Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Put Guilt in Perspective

Dear Friends,

We say that Lent is a time of preparation for Easter. It is, above all, that. On the other hand, so much of Lenten literature talks about sin, the forgiveness of sin, and when possible reconciliation with people and most especially, reconciliation with God. How do these ideas work together?

The way we prepare for Easter is to clean up the internal mess of the year, or perhaps, the internal  mess we have been carrying along for a long time. Whichever we work at, the job is arduous and time-consuming, so be ready. The new clothes of Easter are part of our faith tradition. We put on the new when  we’ve done away with or diminished the sinful, the destructive in us and have welcomed Christ and His way.

One factor related to the internal mess which we don’t find discussed much is guilt. The late, great American humorist, Erma Bombeck, hit the nail on the head when she told her audience: “Guilt is the gift we keep giving ourselves.” That’s often the case. Many of us seem to have accepted guilt in our lives as we have accepted the shape of our hands or the color of our eyes.

The writer Michael E. Cavanaugh says that “Guilt is the feeling of discomfort or shame we experience when we have done something we consider wrong, bad or immoral. Guilt can be either a help or a hindrance to emotional and spiritual growth.” 

Deep down, we know that when we behave according to what our conscience says is right and good, we do not ordinarily experience guilt. Coming to grips with the many ways guilt can distort us is useful and hard. We don’t want to admit that friends, spouses, children and parents can feed the guilt that threatens to overwhelm us. It goes the other way, too. We can add strength to the guilt others experience.

At times, we want to suppress guilt. Other times we wallow in it. Will guilt rule us or not? Sometimes , we use God as a club.  “If you don’t do what I say, God will get you…” we say,  or something similar.
How can we handle guilt in a constructive way? Three things are important:

1.Acknowledge the feeling of guilt. “I feel guilty when… I feel guilty that…”
2.Determine whether the guilt is appropriate or not. (Get help to sort out whether it is or isn’t.)
3.If it is, make amends, so that you can feel at one with yourself and at one with others.

If it is not appropriate, let go of it. Send it away on the winds and be clean.
Our communities, other individuals, our God can help us in the process of dealing constructively with our guilt. But the first step in the process is ours.

During this Lenten season, put guilt into perspective.
God did not save us only for us to overwhelm ourselves.

~Joan Sobala, SSJ