19 January 2011

Compunctio Cordis

The heart is not the same as sensitivity, except in its higher stage, that of reason. It is well to distinguish between them. The heart of an animal is sensitive; it has plenty of 'heart' in that sense. But the man who has no other heart, has not a heart at all! With all our knowledge today, we fail to appreciate this. We confuse the very inferior animal impressionability with that sensitivity which is essential to the real man whom only truth and good, justice and beauty can move.

Compunction is that which pierces a man's heart when he remembers and reflects on these great realities, and especially on the greatest of realities - God. It takes on different forms, and can have different causes. The use of the word should be restricted really to the heart's sorrow at the thought or memory of sin, above all of one's own sins. But it can also be applied to lively impressions felt at the sins of others, or at the possibility of committing sin. We feel compunction when we realize the grave consequences sin can have; when we think of our Lord's Passion which blotted out our sins; of the presence within us of God giving Himself and preserving us from evil; of the hope of our future union with Him in our true homeland; or of the pain at seeing our exile, separating us from Him, prolonged.

The effect is the same in any case, except for slight differences which we alone can perceive. That is because the ultimate cause is the same - namely love. Whatever form it takes - regret, desire, hope or joy - compunction is always the fruit of divine love: it is marked by the same characteristics and has, in God's Eyes, the merit of that love. In compunction God sees the love which emanates from His divine Heart communicating itself to our heart, and returning whence it came, enriched by all our heart has loved. True and really supernatural compunction is a very special grace. It can come only with a genuine and rare understanding of God, of His greatness and His beauty, of His love and our relations with Him, and from the joy of a life upheld by these relations. A soul that has received this understanding must possess a transparency that only a long life of loving detachment can obtain for it.

The Fathers of the Church have praised this grace in the highest terms. 'Humble tears of the heart', wrote Saint Jerome, 'you are a queen and all-powerful. You fear not the tribunal of the Judge, and your presence silences those who accuse you. Nothing holds you back or keeps you from having access to the Throne of grace, and never do you turn away with empty hands. The agony you cause the devil is even worse than the pains of hell. You triumph over the Unconquerable One; you bind and force the Hand of the Almighty. Prayer alone can touch Him and, when that prayer is accompanied by tears of compunction, then it is irresistible. Prayer is oil which disposes God to listen; tears of compunction wound Him and oblige Him to act'.

'The angels', says Saint Bernard, 'are deeply moved by our tears of compunction, and by our holy prayers. For them, they are like a wine which intoxicates; they see in them the perfume of a true life assured by divine grace, the savour of the forgiveness of sins; the strong vigor of innocence recovered; the joy of reconciliation with God and the serene peace of a conscience again set in order'.

'It is the fat and abundant holocaust of victims beloved of God', says Saint Gregory. 'The heart's tears sprinkle it with the perfume He prefers before all others'.

And Saint John Climacus: 'Tears lend wings to prayers, which fly straight to the Heart of God'.

Clearly tears of the kind referred to here are not necessarily actual tears, as shallow souls might think. Such souls work up a kind of excitement; their imagination dwells on those things which move them. They are glad when they can call forth tears; they appraise their love by this external, and sometimes childish, sign. What these Fathers are referring to are the genuine tears of the heart, which can easily be smothered by the effort to produce what is merely their external sign. What they have in mind is a wholly internal and spiritual movement which only the Spirit of Love can excite in us, and we must ask Him for it with full confidence and then quietly await it. It is a clear and pure flame, which suddenly leaps up as from a hidden brazier. It lights up the mind and touches the chords of the heart. It moves the soul to its depths, causing a kind of heavenly thrill to pass through it, which lifts it up above itself, so that it exclaims: 'My God', in a way which is altogether new to it. Then the distance separating it from Him Who thus makes Himself known; the memory of its sins which were responsible for that gulf; Jesus on the Cross expiating our sins, with Mary standing at His Feet; hell punishing the sin without relieving it of its debt - all these thoughts suddenly welling up before our eyes, ceasing to be thoughts and become images: all this compresses the soul like a ripe fruit, causing the sweet and intoxicating tears to flow.

These tears, however, are not the end. The soul that weeps looks higher than its own self. It longs to attain the heights and already sees something of what it can and must attain. Nevertheless, it remains enclosed within the circle of its self, enlarged it is true, but still restrained and not destroyed. The Holy Spirit who wants to set it free, prepares the soul for the final rapture, which is its determined end. God wants the soul entire; He wants to free it from itself and from created objects and raise it to Himself. Then the tears, tiny bouquets to cheer us on the way, cease, and the soul tastes in anticipation the joys of heaven. The gift of tears is always a most precious gift. We should desire it, ask for it and prepare ourselves for it. We must desire and ask for it with an assurance, a profound and lively conviction that God wishes to give it to us much more strongly than we can wish for it ourselves. We can be sure that our desire, however exalted we may be, is no more than a tiny spark in the immense desire that God has to grant it to us.

~ Dom Augustin Guillerand ~