The Grace of Guilt, and Letting God Forgive
But at this time he had much to suffer from scruples. Although the general confession he had made at Montserrat had been entirely written out and made carefully enough, there still remained some things which from time to time he thought he had not confessed. This caused him a good deal of worry, for even though he had confessed it, his mind was never at rest. He began, therefore, to look for some spiritual man who would cure him of his scruples, but without success. Finally a doctor of the Cathedral Church, a very spiritual man who preached there, told him one day in confession to write out all he could remember. He did so. But after confessing it his scruples returned, each time becoming more minute, so that he became quite upset, and although he knew that these scruples were doing him much harm and that it would be good to be rid of them, he could not shake them off. Sometimes he thought the cure would be for the confessor to tell him in the name of Jesus Christ never to mention anything of the past, and he wished that his confessor would so direct him, but he did not dare tell the confessor so.
But without his having said a word to him, his confessor told him not to confess anything of his past life unless it was absolutely clear. As he thought that everything was quite clear, this direction was of no use to him and he remained always with his trouble. At this time he was in a small room which the Dominicans had given him in their monastery, where he continued with seven hours of prayer on his knees, rising faithfully every midnight, and performing all the other exercises already mentioned. But none of them provided him with a cure for his scruples, although it was now some months that they had been afflicting him. One day, when he was especially tormented, he began to pray and to call aloud to God, crying out in his fervor: “Help me, O Lord, since I find no help from men or from any creature. No trial would be too great for me to bear if I thought there was any hope of finding that help. Do you, Lord, show me where I can find it, and even though I should have to follow a little dog to find it, I would do so.”
It’s interesting that Ignatius uses the image of the little dog in this lament to God, for isn’t the experience he describes very much like that of a dog chasing its tail? Scruples and guilt are good for us insofar as we allow them to move us to seek God’s mercy. Guilt can be a grace in our lives, but it can also be an obstacle and a temptation. Because of this latter danger, many have decided that guilt is a bad thing, and should be avoided at all costs. Thus, some never seek forgiveness from God in confession or otherwise, trusting in some vague confidence that God will forgive them, even though they’ve never bothered to ask for God’s forgiveness. This kind of person would never have Saint Ignatius’ problem. In fact, they would be likely to see his dilemma as absurd. This attitude ultimately only serves to distance us from God, or blur our vision of who God is. Yet the excess of scruples which Saint Ignatius describes also results in a distorted image of God. We can understand his difficulty, especially if we have committed some gave sin that has caused lasting harm. In some ways, we don’t want to be forgiven, we don’t feel like we deserve God’s forgiveness. So, even after we’ve confessed our sin multiple times, it keeps coming back to haunt us. This is understandable, and it is good that we feel regret for the sinful things we have done; but we must also trust in God, who promises to forgive all our sins, no matter how serious they are. We must, ultimately, be willing to forgive ourselves and accept God’s mercy, once and for all, to do otherwise is to deny an essential part of God’s nature. Our God is a merciful God, something proven to us most dramatically when Jesus—God made man—suffered and died on the cross for my sins, and yours. We need only ask God’s forgiveness, accept that forgiveness, stop chasing our tails and live in peace. Besides, there’s no need to cling so tightly to our past sins, for we can be sure there will be plenty more to come, and we will have the privilege of asking for and receiving God’s mercy again and again—not chasing our tails, but moving forward.