Guilt & Gratitude

One of the pleasures of my time at Loyola has been getting to know some particularly thoughtful undergraduates who are living their faith with enthusiasm in a culture that is, to say the least, not always supportive.  I had an interesting conversation with a few of these students two weeks ago, in which one of them expressed regret that she did not spend more time volunteering.  In fact she said, “I feel guilty for not doing more.”

Now the young woman in question is a model Christian—generous, open-minded, and joyful.  (She also makes excellent soup.)  She does so much for others that I’m often tempted to ask her where she has managed to find days with more than 24 hours.  So the word “guilt” coming from her surprised me.

The conversation got me thinking about two things—the role of guilt in Christian life and the various pressures young people feel to volunteer.

“Catholic guilt” is, of course, a familiar trope in literature and pop culture, even if, for those of my generation, the idea now seems somewhat quaint.  As our sense of sin has evaporated, so too our sense of guilt—or so, at least, I thought until my conversation of a few weeks ago.

It’s also possible, I realize, to feel a sort of free-floating guilt unassociated with any particular wrongful deed.  I’ve felt such an unease myself at times and have come to understand that such a feeling leads nowhere good, just to more vague dissatisfaction, perhaps starting with myself but then moving on to others too.  Using St. Ignatius’ guidelines for “discernment of spirits” it’s clear to me that such a feeling doesn’t come from God.

This is not to say that there is no role for guilt in the Christian life.  A healthy Christian conscience recognizes the place for guilt.  And that place is precisely between the time we sin and the end of the prayer of absolution.  If guilt lingers after that something is a little off.

A truth of our faith which I think no Christian can rightly dispute is that God is greater than our sins.  When Christ gives the power to forgive sins to the Church we should take him at his word; when the Church tells us our sins are forgiven, they are.  We have it on the highest authority.

Guilt, then, should die in the confessional.  When the priest tells us to “go in peace,” I’d suggest that the phrase isn’t an ecclesiastical pleasantry, the sacramental equivalent of the “Have a nice day!” one gets at end of the checkout line in the supermarket.  It is God’s command for how to live as people whose sins have been forgiven—at peace, full of gratitude, confident enough to show others mercy because of the mercy we have ourselves received.  Vague, free-floating guilt, it seems to me, is a trick the evil spirit uses to undermine this God-given peace.

Which brings me to the question of where the guilt felt by the young woman I mentioned at the beginning of the post could be coming from and some thoughts on the “culture of volunteerism.”

Now I should be clear from the beginning that I think it’s great that our society encourages young people to volunteer and become involved in their communities in all sorts of different ways.  I’m not even opposed to giving people a bit of a shove in the form of some incentive or reward in order to pique their interest in charitable works.  I’ve organized and directed volunteer programs myself.

But in doing so I’ve also noticed that especially in the hyper-competitive world of academia and the job market, “community service” can become another line to fill in on the college application or the résumé.  I’ve expressed concerns before on these pages about the dangers of “spiritual tourism,” and there’s a danger in our culture of a kind of dilettantism, of using a few hours—or even a few years—of volunteering as a way of escaping from the profounder sort of commitments to which God might be calling us.  I’ve also detected in, for example, some religious programs encouraging volunteerism an undercurrent of Pelagianism, the old heresy that says if only we just roll up our sleeves and work hard enough we can build the Kingdom here on earth all by ourselves.

None of these concerns, to be sure, should discourage one from volunteering.  Not at all.  But the questions I’m raising do point to the need, especially in our culture of competitive volunteerism, to probe a bit deeper into the spirituality of what we are doing, to use those venerable Ignatian tools of discernment of spirits.

Others wiser in the ways of discernment than I can correct me, but a good guideline for me seems to be that volunteering based on guilt or ambition is not the way to do the will of God.  I suspect that such volunteerism will never rise above dilettantism; it will never last.

What is deeper, I think, is a volunteerism based on gratitude, based on recognizing how much God has given us and wanting to share such gifts and graces with others.  Such gratitude is closer to the spirit of “peace” the Church wishes us when we depart from the confessional, and it’s the basic evangelical impulse of the Gospels as well.  Good works based in gratitude have a much better chance of growing into a genuinely life-giving passion.

Guilt has its place, but it can never be the basis of the Christian life.  Love alone is our foundation.  The way to God, the way to discern his plan for our lives, is to fan the sparks of love he has planted in our hearts.

AL, SJ

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4 Responses to Guilt & Gratitude

  1. Stephanie says:

    Guilt is something I have really struggled with too. I see my dad going off almost everyday to do some kind of volunteer work or spending hours in prayer and religious formation and I feel guilty at times that I am not able to devote the kind of time he does to those pursuits. It’s good for me to step back and realize that I am just at a different place in my life.

    Right now God needs me tending to my four small children (three already born, one in utero), my husband, my home and the people he brings into my life on a daily basis. It doesn’t always feel like a huge spiritual contribution changing diapers, sweeping floors and keeping the toddler from accidentally killing himself on a daily basis, but it’s definitely done with love and gratitude and there’s holiness in that too. It’s probably what Mary spent a lot of her days doing circa 2 AD. 🙂

    Thanks for the reminder that useless guilt, the kind that just leads to disillusionment, is not something to waste time and energy on.

    • thereserita says:

      I know what you mean when you say it doesn’t always feel like you’re making a huge spiritual contribution. I felt that way too until I started drilling down into Francis de Sales, Jose Escriva, Mother Teresa etc There’s really a whole lot there about what God thinks about little things done with great love. Once I had a priest ask me in confession what I thought I could do for God that’d be so great or wonderful. He said that, no matter what it was, it wouldn’t be as worthwhile to Him as changing a diaper or caring for an elderly relative out of love for God. I guess that’s what the whole Little Way is about…

  2. Pete Lake says:

    AL, excellent post.

    I think another way of looking at volunteerism is to ask ourselves if what we are doing is truly an “apostolate” or are we just doing something to make ourselves feel better or some other self-oriented reason?

    In other words, is our apostolate (or our volunteerism) authentically a response to Christ the King (to use Ignatian language) which we arrive at after a conversion of heart to God and after recognizing that Christ died for us and that our time on earth is the only time that we have to do something in return for Christ — not because Christ needs it from us but because it is Christ’s will for us, and when we discern Christ’s plan for us we say, like Mary, yes.

    In this way, I think (and Ignatius would agree), we can avoid the dangers that you mention – – – and also avoid the danger of equating service or love of neighbor with love of God, which must necessarily come first and our service to others is the response to such love of God.

    Guilt may be the impetus, but it serves a useful purpose only insofar as we move past it and towards God.

  3. Qualis Rex says:

    LOL!!! I loved it: “have a nice day”. I have long suspected that the sentiment of “guilt” is actually a feeling of inadequacy we learn as children/infants of not living up to our parents’ expectations. This is repeated throughout our lives and can present itself at moments/events completely unrelated to anything we may have (or may not have) done.

    The true “guilt” can only be established when we have examined our conscience with a firm basis in what is right and wrong (i.e. that which God commands of us). In other words, to me guilt is and should be a very cerebral and logical sentiment, which in most cases, it is not.

    Great post as always.

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