Thursday, June 18, 2009

On Compunction


My friend Betty Duffy has a thoughtful post up about what she sees as the deficiencies of modern Catholic writing and the corresponding conundrum that Catholic writers often find themselves in. A quote:

As anyone who has been Catholic for longer than the duration of a weekend retreat knows, for many of us, initial conversion is exactly where a lot of our problems begin. We have family members who don't understand, relationships torn asunder, or worse, relationships are no longer possible with certain people. There are moral conflicts with jobs, temptations, and times when we fail to live up to our creed . . .

As writers, we want to attract people to our faith by blatantly evangelizing readers or presenting a pretty picture. But when we fail to give up the conflicts that comprise our Orthodox Catholic lives, we also give up the stories that are uniquely ours . . .

The best Catholic authors seem to say, "Yes, God is present, but you will have to find your own way to him." They can give you hints, weave a little story that enigmatically points to God, a lamb in wolf's clothing, but stop short of saying, "I'll take you to him."


While I am by no means a professional "Catholic writer," this is an unabashedly Catholic blog. As such, it's been faulted by some professed Catholic readers for failing to describe a conversion with a "happy ending," and for instead providing what one commenter called a "destructive witness" in my position as a penitent who continues to mourn for my sins. I think of this criticism as being particularly rooted in this time and place, that is, in a Calvinist culture which embraces across creeds the myth that if you do the right things you will get what you want. This may be true insofar as what you want is heaven, but, as for temporal happiness, not so much. The compunction that is a big part of my life is actually a fruit of my conversion, and it began in the early days with the gift of tears at the Consecration (I know from my Orthodox friends that the gift of tears is quite common in the Eastern church). I'm still trying to work out how to understand compunction in light of St. Paul's exhortation to "rejoice in the Lord always." I believe some people can best serve the Lord when they are happy, but that others, like Blessed Ève Lavallière, seem to serve him best in contrition. Where I am on that spectrum I do not yet know for certain.

Today, however, is the feast day of Saint Ephrem the Syrian (above), the great doctor of the Church, who wrote eloquently and extensively about the need for and uses of compunction:

The soul is dead through sin. It requires sadness, weeping, tears, mourning and bitter moaning over the iniquity which has cast it down . . . Howl, weep and moan, and bring it back to God. . . . Your soul is dead through vice; shed tears and raise it up again! . . . . Behold, Mercy waits for your eyes to shed tears, to purify and renew the image of the disfigured soul. . . . Weep over your soul, sinner, shed tears and raise it up again. Its resurrection depends on your eye, and its return to life on your heart.

He is also said to have written:

Be kind to everyone you meet, for everyone is fighting a great battle.

May Saint Ephrem the Syrian pray for us in our daily struggle for true conversion.

6 comments:

Tertium Quid said...

Nice post. A bit of Flannery O'Connor. I must agree that some insist that one's conversion story become obviously complete before death. That's not only uncommon, but rare.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, TQ. I knew someone long ago who said that if you're not happy in your spiritual life, then it's "not working" for you, and you should try something else. That advice also strikes me as very much identifiable by the time and place in which it was given (America, turn of the third millennium).

Betty Duffy said...

You raise an interesting point in Saint Paul's quote on rejoicing. I often wonder how Christian joy rightly appears. As a kid, I thought it was ironic that my parents called Mass a "celebration." And I remember specifically a homily in which a priest talked about the celebratory aspect of receiving the Eucharist. I think, had I not fallen away, and then come back to find the saving grace received from the Eucharist, I would never have understood why it is rightly a celebration.

(thanks for the mention, btw)

Pentimento said...

I think the joy/grief dialectic is a constant in the Mass. We know on some level that the Mass is much more of a mystical event than we generally acknowledge, and the way that Mass is said and heard often does little to reveal its seismic spiritual truth.

Dave said...

Beautiful.

Pentimento said...

Dave, thanks.