environment-- she's younger than us. But we seem to carry a pretty heavy sense of guilt. I guess I could interpret her words to mean 'cloud.' She does too. But her friends, the un-churched and non-religious, they don't. They seem pretty happy. What popped into my head was a bit of Scripture from Psalm 91, "Their lives are carefree."
So, I've spent ten days pondering if there is good news here. All this timing is perfect, leading up here to Forgiveness Sunday, which is all about asking more forgiveness of fellow sinners for the wounds of missing the mark. Guilt is baggage afterall and one priest, Fr. David Maroney, refers to it as the 'gift that keeps on giving.' Yet we Orthodox Christians spend a whole lot of time praying about it. Compunction we call it. Gentler terminology. So I thought there must be a difference. I went to the etymology dictionary this morning, hoping I could articulate some gospel news to my sister that all this compunction I seek and request in my prayer life, all this being hard on myself, is different from guilt. If the on-line etymology dictionary is any help, it isn't. Compunction might just be a dressed up word for guilt. Being hard on yourself then might be part of salvation. That doesn't seem very gospel. Now, I don't think that's a theological difference. In fact, I'm pretty sure we understand compunction and contrition as different from the ol' image of monastics flogging themselves or as the irredeemable sinner.
Still, there isn't as much difference as I hoped. I was wringing my hands. Where does love fit into all this then? If I'm ever praying for compunction and contrition for my sins, ever submitting myself to great self-discipline - ascesis- then where is Christ's sacrifice of love and acceptance of his healing?
The Desert Fathers believed that the compunction, the hardness on one's own self, would produce selflessness, and great 'gentleness and forbearance' for others so they too might be saved at the right time. In other words, not being nice to myself makes me more aware of others' struggle. At the right time, I get to participate with Christ in the hope that I hold to, in spite of my constant compunction. That is hope is less hope and more knowledge. I can't really rid myself of these habits. To paraphrase Kilian McDonnell, I've had it with perfection. It's not the achievement of perfection that is the end goal, it is the seeing myself as ever in need of Christ's healing and grace. Considering all the selfishness that crops up in my soul, I think I need all this contrition. I'm not saying everyone should beat themselves up, but I get the feeling I'll never purge myself fully. I just like to give up some ground, so that Christ takes up residence in every inch of space I surrender to Him. For me, that surrender is hard fought.
I want neither embracing of the status quo nor my own perfection, because as the poet goes on to say:
Perfection straineth out
the quality of mercy,
withers rapture at its
Okay, now that's why Christ took on human flesh, in its imperfection. Rapture no longer withered. Job done.
So then, the New York Times decides upon kismet and publishes a write up on health dangers of self-abuse. In the introduction there's a telling little kernel. People who score high on being 'supportive and understanding' also score high on being hard on themselves. We should be nicer to ourselves, more like Stuart Smalley or some variation on that. What is healthy though? Loving someone else more than myself, or loving myself? I know that all the slender attractiveness of the world, all the other stuff, is less enjoyable if kept for myself. Sacrificing for others gives me the greatest sense of satisfaction It doesn't come naturally. It takes a fight. So back to the war where I'm fighting my urges and passions, praying for sorrow for my sins and throwing myself upon the love of Christ. I'm asking Him to take over once hostile territory, that I owned for myself, and aware it's the only hope I have for sustained compassion for others. Nice to others, not to me, makes me happy. Weird paradox, right. I get love in this somehow.
This is some disturbing good news. Maybe all that guilt? I should stop apologize for having it. (Please note the rhetorical device. That is not a theological praxis I'm proclaiming.)