May 25, 2009

Meta-Contrition and Compunction

I remember seeing "contrition" on the SAT in the Spring of 1989 and having no idea what it meant. I read it over and over, but there was no association in my mind. I have often recalled that moment with great bemusement, because just over three years later, on September 5, 1992, the Act of Contrition was elicited from me for the first time, and I knew exactly what it was all about.

But I have always had a question about acts of contrition: is the spiritual ideal to make an "act of perfect contrition," or a "perfect act of contrition?" My whole Catholic life, I have heard it both ways. People who would seem to be trustworthy usually come down on the side of the former. On the other hand, I kind of like the latter with its suggestion that we are called to make the act, the spiritual intention perfectly, which might mean we weren't entirely contrite all through ourselves.

For me, I know all to well that contrition is a relative experience. If there were no attachment to selfishness and sin, we would not need to frequent the sacrament of penance. Relative contrition is important, though, insofar as an awareness of the internal struggle is a great opportunity for humility and dependence on grace. When we come to contrition over our inability to be truly contrite, that's when we reach the sublime prayer-moment of meta-contrition. I believe this is what the saints meant when they talk about compunction.

Practically speaking, I don't use the language of perfection at all. I invite people to make the best act of contrition they can, especially in cases in which they have a wholesome spiritual desire for Holy Communion but no option for sacramental absolution beforehand.

So, better informed Catholics than your humble blogger, what's the answer?


Adoro said...

We've discussed this in a few of our theology courses.

Imperfect contrition is when we are contrite out of fear of punishment.

Perfect contrition is when we are contrite because we realize we caused offense.

Theologically, it's impossible for any of us to have "perfect contrition" because of our concupiscence. Therefore, "perfect" doesn't really mean "perfect" for we can only meet the definition of that word when we have died, have been purified and have entered God's eternal embrace of perfect union with Him.

kam said...

It seems like with imperfect contrition there is no humility, and with no humility, no forgiveness... Yes? No?

Brother Charles said...

I believe we call that "attrition."

ben in denver said...

I'm not sure that the distinction between perfect anf imperfect contrition is based on the fear of punishment.

I use myself as an example. Often, when I go to confession I end up having to confess at least one occaision of having a few too many. Now (going into Roman Legalism mode) I can't see how this can be anything other venial sin, since the bad action (opening the 4th beer) is considered and taken while reason is impaired and certanly the 3rd beer is just moderate and temperate enjoyment of the good things of the Earth. Now I'm contrite about these sins, but not perfectly. Sometimes, even after confession, I can remember that 4th beer tasting pretty good. And I don't really fear punishment either, drinking the 4th beer is a pretty minor offense. But I do feel like I let Christ down, and I'm sorry for that. But I think if I was perfectly contrite, it would take years before it happened again instead of weeks.

Brother Charles said...

I knew we could count on Ben for both clarity and illustration!