Sometimes, the two hardest words in the English language to say are “I’m sorry.” It means swallowing pride, admitting fault and promising to do better next time.
Whether I’m apologizing to my husband, my friends or my daughters, it’s challenging to admit I was wrong and ask for forgiveness. The same is true in my relationship with God. I know that my sins hurt his heart, but encountering him in the Sacrament of Confession is something I struggle with. But over the past few months, the practice that’s helped me grow in my interior life is focusing on contrition.
Contrition is sorrow for our sins, as well as the resolve to not commit those sins again. There are two types of contrition: perfect and imperfect. With perfection contrition, we’re sorry for our sins because of the pain they caused Christ. With imperfect contrition, we’re sorrowful because sin is ugly and we don’t want to spend eternity in hell. Both kinds of contrition open us up to the grace we need to strive for holiness, but we should aim for perfect contrition in our journey back to the heart of the Father — sorrow that is rooted in love, not fear.
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St. Francis de Sales, the Bishop of Geneva and renowned spiritual director, knew the challenge of growing in true contrition. That’s why he dedicated 10 meditations on the subject in his spiritual classic, “Introduction to the Devout Life.” Here are the subjects that St. Francis recommends to stir up perfect contrition for your sins and to grow in intimacy with God:
1. Until a few years ago, your soul was nonexistent
The first step in recognizing how much our sins hurt the heart of Christ is remembering who we are in relation to the Lord. Humility reminds us that God is the creator of all things and, simply put, we are not God. “Consider that but a few years ago, you were not born into the world, and your soul was as yet non-existent,” St. Francis explains. “Where were you then, O my soul? The world was already old, and yet of you there was no sign.”
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and praise his holy name with all your being, because his goodness called me forth from nothingness, and his mercy created me.”*
2. God desires to show his goodness in you
Although God does not need us, he still created us and loves us. So why do we exist here on this earth? “God did not bring you into the world because he had any need of you,” St. Francis reminds us. “But solely that he might show forth his goodness in you, giving you his grace and glory.”
“My God, of what was I thinking when I did not think of you? What did I remember when I forgot you?”
3. The Lord has given you innumerable material, mental and spiritual gifts
The key to growing in sorrow for our sins is developing a deeper gratitude for the gifts God blesses us with. St. Francis recommends spending time reflecting on all the ways that the Lord provides. Think about the spiritual, physical, mental and emotional gifts you’ve received from God. “Marvel at God’s goodness,” St. Francis writes. “How good he has been to me, how abundant in mercy and plenteous in loving kindness!”
“O my soul, be no more so faithless and disloyal to your mighty benefactor! How should not my whole soul serve the Lord, who has done such great things in me and for me?”
4. Every day, sin has multiplied in your heart
It follows logically that to grow in sorrow for our sins we have to reflect on the actual sins themselves. “Consider your evil tendencies, and how far you have followed them,” St. Francis writes. “These two points will show you that your sins are more in number than the hairs on your head, or the sand on the seashore.”
“Have mercy, Lord, on me a sinner!”
5. There is no way to be certain of when you will die
We don’t know the day or the hour that the Lord will call us to himself. We don’t know how we’ll die, who will be there, or anything about the circumstances. “Of all of these things we know absolutely nothing,” St. Francis writes. “All that we know is that die we shall, and for the most part sooner than we expect.”
“Lord, I will thoroughly examine the state of my conscience, and put in order whatever is wanting.”
6. Consider the majesty of the Lord on the day of judgment
When we pass from this life into the next, we’ll meet the Lord and surely be in awe of all his glory. “Consider the majesty with which the sovereign judge will appear surrounded by all his saints and angels,” writes St. Francis de Sales. “His Cross, the sign of grace to the good and terror to the evil, shining brighter than the sun.”
“Tremble, my soul, at the thought. O God, who will be my stay in that hour when the pillars of the earth are shaken?”
7. The greatest suffering in hell is being apart from God’s glory
St. Francis invites his readers to picture themselves in the dark city of hell. It smells of fire and sulfur, and the citizens who live in this city can never escape, despite their best efforts. While the torture of hell is awful to imagine, there is an even greater suffering than the pain of the flames. “Beyond all these sufferings, there is one greater still, the privation and pain of loss of God’s glory which is forever denied to their vision,” St. Francis writes.
“Can I bear to lose my God forever?”
8. Consider the bright and blessed beauty of heaven
We each have memories of a beautiful, calm night, a small glimpse into the eternal peace of heaven. “Add to the beauty of such a night the utmost beauty of a glorious summer’s day — the sun’s brightness not hindering the clear shining of moon or stars, and then be sure that it all falls immeasurably short of the glory of paradise,” St. Francis writes.
“How could I neglect such treasures for mere vain and contemptible earthly matters?”
9. God desires to spend eternity with you
St. Francis invites us to imagine the Lord offering us the choice of eternity with him or eternity without him. “God … desires unspeakably that you should select paradise; and your good angel is urging you with all his might to do so, offering you countless graces on God’s part, countless helps to attain to it,” St. Francis reflects.
“Jesus, I accept your eternal love and praise you for the promise you have given me of a place prepared for me.”
10. Imagine encountering Christ after loving him with your whole heart
At first glance, these reflection points can seem harsh and jarring. But encountering our sin and the way that our sins hurt Christ’s heart isn’t supposed to be a pleasant experience. Maybe you’ve had a time in your life where your apology to a dear friend left you in tears, devastated that your actions caused them so much sorrow. That’s a small taste of what true contrition in our relationship with Christ looks like.
When we open ourselves up to the grace Christ offers us to grow in perfect contrition for our sins, we’re preparing ourselves for the day when we’ll meet Christ face to face. Then, we hope, we’ll experience what St. Francis writes of that day: “The crucified King himself calls you by your own name: ‘Come, O my beloved, come, and let me crown you!”
“O Jesus, I remain faithful to you with all the powers of my soul, I adore you with all my heart, and I choose you now and forever as my king.”
*Editor’s note: All quotes in italics are from St. Francis de Sales.