03 November 2008

A Little Guilt . . .

When did it become fashionable to avoid guilt? So many times, I've heard Catholics complain about the guilt they were taught. I'm not judging that - as I've mentioned I grew up Protestant. But my contemporaries that grew up before Vatican II obviously suffered; the fury over it is palpable even today, more than forty years later.

I just wonder if there is some middle ground, when it comes to guilt. I have often joked that I am probably the world's worst Catholic: having grown up liberal Protestant, I had no sense of guilt. Sure, I had enough to form Christian conscience, but not the kind of deep all-encompassing guilt that leads to self-loathing, which I see in some lifelong Catholics. I have to qualify the statement with "some Catholics" because so many grew up and lived devout lives and were not eaten up by guilt. Somehow, they had a different understanding of it - a healthier understanding of it. Why? . . .

Perhaps the chance that an individual would see guilt not as a monster but as a tool, depended upon the particular priest of the parish and the mood which was set; perhaps it depended more upon home environment - the way the faith was taught. It is fascinating to me as a bit of an outsider, that there is so little middle ground. Either an individual seems to have benefitted from the Catholic childhood, or they have vowed never to set foot in a Catholic church again.

I have read my previous posts which deal with my frustration at my own lack of spiritual strength, and I wonder if an angry former Catholic would read them and hear something they understand as guilt. This troubles me, and I feel a need to speak to it.

I suppose there is a little bit of guilt there, certainly, but it isn't something I feel beaten by, or attacked by. Rather, I feel challenged by it. For me, one of the very valuable things I have found in Catholicism is the emphasis on self-examination. It often seems to me that Protestants - and this is more true the more fundamentalist the group - like to look outside of themselves for sin; a lot of energy is put into critiquing the behavior of others, pointing out to others their shortcomings. But Christ told us to remove the log from our own eyes before looking at the speck in our brother's. This is so often forgotten in the Protestant churches.

That is my point: Catholic faith emphasizes self-examination through its prayers, the very act of frequent confession, the ideology of penance and contrition. Although Protestantism incorporates these ideas to an extent, the same emphasis on self-evolution isn't there.

I appreciate the challenge that Catholicism presents to me as an individual to look at myself every day, to set spiritual goals, to carry on a dialog between myself and Christ in order to improve myself. Not only is there little or no emphasis on worrying about others' sins, but to do so works against the virtue of humility. (I could write another essay on Humility!) The Catholic faith by its very structure demands self-examination above examination of others.

And Guilt - is that such a bad thing anyway? I can agree that we need not walk around feeling so guilty that we feel defeated; this ideology ignores the essential truth of Christian thought that we are all sinners and all have God's love regardless. But guilt that compels one to constantly evolve, set moral standards, seek new spiritual goals, can only serve to force one to spiritual development.

The guilt I feel as I contemplate my own spiritual failures is profound and causes me a lot of pain, but it isn't something that I feel victimized by. I hold it separate from my sense of self-worth - which in fact grows as I feel closer to God. If anything, guilt is a gift - it spurs me on in the journey. It's a necessary pain through which I find so much enlightemment when all is said and done, and I find this over and over again.

Lord, thank you for making me aware of my shortcomings. Every thought, every awareness of them is a grace from you - for it allows me to know how to keep working toward you. These thoughts illuminate the path to you. Please don't stop showing me how I can be closer to that which you want me to be. Please keep opening my eyes to my true self, a little at a time, so that I can change a little at a time. Amen

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