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March 27, 2008
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GUILT AND WONDER

The experience of complete forgiveness follows the experience of a love offered unconditionally, "while we were still God's enemies," as St Paul writes.

Guilt and WonderIn Anne Tyler’s novel Saint Maybe, seventeen-year-old Ian Bedloe angrily tells his older brother Danny that his wife Lucy is cheating on him.

Moreover, he claims that the daughter, for whom Danny abandoned his studies to marry Lucy, is not really his after all. In response, Danny kills himself by driving his car into a wall. The following year while he is away at college, Lucy kills herself, and the daughter (and two other of Lucy’s children from a previous marriage) have to be cared for by Ian’s rapidly aging parents. Ian can hardly bear the weight of the guilt on his conscience, until he wanders into a storefront church intriguingly called “Church of the Second Chance.” Soon afterwards Ian becomes a devout member of the church, convinced that it offers him the key to forgiveness.

The experience of guilt cannot be the point of departure for the Christian life.
This church’s doctrine is that total forgiveness will come when one offers “concrete, practical reparation” for the committed offense. Jesus makes up for the difference between the maximum reparation sacrifice we can offer and the damage caused by our sinful behavior. “God wants to know how far you’ll go to undo the harm you’ve done,” the minister tells Ian. “It’s the religion of atonement and complete forgiveness. It’s the religion of the Second Chance.” In Ian’s case, this means abandoning his education and taking care of the children left without parents by the deaths of Danny and Lucy.

What is wrong with this doctrine? What exactly is the place of the experience of guilt in the Christian life? This question is of particular relevance to the season of Lent with its emphasis on repentance and atonement. The experience of guilt cannot be the point of departure for the Christian life. To paraphrase St Augustine, the consequence of guilt is more guilt. If the experience of guilt is the originating experience that generates our life, we would never experience real forgiveness, real mercy.

The fact is that there can never be enough reparation that “matches” or erases the damage done by sin. The damage done cannot be undone in its peculiarity, in its unique concreteness. Taking care of the children will not reverse time and undo what was done. The sin was committed against Danny, and no amount of reparation can bring him back. No “substitute” can take the place of a unique and unrepeatable person. The idea that Jesus kind of “makes up” for what we lack is to reduce the whole thing to a commercial exchange.

Sacrifice is always preceded by wonder, by amazement at the love and mercy offered through the encounter with Christ.
The reduction of Christianity to a religion of atonement for sins is just that, a falsifying reduction of the meaning of the event of Christ. Instead, the experience of complete forgiveness follows the experience of a love offered unconditionally, “while we were still God’s enemies,” as St Paul writes. This merciful unconditional love generates a new self, a new “I” whose life is composed and sustained by the event through which the encounter took place. What we call “atonement” or “reparation” is life according to the “memory” of that event; it is making the event real and operative. This is the true meaning of sacrifice.

To sacrifice, Fr. Luigi Giussani says, is “to allow the memory of Christ to penetrate into what you love (so that) what you love becomes truer, because it is within the Eternal” (L’attrattiva Gesu [The Attraction that is Jesus]). Its point of departure is not guilt, but wonder, amazement at the love and mercy offered through the encounter with Christ, which this memory sustains. Sacrifice is always preceded by wonder. It is the response to a wonder that guides you to the original Presence behind it. Through this “sacrificial memory,” an ongoing, new opportunity always opens up. The “sacrifices” and “penances” of Lent are the consequence of seeing and standing before reality according to the truth grasped through this memory. That is why we “celebrate” Lent with inner joy, concluding with the remarkable cry of the Easter vigil: Felix culpa! Oh happy fault!
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February 9, 2005

MONSIGNOR LORENZO ALBACETE is National Director of the lay movement, Communion and Liberation. Reprinted with permission from Traces magazine. All rights reserved.

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READER COMMENTS
03.08.05   spy1 says:
PS, Of course there is no forgiveness without repentance...that's the faith! So thank God for the feeling of guilt that leads to repentance.

03.08.05   spy1 says:
The feeling of guilt is actually the voice of one's conscience, and definitely is meant to drive us to repentance, after which we should let the feeling of guilt go. But there is also the objective state of guilt. Sin creates an objective, real state of guilt that God sees more, not less, than we do, because He knows us better than we know ourselves. In fact, there are plenty of people who are guilty of wrongdoing who don't "feel" guilty at all!--unfortunately for them and for us. God always and at all times loves us. When we are guilty of doing wrong, God sees it...but in His great love draws us back to Himself, if only we'll listen to His voice. Our Lord says, "Go and sin no more"...he knew the woman caught in adultery was guilty all right! But He loved her anyway...just as parents love a child who is doing wrong. The parents know the child's sins, but love him or her anyway, and their arms are always open.

02.11.05   alexander caughey says:
In my own experience, there is no way that we can ever assume that we are in a position to be the object of guilt, in the eyes of Our Father. That we should contemplate the idea that God judges us, due to our own shortcomings, is to understand that God chooses to view us as being guilty, until we repent to the point He sees us as being again in His favour. That we are always in Our Father's favour, by right of being His children, should inform us that it is our own feelings of guilt that encourage us to seek to remedy our misfortunes, as a result of our misguided actions. God love us, despite our willingness to detach from His embrace and it is this truth of our being that enables us to once again find our way into our embrace of Our Father, as did the Prodigal Son, when he realised His mistakes and then chose to find His way back into the arms of His father, whose love never changes or ceases. Such is the Father of us all; for His wisdom is our salvation, in His eternal and unwavering love of all who will embrace Him.

09.24.03   Godspy says:
The experience of complete forgiveness follows the experience of a love offered unconditionally, "while we were still God's enemies," as St Paul writes.

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