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Yes to remorse, no to guilt

29 November 2013

A penitential season is something positive, says David Bryant

Weighed down: Peter Lorre in the 1935 film version ofCrime and Punishment

Weighed down: Peter Lorre in the 1935 film version ofCrime and Punishment

TAKE a deep breath before Advent. The traditional themes of death, judgement, hell, and heaven are weighty enough to make the hardiest soul stagger.

Add to this the psalmist's dismal cry: "I am a worm," and the Prayer Book's relentless reiteration that we are miserable sinners, and you will find yourself heading for a massive guilt complex. This can become destructive. We need to search for a Christian response to wrongdoing which can heal us.

Guilt founders in various ways. It is self-hatred, a defamation of our own character; any loathing, whether for another or for ourselves, is poisonous. Guilt sets up an insoluble conflict between what we are and what we think we should be.

This inner struggle can fuel despair and lead to a fractured personality. It is what ripped St Paul apart. "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it" (Romans 8.18).

This is not just a private struggle. It seeps out into the world, affecting every encounter we have. If we cannot accept ourselves, it is improbable that we will embrace others generously. Guilt is profoundly at odds with the second great commandment.

It has a last, sly trick up its sleeve. If we are not watchful, it can descend into an ego trip, a self-glorification. My sins are so important that they warrant all God's attention, even his wrath. Members of the clergy will know that peccadilloes are sometimes blown out of all proportion, in order to bring about a kind of warped importance in the penitent.

To dismiss guilt summarily may seem like dishing out carte blanche to adopt an amoral tone, to do what we want and damn the consequences. But that would be to jump the gun. For guilt has a fair cousin: remorse.

Remorse is upbeat and constructive. It has no truck with a brooding, inward-turning judgement. Instead, it thrusts us into a self-improvement mode.

Remorse starts with contrition, burgeons into expiation, and is finalised in resolve. We feel sorry, put matters right as far as possible, and then find the will to move forward. Yes, that act was shabby. I'll have a shot at improving things from now on. Sometimes, all that is needed is a letter of regret, or a request for forgiveness, a kiss, or a touch.

If our failure centres on an abandonment of God, we can take a leaf out of St Augustine's book: "Late have I loved you, O beauty so ancient, so new." He owns up, but instead of getting bogged down in a mire of self-recrimination, he moves on, and turns the future into a dynamic pilgrimage. "Now I pant for you . . . now I hunger and thirst for you."

This jettisoning of guilt brought liberation and joy to Christian in The Pilgrim's Progress: "The burden tumbled off, dropped into the sepulchre. Then was Christian glad and lightsome."

It can do the same for us. The Church offers plenty of stepping-stones to remorse: the Gospels' repeated affirmation that God is loving and forgiving, the absolution in the Sunday liturgy, and the sacrament of confession.

At the end of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky's towering story of guilt and remorse, the penniless, murderous student Raskolnikov, encouraged by the Christlike prostitute Sonia, heaves himself out of an endless sea of disgust and despair. He confesses his crime, and heads for Siberia to serve his punishment of exile, resolved to transform his whole being. At that point, his guilt loses its demonic hold, and he experiences "a presentiment of future resurrection and a new life". I cannot think of a more apt parable for Advent.

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire.

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