My nothingness must kneel below Thy Cross …
Jesus commends the tax collector in the Temple (Lk 18:9-14): This man went home justified. The Lord praises him because the man prayed: O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. He prayed the prayer of contrition.
The Catechism defines contrition as “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sins committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (1451).
Facing the horror of our sins may be the most difficult thing imaginable. But, as the Catholic author George Bernanos reassures us, by contrition we enter within ourselves only to die to sin, “and that is where God awaits us.” Or as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it, “It’s here in all the pieces of my shame / that now I find myself again.”
Keep in mind: To possess the knowledge of our sins is to be blessed with a precious grace God grants as a gift. No matter how distressing and off-putting it may feel, that knowledge is power. Because it is in the very knowledge of how lost and miserable we are as a result of our sins that God desires to bind ourselves to himself. For if God is the one who enables us to see the truth of our sinfulness—with all its shame and humiliation and repulsion—then God even more gives us the grace through that awareness to cling to him. St. Augustine counsels us well: “Let us never assume that if we live good lives we will be without sin; our lives should be praised only when we continue to beg for pardon.”
Here’s an effective way to adapt the tax collector’s prayer. Recite the main part of the prayer—Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner—and then stick on one of your actual sins: …have mercy on me a sinner: selfish. Do that over and over until you run out of sins: …have mercy on me a sinner: impatient…envious…angry…ungrateful. If I want to stay at prayer for a long, long time, that’s how I pray.
The grace of contrition is captured in a moving way by Catholic World War I war poet Siegfried Sassoon:
Bring no assurance of redeemed rest,
no intimation of awarded grace.
Only contrition, cleavingly confessed
to Thy forgiving face.
I ask one world of everlasting loss in all I am,
that other world to win.
My nothingness must kneel below Thy Cross.
There let new life begin.
kneel below Thy Cross …