The piercing of the heart for conversion and repentance
In October 2021, I attended an ecumenical conference which brought together Christians from many different faith traditions. All the speakers were excellent and thought-provoking. But an Anglican deacon’s talk on sin and retrieving introspection and compunction impacted me the most. He quoted extensively from the Fathers and saints of the Church.
Yet the concept of compunction wasn’t something that I had heard in the Catholic Church.
Or so I thought. Here is the prayer over the people for Ash Wednesday: “Pour out a spirit of compunction, O God, on those who bow before your majesty, and by your mercy may they merit the rewards you promise to those who do penance.”
How did I overlook that powerful prayer? Yikes. Cultivating compunction — along with introspection — is at the very heart of Lent. It is essential to conversion and repentance.
Compunction means to pierce or to puncture. It is what those who had heard Peter’s speech after Pentecost experienced: “They were cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). But in the Vulgate, it is translated as “they had compunction in their hearts.”
Compunction is what led St. Augustine to finally stop delaying his full conversion. In his “Confessions,” he wrote of being in a garden and after contemplating the sorry state of his soul “a mighty storm arose in me, bringing a mighty rain of tears” (Book 8, Chapter 12). It was then that he realized that he was enslaved by his sins, and that he would have to stop waiting for tomorrow to repent and change his sinful ways.
It is said that St. Ignatius, after his conversion, could not stop crying. Yet compunction is not a morbid self-absorbed grief. It is a holy sorrow that is brought about by the realization that we have turned away from God. It is a desire to repent and return to him. Compunction requires an unflinching and brutally honest examination of conscience. It leads to knowing ourselves through our relationship with God. We grieve because we know that we have fallen short of the glory of God. But we hope in God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Pope Benedict, in the first volume of “Jesus of Nazareth” (Image, $20), wrote on the second Beatitude that there are two kinds of mourning. One kind that is decidedly not blessed is the kind that “has lost hope, that has become mistrustful of love and truth … and destroys man from within.” Mourning that is blessed “heals, because it teaches man to hope and love again.” Blessed mourning, then, comes about because our souls have been pierced by truth and realize that we need to convert and turn away from sin.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is essential for our salvation. Our sins damage our relationship to God. The early Eastern Fathers called confession a second baptism. The tears of compunction were thought to be the water of repentance.
Introspection, an acknowledgment that we sin, and compunction are ideas that are increasingly alien to the culture we are embedded in. But Christians know that we are but pilgrims on this earth. We are on a journey toward our true home in heaven.
Lent is a time to remember that we are on pilgrimage. The Gospel of Luke is told as a journey that Jesus makes from the lowest geographical point, Jericho, to Jerusalem, which is on much higher ground. In Lent, we embark on a similar journey. We follow Jesus through the desert of temptation to the cross on the hill of Golgotha.
But our journey, although a tearful one, does not end there. On Easter, we encounter the empty tomb and the glorious resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Our hearts are pierced, but we know that we have reason for our hope.
Let us pray for the spirit of compunction this Lent so that we may be able to meet the Risen Christ at Easter and say with St. Paul in Galatians 2:20, “Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” Alleluia.
SUSAN KEHOE is co-director of RCIA at Christ the King Parish in Des Moines, Iowa, along with her husband, Deacon Larry Kehoe. She writes at adeaconswife.com.