At least twice in the past ten years or so I have unsuccessfully attempted to learn Spanish. I had learned enough by 1997 to hold a very rudimentary conversation, which helped when I was on a pilgrimage to see Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. But because of a shortage of time and of people to practice with, I’ve unfortunately forgotten most of what I had learned. Since I’m busier now than ever, I despair of ever having the time to try it again. But I do remember a few things.
Spanish is a language of music and passion. When you want to say “I’m sorry,” for example, you say Lo siento, which literally means “I feel it.” Perhaps this expression has something to teach us about our own experience of repentance. Do we “feel it” in our souls, in our guts, when we have offended God or another person? Are we moved to repentance? Or do we merely say “I’m sorry” the same way we might say “excuse me” when bumping into someone in a crowd?
Repentance begins with an awareness that we have turned from God, spurned his commandments and counsels, and grieved his loving heart. To confess our sins is not (or shouldn’t be) merely the more or less indifferent acknowledgement of having violated one or another of the divine precepts, saying a perfunctory prayer, and then going away with a “clean slate.” To sin is to pierce the Heart of Christ, who willingly made Himself vulnerable to our wickedness out of his everlasting love for us. On the Cross, Jesus uttered, in effect, the Lo siento of all mankind before God, and He felt it in every cell of his tortured body, in the depths of his anguished soul. Therefore repentance is not a small or routine matter. He felt the sting of our sins. We have to feel our contrition.
This doesn’t mean that we have to try to generate a lot of emotional sorrow (especially if that would be merely a pious façade). But it means that we must be sufficiently aware of what we have done, of who it is we have hurt or offended, and how important it is to repent—that is, to resolve to change our hearts and behavior—in a genuine and sincere manner.
I recently went to confession, and I had all this on my mind. While the ritual itself wasn’t (and need not be) an emotional or dramatic experience, I was more aware of the need to be attuned to the gift of grace and mercy, to feel something stir within the soul. We must realize that God doesn’t “owe” us the forgiveness of our sins just because we more or less reluctantly show up at the confessional. He forgives us because He loves us, and the crucifix is a perpetual testimony to that self-sacrificing love. All of our complaints, arguments, and excuses wither before the image of the crucified God. He has a right to expect from us a heartfelt recognition of the defiling, destructive nature of sin, as well as of the healing, saving nature of his immeasurable compassion. When his merciful love comes to our sinful yet contrite hearts, we “feel it.”
As I was leaving the church where I made my confession, I stopped for a moment at a large crucifix, trying to understand a little more of the love that drove Him to suffer so that my sins might be forgiven. I approached and gently touched his pierced foot, one of those wounds by which we are healed. Softly, I said: “Lo siento.”