“Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but, most of all because I have offended you, My God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of Your grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”
I have been praying this Act of Contrition daily since March as part of a Prayer to Stem the Spread of the COVID-19 virus. This experience has led me to a new appreciation of this old prayer.
It begins with a heartfelt “I’m sorry.” The focus of this deep sorrow is not the shame of our sins. It is not the kind of sorrow that is expressed when we say, “I can’t believe I did that.” The sorrow is not focused on our wretchedness. Rather it is focused on the fact that our choices have offended God. I wonder how often we reflect on that. God loves us. Jesus revealed that central truth. In our sins we offend the one who loves us very much. In my own life, the deepest sorrow I have encountered wells up from the awareness that I have hurt someone who loves me. Likewise, this prayer calls us to explore the sorrow that comes from offending the God who loves us.
The resolution of this prayer is our firm rejection of sin. This is crucial. We must want to not sin again. Another way of saying that is we must be detached from our sin. Quite often I find that I dislike the sin I have engaged in, but at the same time, I really do not want to change my behavior.
I want to hold on to what I think I am gaining from my sin. Truth be told, attachment to sin contradicts our expression of sorrow. It speaks to our failure to accept the depth of God’s love for us.
We are then given two reasons if you will, to detest our sins. The first is called imperfect contrition. I am sorry and reject my sins because if I don’t, I can be separated from God for all eternity. Simply said, if we persist in our sins, we will lose the “prize” of life in heaven. In other words, this prayer reminds us that we are not playing a game here. We are in a pitched battle for our salvation. God offers us that gift in his great love, but we have to respond, and our response is critical to our receiving what God offers. This contrition is imperfect because it focuses on us and what we might lose. Imperfect does not mean it is bad and, thankfully, God loves us so much that imperfect contrition is sufficient to forgive sins.
The second reason given for our sorrow and detesting of our sin takes us back to the beginning of the prayer. I hate my sin because I know it offends the God who loves me and who deserves all my love in return. We are brought back to the essence of the prayer and the essence of our confession of sin. We want to love the God who first loved us. This is called perfect contrition. This prayer invites us to strive for this more perfect contrition with our hearts focused on God and his love for us.
At the end then, we make a clear and firm resolution. We are not just going through the moments. We stand up to be counted. Yet we know that apart from the help of God, none of this is possible. We can quite easily sin by our own power and that power is strong. God’s love is stronger, and we need that love of God poured into our lives. We need God’s grace to do what it is that we firmly resolve to do.
True resolution requires confession. It is essential that we say out loud how we have sinned. We make our sin real by speaking the truth to another who can hear both our sin and our sorrow, the priest who is the human face of the merciful and loving Jesus. We also must do penance and amend our lives. We do something concrete by offering a prayer or kind action that moves us away from the sin we detest and toward the love God has brought us to in this prayer.
The Act of Contrition is a beautiful and rich prayer that clearly expresses our understanding of contrition and confession.