guilty thoughts

For there is a hospital for sinners... ~ St. John Chrysostom


Close to the woodstove, testing the ability to cross legs on the rug (for a short while) even at this grand old age, the mind gets notions (or delusions) that it can word the thing inside it.

One of the lines I relate to in the first Toy Story movie is exclaimed by the dinosaur toy, Rex, just after the loveable crew in the moving van discovers they have misjudged their friend Woody's actions. They've tossed him, literally, onto the street, but suddenly they realize Woody has actually been working with their other friend Buzz Lightyear to make it back to their boy, Andy. Rex laments, "Now I have guilt!"

What an interesting use of language. In life, on the other side of things, no one says, "Whew, now I have innocence." But guilt, that is a feeling I often have. Or think I do.

Yet I can't, as a Christian reading the Bible, find a verse saying, "You need to have guilt. Go get it this minute. It's God's will for you to wallow in the depths of its dungeon."

Those sorts of words don't come from God. I think those instructions have been my own message to myself. To be more precise, they're the script of my ego, when I find myself dealing with my own sin. The evidence is convincing to me, the longer I trundle along life's highway, that I have used what I call guilt to help me hide from the fact that I sin. It's really very handy. I focus on the emotion, the guilty feelings I manufacture inside. I try to whip them into something gravy-ish, thick with dourness and despair. I can't believe I did that, but, wow, I did. I must punish myself to the full extent of...of...

The author Christos Yannaras was at our humble church this past Sunday. He spoke about guilt as a Western phenomenon. I'm still in process regarding his talk, and I'm planning to read at least one of his books soon (Christmas list, here I come). While I don't remember all he said, I know it resonated well with the things I've entered into at the Orthodox Christian services. One can express some of what's going on as the difference between heritages in the East and West. It makes sense to me that we Americans have been delivered a lot of legal notions via our heritage. I'm not saying my heritage is nonsense. I just find statements from early in Christianity, that haven't been much emphasized "over here" for a thousand or so years, compelling.

John Chrysostom, who died in the fifth century, carried forward the thoughts of Church fathers from long before his lifetime when he wrote this:
Enter into the Church and wash away your sins. For there is a hospital for sinners and not a court of law. Do not be ashamed again to enter the Church; be ashamed when you sin but not when you repent.

If those sentiments were accompanied by an idea that I am somehow up to snuff for repenting, that I can "now have innocent" feelings, then I wouldn't give the Church's instruction on this matter a second thought. I know how attractively tempting is the idea that repenting in faith toward God can be a set it and forget it sort of thing. It's not.

Guilt in the true sense is a descriptive term. When I do wrong, I am guilty, no matter what I feel. The emotion of sorrow is then appropriate. There is a godly sorrow, as the apostle Paul expressed it, that leads to repentance. Once again, after repenting, I am treated for my malady of sin. I'm washed and I'm healthier.

Worldly sorrow is the thing I tend to call "having guilt." Rather than bringing me health, it directs me to the dungeon, guides me blindly toward death. I think, when I go there, it's me dealing with me.

When I repent I turn again toward God. My bones which have been humbled are strengthened; they rejoice in the glimpse once more of wholeness. I am presented another vista of Life.



Dee Ready said…
Dear Deanna, Having been raised a Roman Catholic, I'm familiar with much of the language you used in this posting. However, I'm no longer comfortable with it. I seldom ever use the word "sin" or "repentance." I think that I've become a humanist and so my words differ now from those I used in the past--as a child studying the Baltimore Catechism and as a Benedictine nun. "Guilt" is another word I don't think about much. I can feel remorse that I've said something inadvertently that may have hurt someone and I can feel doubtful of my own motives often, but I don't think that I feel guilty any longer. Guilt is associated in my mind with committing a crime. Most of us don't commit crimes, we fail at kindness or compassion. For me, such a failure means that I must be more aware of others. I must listen better. And that realization comes to me, not with guilt but with resolve to do better as a human being. To realize within myself the full beauty of humanness. Peace.
Deanna said…
Hi, Dee. I appreciate what you say about being uncomfortable with certain language. I can imagine there have been hurtful times associated with the terms that maybe carry a lot of baggage for you. I haven't experienced judgment from others, but I know secondhand that it is hurtful. I don't think I'll ever be a humanist (if I understand the term) -- belief and trust in a loving God has been my experience -- but I think lately perhaps I'm becoming a "humanity-ist". I do believe humanity is wonderfully created by God but that humankind is also broken. My experience of myself is my example. For instance, I might be interacting with my husband, get irritated, and shout at him in anger. It's not premeditated, but I know I've done wrong. I have committed a crime, then, I guess, against the universe (or against what I call creation). And that, to me, is sin. Then I know I need to say or show in some way that I was/did wrong. As you put it, there is remorse in me over a failure. Admitting my failure is a gift, because then I get another chance to listen better, to do better. A lot of times, as some people put it, I simply fail better. But I want what is better, and so I want to keep turning toward that after I see again that I have failed.
Dee Ready said…
Dear Deanna, what a lovely and gracious response you wrote to my first comment. Thank you for being so accepting of our differences. You are an inspiration. Peace and Happy Thanksgiving.