A friend of mine once said, “Guilt is a completely worthless emotion.” She, like me, had grown up in a conservative denomination and wrestled with a heightened sense of guilt. Many contemporary writers seemed to have joined the assault on feeling guilty. Several books including some of my favorites have joined the anti-guilt ethos of the day. The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning to name just one.
Indeed, the problems with perpetual guilt feeling are numerous. Guilt cheats happiness and frequently impedes spiritual growth. But I wonder if guilt doesn’t need to be re-examined. When I was a boy, Sunday School teachers were fond of making the distinction between conviction (being convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit) and guilt. The conviction of the Holy Spirit remains until we have repented. Guilt remains whether we repent or not and often we feel guilt for things that we really ought not feel guilty about. Building on those early thoughts, I thought I would try to make a few other observations clarifying the difference between guilt and conviction.
DISCERNMENT–Discernment is a process of spiritual decision making. It involves our own intelligence in conversation with scripture, tradition and the faith community of which we are a part. When you experience feelings of guilt try to locate the source of the principle you feel you have violated. For instance, many people feel guilty for being late for an appointment. Where do we get the idea that being late is a bad thing? Primarily, we get it from our culture. To say that doesn’t mean its OK to be perpetually late. There are many advantages for being on time to things. It is, after all, a show of respect to the person with whom you have an appointment. But, there’s nothing particularly godly about punctuality or ungodly about being late. Once you have identified the location of the principle, rate the offesne of terms of its real seriousness. We often feel guilt that is out of proportion to the offense.
EXAMINE–Is the thing that’s nagging at you really your fault? If so, what specifically is your fault? Often times people take actions or make statements that upset other people. They will try to apologize when they realize that another person’s feelings were hurt. Yet, we cannot control other people’s feelings nor assume responsibility for them. We must know what we believe to be the ethical and sensitive way to communicate something and try to communicate in ethical and sensitive ways. If we have done that and people are still offended, it may not be our fault.
CHOOSE A DIRECTION–Confessing sins to God is a good first step; however, we often need to try to repair the relationship that has been hurt by our sin. Along these lines, we have to make a choice. We should reconcile where possible and apologize when necessary. At the same time, we need to ask whether trying to address the hurt wouldn’t raise more pain than relieve. It’s all very difficult. But ultimately we should learn from our offense and seek to correct our past mistakes with our future actions.
I think better when the space I’m in is uncluttered.
Too many interruptions intrude on communication. I should make bracketed comments sparingly.
I may have to learn to write more directly on the fly.
Currently I am reading Ranier Maria Rilke’s poems that have been selected, translated and commented upon by Robert Bly. I don’t know enough about poetry to evaluate Rilke’s literary merit. His poetry seems to verge on obsessively introspective. But, I have become enthralled by one poem—“Der Schauende” translated “The Man Watching” by Bly. I don’t know what copyright laws apply here so I want reproduce the total poem here. The poem begins by the describing the changes to the earth which come through storms, wind and weather. He then shifts to assessing our human experience.
“What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we could let ourselves be dominated
as things do by immense storm
we would become strong too, and not need names.”
He makes reference to Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel though he speaks of wrestling matches as though it occurred more than once and with more people than Jacob. He suggests that Jacob grew, became strong and sought growth not through the mastery of the world but through the submission to the divine elements that confronted him. The final lines of the poem: “This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, /by constantly greater things.”
Two thoughts occurred to me as I read and re-read this poem. First, that Rilke identifies not only with nature but also with a particular biblical character. It seems that identification with biblical heroes does not occur as much anymore. Nor, does it seem that we really want any heroes. Have we lost a sense that ancient myths stand in our place? That we can fight our battles through them. Win with them. Lose with them. Struggle and renew the struggle with them? Have we lost our ability to choose a mythical hero to be our hero? Have we lost it because so many were violent? Or that too few were women? Or because all were flawed? We lap up at the pools of scandals but do not want even the scent of one on us. So we deny heroes. Deny them because to say, “I am of Paul” is forbidden. Forbidden by Paul, yes, but with qualifications. Forbidden also by ourselves. Forbidden by our surroundings that believe the secrets people hide disqualify the virtues people wear.
Can our ship tossed about by life’s wind and waves not be Noah’s Ark? Can we not see bush’s burn or be guided by clouds Do people no longer leave nets simply at the sound of a voice? Can I not wrestle with the angel along side Jacob and in wrestling grow stronger.
The other thought that occurs to me concerns the idea of submission. Rilke’s poem suggest submission to divine or noble purposes. Read with a certain masculine lens, the whole suggestion of being defeated to grow stronger is anathema. We master, overcome, triumph, manage and manipulate. Yet Christ’s call is precisely the call to be “defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.” In particular, to be conquered decisively by God which is a metaphor for submission to God’s will. We can fill our lives pursuing the goals we set for ourselves and manage to accomplish little of merit or we can allow God’s vision for us to overwhelm and guide us and move forward in growth.
Holy Week has long been the most important week of my annual spiritual journey. The Saturday of Holy Week–Holy Saturday–seems an appropriate time to begin this web journal. I welcome you to share in my journey. I pray that you find yourself growing in faith, hope and love. I pray that you know the power of Resurrection this Easter and for many Easters to come.
Grace and Peace