Sunday, December 23, 2012

On Fear and Guilt, Joy and Love

When I was in college my friends and I used to joke about a not uncommon emotion that we encountered frequently on our college campus:  Catholic Guilt.

Oddly enough, it was an emotion that seemed to strike more of the boys that I knew than girls, and usually took the form of talking about feeling bad about doing something, but continuing to do it anyways.  For girls guilt seemed less common (or less talked about) maybe because we'd become so "empowered" with talk of "we can do anything they can do" that our consciences were burnt to a crisp.

We said the words laughingly, rolling our eyes, and I honestly thought that constant guilt and shame and fear were clearly just part of being Catholic.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

In our culture guilt and shame aren't exactly seen as positives.  It's more like: you're okay, I'm okay, we're all okay and none of us should make any efforts at being anything other than who we.  We wouldn't want to damage our self esteem or infringe upon any of our natural awesomeness.

But that misses the point of these particular emotions.  Feelings of guilt are, at a basic level, the warning system of the soul.  They tell us that something is wrong, that we need to stop or repent, that we need to turn back to God confident in his love and sacrifice.  Sure in our tangled, confused world, our consciences can be twisted and warped until the response is muted and dull, overactive, or simply out of whack. That is exactly why we need the leadership of the Church and solid spiritual guidance to help us stay on track.  Our consciences and the resulting feelings of guilt when we do something wrong, have a purpose.

Something that might have surprised my college self, however, is that guilt and shame haven't been overarching themes in my life since my conversion.  Do I feel the sting of guilt when I do something wrong?  Absolutely.  But that guilt is almost immediately overridden by the knowledge that there's a sacrament that will instantly alleviate any worries or concerns about the offending action.  And any remnants of that guilt are erased altogether once the sacrament has been received and I exit the confessional with the squeaky clean feeling of having been made new once more.

In yesterday's post I quoted Saint Paul in his letter to the Philippians when he said:  "Wherefore, my dearly beloved, (as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but much more now in my absence) with fear and trembling work out your salvation."

Does this mean that we live in constant fear?  No.  Fear, like guilt, hasn't been an overarching emotion during my journey as a Catholic, because, while I may not know the future, I have hope given by him that created me.  Fear is not my main motivator.  Love is.  As we say in our act of contrition:  "I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because they offend thee, my god, who are all good and deserving of all my love."  We may start with fear, but ultimately, it's our love of God that motivates us.  Fear can only take us so far in inspiring good behavior.  Love carries us much farther.

Some people don't believe in Hell.  I would love not to believe in Hell... however, I don't think that the gospels have really left us with that option.  You see, God doesn't force his presence upon us.  Our lives are full of choices.  We've been given free will.  And every day we choose again and again to turn towards or away from God.  If we knowingly consent to committing a serious sin we are, in effect, severing ourselves from him.

If we end up in Hell it's not because God was "mean."  It's because we chose and God respects our choices and lets us make them.  However there are consequences for those choices.

God offers us ample graces if we're willing to rely on them.  He carries us along if we but ask him to, and picks us up and dusts us off over and over again if we simply repent.  But we must repent with our whole selves, with our hearts and minds, our words and actions.  If we simply needed to say certain words and could then go on, doing whatever we wanted, then he wouldn't have described the road as narrow or hard.

The existence of God's grace doesn't mean that we can stop trying.  It simply makes what would be impossible on our own, possible.

And so the words "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner" aren't a sign of unhappiness or pain.  They are words spoken in joy as we choose love over the alternative and set our sights on heaven and an eternity with the God who made us, the God for whom our souls long.


  1. So people choose hell? That makes no sense to me. Who would knowingly choose Hell? People are weak and make mistakes. Doean't mean they "choose" hell. No one wants to go there.

    If a man lives a life of sin and debauchery, and at 85 years of age, after all the fun he's had - he accepts Jesus as his savior and confesses his sins to the best of his ability, then he goes to Heaven. If the holy father lives a life of sacrifice ans piety, devotinf his entire being to God and does something sinful right before dropping dead of a heart attack - he goes to Hell? That makes no sense. What kind of God do we believe in? A capricious and merciless jerk?

    I believe in Hell. I don't think everyone goes to Heaven. I believe that the road to salvation is through the Church. But if things are the way you describe, the vast majority of humanity is probably burning in hell right now. Your parents are not Catholics. They have never been to confession to be relieved of their sins. Obviously, they are not ignorant and have every opportunity in the world to know the one true church. From your posts, they seem like wonderful people who do love Christ and lead lovely lives. If your parents were to pass away next week, God forbid, would they burn in Hell? You can't possibly think that they would - can you?

  2. Yes anon, we do choosen hell when we embrace sin and reject God. Yes, the sinner would go to heaven if his repentance is genuine, (this is why Purgatory is so necessary)yes if the godly man in his final hour commited a mortal sin ie. murdered someone he would be choosing the consequences of that act. You seem to have difficulty with understaning mortal and venial sin, as well as purgatory. If you knowingly and willingly commit a sin that severs you from God you have chosen hell. If you repent of this then God be praised but Gods justice will be carried out if you don't. Just as a criminal chooses to commit a crime we choose to sin, no on forces us. Lastly Cam has hope for her parents why would she not? No one know the heart of another but there is hope God be Praised.

  3. People choose to turn towards, or away from God by knowingly doing right or wrong. When we turn away from him we sever ourselves from him with our choice (and to sin we must choose the action). And actually I have heard quite a few people joke about Hell.

    We don't know who goes to heaven or hell. We know that the Gospels and Jesus own words certainly don't make it sound easy. In Matthew 7 he says: "Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in there at. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it! (matthew 7:13-14)

    Do I hope that the vast majority of people are in heaven? Yes. Do Jesus own words make that seem probable? Not exactly.

    When we knowingly commit a grave sin we are choosing Hell. Remember we must meet those three criteria to commit a mortal sin. So yes, a person could theoretically have an awesome life and then knowingly choose to commit a gave sin and sever himself from God's grace and die and end up in hell if they hadn't repented. And another person could genuinely repent on their deathbed and eventually end up in heaven (I imagine some major purification would take place first). I do have a hard time imagining someone living a holy life and then throwing it all away by consenting to a mortal sin, but yes, God gives us free will and allows us to turn from him.

    It makes perfect sense. God doesn't force us to love him. And he doesn't force us to receive his grace. He offers both and he allows us to decide what we're going to do with it.

  4. As for salvation outside the Church: Yes, I believe there are non-Catholics that go to heaven. The sacraments certainly make it easier, as they allow grace to flow into our lives.

    Remember that knowledge is required to commit a mortal sin, and if someone doesn't know they're doing something wrong it doesn't fall in that category. Padre Pio's words make the fact that we must consent in order to sin, very clear. He said:

    "Stop entertaining those vain fears. Remember it is not feeling which constitutes guilt but the consent to such feelings. Only the free will is capable of good or evil. But when the will sighs under the trial of the tempter and does not will what is presented to it, there is not only no fault but there is virtue."

    A mortal sin isn't something that just happens to us. It's something we choose to do. That's part of what makes it mortal. And the reason I said that a holy person, theoretically, could commit a mortal sin and die is that I think it's unlikely. In Saint Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle she talks about how repulsive sin becomes as you grow closer to God and how the stinging animals (that are temptations and sin) that are frequently found when we're further from God (in the outer areas of the castle) don't usually harm us or have power over us as we near God. As a person grows in holiness, those temptations lose their glamour and become more and more repellent. Certainly there are still temptations, but a man who's led a holy life loving God will hopefully be able to rely on that grace and love he's known all his life and make the right choice. And if he doesn't he'll hopefully immediately feel the sting of his conscience (which since he's holy we're imagining is well formed, right?) and repent. If he's hit by a bus on the way to confession? Well, God is merciful and his repentance and desire to be reconciled with God would surely mean much.

    So I guess I'd say that just as I don't know which among the Church are in a state of grace, I also don't know who outside of it is. I imagine that genuine repentance goes a long, long way, especially when a person doesn't know that they need to receive the sacrament of reconciliation.

    You seem to want me to say that a person can commit a mortal sin, not repent, and go to heaven? And that if he doesn't it makes God a "capricious and merciless jerk?"

    I just don't see how giving us chance after chance to choose him, giving us an abundance of grace if we but accept it and allowing us the free will to choose to turn towards him or away, makes him a jerk. I think it makes him a loving father who's waiting for us to come home, but accepts our decision if we decide not to seek him out.

  5. I have rarely seen the Church's teaching on free will, sin, heaven, and hell so very well put.

    Our God will not force anyone, ever. He WANTS every person to be saved but he will not force anyone, ever, not even for their own good. Our freedom to choose to love him is that important, for there is no love if there is no freedom.

    Thank you for both your original post and your very well written comments.

  6. I guess I just wonder about all the couples who use contraception to limit their family size. Good, church-going couples who are commited to Christ. No one can say that your average Protestant in America does not have ample opportunity to know the Catholic Church. The information is widespread and it is free and available to anyone. Still, millions reject it and choose another (less complete and partially erroneous) form of Christianity. They are not concerned about their eternal destination and most are fully confident that they will end up with the Lord when they die (read any obituary - everyone has "gone to be with the Lord."). What of these people? Of course we can't know for sure - but everything you say and point to leads me to think that these Christians are experiencing the eternal fires having had the opportunity to know the true church, and turned it down.

  7. Anonymous, People absolutely choose hell. To say they don't is to say that God lets them end up in hell against their will. When a drunk man beats his wife, he is certainly not consciously thinking about how he is choosing hell, but when he chooses to drink to excess, he is saying no to God. Hell is the absence of God, it is a deprivation of all that is Good. God never forces anyone to hell. If we go there it is because we did not choose God but rather rejected God and hence chose hell.

    The sinner can absolutely repent before death and be saved and the pious can absolutely abandon all faith and hope in God before death and be damned. I would imagine God would take into account the man's entire life but that is really up to God and we cannot speculate on who might or might not be in Hell. (Although I do find it a bit of a stretch anyone could live their whole lives loving God to only abandon Him just before death.)

    The majority of humanity might be burning in Hell but we cannot speculate on that one way or another. Christ himself said, " “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few." Matthew 7:13-14.

    I particularly pray daily for a parent and two siblings and I'm not trying to pray them into Heaven but just out of Hell into purgatory. Two are lapsed Catholics so they really should know better. If Cam's parents aren't Catholic, they might really not know better, but the Church doesn't say you have to be Catholic to go to Heaven. Jesus is the Savior. The RCC holds the fullness of truth but the Church isn't the way, Jesus is. Non-Catholics can certainly be saved. As one bishop put it to me, before he converted to Catholicism, when he asked a priest, if you didn't need to be Catholic to be saved, why does it matter to convert and the priest answered, "Why walk when you can take the bus?" The RCC, holding the fullness of truth and so many graces and blessings including the Sacraments, helps us to be saved, but just as being Catholic is no guarantee of being saved, neither is not being Catholic any guarantee of being damned.

    I hope that makes sense. I have to go get 4 children ready for Mass. God Bless!

  8. And does a "loving father" turn away his otherwise good and holy child because she makes an error or disagrees with him on some issue? My love and devotion to my children is not so tenuous. Clearly, you believe differently from your father, and he still seems to love and accept you with open arms and a warm heart. If one of my children makes a life decision with which I do not agree - if he or she rejects something that I hold dear - I would hope I would not consider that a severing of our relationship until he/she came to do what I wanted and begged for my forgiveness. I am not trying to be disagreeable, just trying to make sense of this and understand.

  9. Very thoughtful, well said and needed. Your follow up comments are a blessing too. I are just about the only blog I read now, due to time shortages. Thank you so much for your contributions. Val

  10. I'd say a person is in trouble if they learn about the Church, accept that it's the Church founded by Christ intended to lead us and guide us, and then say "sorry, no, not for me."

    That's different from what usually happens though, isn't it. People get watered down versions of Catholicism. Or they get misinformation. Or there entire lives have formed them in a way that makes the Church downright scary. So no, I wouldn't count a person culpable for that and for pushing ahead trying their best to serve and love God. And nothing I've said here has indicated that in the least.

    But to your other question, yes, God does let us reject him. He does let us turn away, even though it causes him sorrow. That's why all of heaven rejoices when a lost soul repents and comes home.

  11. I think there is some confusion here between doing wrong and being culpable for doing wrong. Many people use contraception against the church's teaching without knowing or understanding that it is wrong... God alone knows the heart, but there is a question of just how culpable they are for using it. Culpability is something we cannot presume but it is the difference between what we are accountable for and what we aren't.

    And, of course, even the things we are culpable for, there is always the hope and trust of the mercy of Christ. THAT is the loving Father... the one who offers us the mercy of Christ despite our culpability. That is the mercy I pray for for my loved ones.

  12. I feel such a sense of sorrow. Not just a sense of "why even try when I am likely to fail" but for how difficult God's grace and mercy is to obtain. This is so incompatible with the Jesus I know from scripture, it's hard for me to reconcile it. Yes, there are expectations - and yes, rules to follow. But Jesus was so merciful and forgiving of those who had less than pious lifestyles. I had a father who was difficult to please and held the bar so high for his kids that we all grew up feeling unloved and desperate to please him. It was not until I mareied that I experienced love "as is" - warts and all. Someone who cared for me just for who I was, and did not hold me to a standard in order for me to receive his love. I was damaged by my dad - I always felt he wanted more from
    me, and almost nothing I did was "good enough." I hope and pray our Lord is not that type of father.

  13. The thing is, it isn't hard to obtain. We simply have to ask. It's not a matter of groveling or doing anything unreasonable. We simply repent and ask for forgiveness and he forgives us. Part of that is resolving not to do it again, but in his awesome mercy he does forgive us, over and over, if we fall short.

    Jesus was kind and loving and came to save sinners. But in coming he lifted up those around him and said: "Go and sin no more."

    God loves as we are, but he doesn't force us to accept him. He's given us free will.

    Will we fall short? Yes. That's part of being human. But his mercy and graces are abundant, and he welcomes us back joyfully. We need only return and heaven rejoices.

    God takes our meager efforts, pours out his grace upon us, and makes us blossom. All we have to do is ask and be open to that grace. It's what we're made for and what our souls long for.

  14. I did not think it was possible to pray anyone out of Hell into purgatory. My understanding (I may be wrong - please correct me) is that once you are damned, there is no redemption and nothing anyone can do to save you from your fate. (Someone up thread mentioned praying for family to get out of Hell.)

  15. As far as we know Hell is permanent. I think (if it's the response I'm remembering) they meant praying for family here on earth that aren't religious. And we can pray for the souls in purgatory.

  16. I'm sorry I wasn't clear... I'm 38 weeks pregnant, so I'm usually a bit fuzzy lately.

    When I said I was trying to pray family members out of hell, I meant that they are currently living but would go to hell if they died now and I'm just trying to pray for them such that, if they died now, they would at least escape eternal damnation. All three were baptized and raised Roman Catholic. They know what the Church teaches but a) have lost all faith in God or Christ, b) have embraced the gay lifestyle and all that entails or c) have grown into narcissistic, image-obsessed alcoholics ... my fear for their souls is very real and since none of them beg for God's mercy, I try to do it for them. I'm especially desperate that a should return to the church as he is engaged and I would so much like to be able to go to his wedding next year.

    Again, my apologies for being less than clear.


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