Thursday, March 09, 2006


Even though the Lord’s mercy is boundless, we cannot afford to be presumptuous. We seem to have stubborn (and sometimes clever) ways of avoiding genuine repentance, which is a change of heart and behavior, and hence, despite our supposed piety and our superficial or perhaps even self-deceiving “trust in God’s mercy” (which can degenerate into little more than presumed permission to sin), we may be in fact living unrepentant lives.

The following is an excerpt from a prayer by St Augustine, who had no illusions about human nature. It was sent to me by Fredi D’Alessio and is posted on his site (, which I encourage you to visit for its Catholic spirit and strong pro-life message. (Since I haven’t yet figured out how to make a link out of his address, you’ll just have to paste it into your browser.) Anyway, here goes:

“Before Thine eyes, O Lord, we bring our sins, and compare them with the stripes we have received. If we examine the evil we have wrought, what we suffer is little, what we deserve is great. What we have committed is very grievous, what we have suffered is slight. We feel the punishment of sin, yet withdraw not from the obstinacy of sinning. Under Thy lash our inconstancy is visited, but our sinfulness is not changed. Our suffering soul is tormented, but our neck is not bent. Our life groans under sorrow, yet amends not in deed. If Thou spare us, we correct not our ways; if Thou punish, we cannot endure it. In time of correction we confess our wrongdoing; after Thy visitation we forget that we have wept. If Thou stretchest forth Thy hand, we promise amendment; if Thou witholdest the sword, we keep not our promise. If Thou strikest, we cry out for mercy; if Thou sparest, we again provoke Thee to strike.”

I can hardly say more. This is such an incisive commentary on the human condition, or rather, the human spiritual condition. It exposes not only our weakness, but our deviousness as well. We are given an insight into why we don’t really change or grow very much. The prayer reveals that we live, more often than not, as hirelings or slothful servants instead of sons and daughters. It manifests our self-interest, our desire only to escape punishment, but not to return love for love. It also makes clear the psychology of the modern creators of the “non-judging God”: they’re only looking for an excuse to persist in sin. He spares us (they assume), so we correct not our ways.

That prayer of St Augustine may be a revelation for us, perhaps a painful, though salutary one. We might wish incorporate it into our examination of conscience. We may find, to our dismay, that after having blithely consigned the unrepentant to the flames, we ourselves are shown to be unrepentant, at least by the Saint’s criteria. I’ve usually considered myself to be repentant, but I think I have to re-examine myself in the light of that prayer. Icons of unrepentance abound in today's news, but we have to make sure there isn't one hidden in our own souls.

It’s time to get serious about Lent: not merely about its external rites or about superficial practices that don’t reach the soul, but about true repentance. Christians, we must be different, the word of God must be life to us—or else let us be honest enough to hand in our baptismal certificates and retain only our secular IDs. Those who truly belong to Christ will not be found unrepentant.