Saturday, November 05, 2016

'My guilt towers higher than my head...'

Some thoughts as the Year of Mercy approaches its close...

My guilt towers higher than my head; it is a weight too heavy to bear.
The choir of Westminster Cathedral sings Psalm 37 (38).

Many of us in the West, most of the time, don't know what mercy means because we don't know what guilt means, and don't know what guilt means because we don't know what sin means.  But mercy is what we are hungering for all the same.

I have read C.S. Lewis somewhere pointing out the difference between being forgiven and being excused.  Our culture is very good at making excuses, particularly for the wrongdoings of grown adults, and then using syrupy pathos in novels and dramas or the sheer deluge of distraction to paper over any remaining cracks in the conscience.  Forgiveness, however, it finds more difficult.  Hence the hardening of our culture into extremes: certain misdeeds bring guilt crashing down irrevocably upon the wrongdoer, but anything short of this is unblotted innocence.  And notice a gradual slide into condemning persons along with their actions.

But I have a feeling that guilt, even for wrongs excused by our culture that would never make the headlines, accumulates into a sludge that in the end makes itself felt in all but the hardest of hearts.  Paradoxically, the abandonment of a Christian sense of penitence only strengthens this feeling, and in three ways that I can see.  Firstly, I think that modern morality allows the distinction to be blurred between an ordinary sense of weakness — not guilt but the feeling we all have of lacking the strength to achieve all we wish — and the awareness of having done wrong: some people, knowing that something is their fault, but unable to tell what, might be tempted to conclude that everything is.  

Secondly, these feelings are surely made all the more piercing by their foreignness to our culture.  'Through my sin, there is no health in my limbs'? 'My wounds are foul and festering, the result of my own folly'?  The dictatorship of relativism is baffled by such sentiments, so it forbids them.  For even if no other impulse is to be held back, guilt (and, incidentally, therefore also innocence) must be repressed.

Thirdly, since nobody mentions mercy, still less a merciful God, the way out is hidden.  Hence, I suppose, an enormous, vague, lonely wave of hollow pain with no outlet, expressed in the bone-dry aching words of the thirty-seventh psalm.  No wonder this is such an unhappy age.

Those of us who know, to greater or lesser extents, of this reality that rings with paradox — the possibility of the co-existence of justice with mercy — know too (therefore) that it is nothing to be smug or self-satisfied about.  We are bound by the reverse (but not the opposite) of the beatitude: those who are shown mercy are to be merciful.  Thus mercy, like other things, is meant to cascade down the terraces of the Church and shimmer between heaven and earth.

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