There’s a great story about St. Margaret Mary Alacoque who, when she first started recieving visions of our Lord Jesus, did the very sensible Catholic thing and consulted her confessor about them. The confessor – a private-revelation-is-stupid kind of man – assumed that the visions were from the devil. He gave her a series of questions to ask Him, in order to prove He was who He said He was. The vision answered all the questions truthfully, but the confessor was not convinced. He told St. Margaret to go back and ask the vision, “What sins did I confess yesterday?”She did, and returned to him confused. “What did he say?” the confessor asked. “He told me he did not know,” she responded simply. “He has forgotten.” And from that point on the confessor believed her, for only God forgets our sins – the devil uses them against us.
Think about that. Our Lord doesn’t merely forgive our sins. He forgets them. This raises an obvious paradox, or perhaps just an obvious problem: How can an all-knowing God forget? Does that not contradict his very nature? The answer – I think – is that sin is the only thing our God must forget, for sin is the only thing not of God. In God, there is no distinction between forgiving and forgetting. If God and man are reconciled, how can an infinite being “remember” that which is not of Him and – because of reconciliation – is no longer a part of his beloved creation? The sin, quite simply, does not exist.
Of course, this leaves us humans in a unique situation for – being fallen – sin is very much a part of us, as human as a glass of beer and American as cherry pie. It has been said that sin is the only thing we can really be proud of, for all else is the grace of God. Which is beautiful – really – because it’s also the one thing we should never be proud of. But regardless, we remember where God forgets. God pulls out the arrows we shoot ourselves with, but wounds remain; we call them guilt.
The common view of the matter is that guilt is a Very Bad Thing. What is modernism but an attempt to erase guilt? What is our culture of moral relativism, our pro-choice, co-habitating, be-true-to-yourself, find-your-own-right-and-wrong world than a massive attempt to cover up our wounds; a bad attempt at soothing our aching souls; an evasion of sin by the evasion of the confessional? And even within Christianity, there is a mentality of “be free” that equates guilt with sin; just the result of an evil act that should be avoided like the act itself. There is truth to this, but I’d like to flip it upside-down, with a few reservations.
Guilt is a gift. God forgets our sins, but he allows us to remember. Guilt is the reminder that sin is not part of our nature – it is the rebellion of the soul, as the body rebels against a foreign disease. Like so much in Catholicism, guilt meets us at the very human, very flesh and bone area of our lives – it is not vague, not some state of sorrow reached by thoughtful meditation – it is guilt, and it follows sin. Because we don’t like guilt, it makes it easier to avoid the sins we do like, as one might avoid chocolate for fear of the inevitable calories, or liquor for the fear of a hangover. Hey, that’s good: Guilt is a hangover. Now, if we were good and shiny-souled Catholics, the mere fact that sin is wrong would be enough to lend us haloes and turn us into immaculate beings. But – and I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this before – we suck at our religion, and God is very aware of it. So we have the gift of a hangover, the gift of guilt to meet us in a very real and inevitable way, to help us stop sinning.
But all things in moderation, my friends — guilt included. If it shows us the error in our ways and helps us overcome sin, then it is good, but if it leads to despair, to not believing we are — or can be — forgiven, then the guilt is garbage, a lie whispered into our ears about our own inadequacy. Let guilt do it’s job, feel sorrow for your sin, but wear it lightly and joyfully, for it is not pulling us down, put pushing us a little closer to holiness.