Thursday, August 19, 2010

Fear of chastisement: Does it work? Not so much.

"He who does not acquire the love of God will scarcely persevere in the grace of God, for it is very difficult to renounce sin merely through fear of chastisement." - St. Alphonsus Liguori
As you know, there are warnings on cigarette packages about the health risks smokers face from smoking.  Back when I was a smoker - I ignored the labels and television ads and kept smoking.  It wasn't because I thought "it won't happen to me" that I was unfazed by the warnings - I just didn't care, I loved smoking cigarettes.  I only quit because one year I got so sick, I couldn't smoke if I wanted to - once I passed the first week without a cigarette, I was free - if I wanted to be.  It is all in the will, with a lot of help from God. 
I mention this because people often use the argument that this or that vice carries a lot of health risks or shortens one's life, hoping to scare people out of doing whatever they are doing.  New studies released by the CDC report that gay men die a decade or so earlier than straight men.  I doubt that many gay men are worried, or that they will "hate" their condition because it might lead to an early death.
To dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell.
Such sociological health warnings seem to me to have a spiritual correspondence:  Warnings of chastisement for sin.  Of course the fear of damnation is a healthy and necessary fear - which is why it is part of the Act of Contrition.  Nevertheless, as St. Alphonsus states, "it is very difficult to renounce sin merely through fear of chastisement."  For example; at one point in my spiritual life I struggled so violently with sin I was not only exhausted, but I was suffering to the point I was convinced hell could not be any worse.  I'm not exaggerating.  If it had not been for divine grace, I don't know what I would have done.  By some miracle I understood that my only hope was the Divine Mercy and devotion to the Love of God.  Once in confession, after a particularly humiliating fall, while making my act of contrition I emphasized how full of sorrow I was because I had offended God "who is deserving of all my love".  The newly ordained priest caught me and said, "You neglected the part about detesting sin and dreading the "loss of Heaven and the pains of hell".  He wanted the formula.
Naturally I had not neglected that part of the act of contrition deliberately.  So, full of grief I tried to explain to the priest that I mentioned at the end of my confession how much I detested these sins;  and I went on to say that since my life had been such a living hell already, due to my intense struggle with these sins, which seemed almost addictive, the fear of chastisement alone wasn't able to deter me from repeated sin.  And although I believe hell is the just punishment for grave sin, and that I did not want to spend eternity there, my deepest anguish and sorrow was the awareness I had so repeatedly offended God who is Love.  The young priest then understood and accepted my act of contrition.
That said, a hatred for sin and a healthy fear of damnation remains a necessary part of contrition - in fact it forms the basis for imperfect contrition.  It's a matter of the will however.  Sometimes we don't 'feel' it - but we can sincerely will it - which also explains why using the traditional  act of contrition, which seems to be the rule these days, is good.
Just some thoughts.  I hope it is not too much information. 
Oh - so my point is, trying to scare people into doing good usually doesn't work that well.
Art:  Marc Chagall


  1. I can even begin to tell you how much this means right now, Terry. Thanks

  2. Anonymous11:26 AM

    I was reading about St. Peter Damian last night. He was a big proponent of physical mortification as an act of penance and as a way to ward off or fight temptation. The late Pope John Paul II practiced mortification at times. Is this practice almost completely extinct in the Church? Does it have any place - can mortifying ourselves due to our great sorrow at offending the Love of God lead be beneficial to any of us?

    I've been contemplating this for a while, wondering if some of the sins and temptations to sin that are a continual struggle for me would be reduced or eliminated via mortification.

  3. Terry, what is the traditional act of confession? The one I say is extremely basic and short

    "O my God, I am very sorry that I have sinned against you, and with the help of your grace, I will not sin again."

    I didn't even know there was another form?

    Good post by the way, I can identify with what you say about the fear of hell, although terrifying, not being enough, of itself to change sinful behaviour.

  4. Shadowlands - locally the 'traditional act of contrition' has been touted as the best - there are other approved acts out there often suggested - yours being one of them - also any sincere act in one's own words, covering the bases I mentioned is usually permitted.

    The one we learned here begins, "O my God I am heartily sorry for having offended you my God who art all Good... etc" - with the inclusion "because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, I firmly resolve, etc.."

    Veneremur - I'm not qualified to speak to that - but a good confessor can help you sort that out. In my experience I found exaggerated penances or severe corporal penances focused my attention too much upon the sin itself - hard to explain - it almost became another source of gratification. The best penance for me was prayer, prolonged, assiduous prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. The prayers of the rosary were most efficacious, as well as the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.

    Also, corporal penance or extreme fasting oftentimes leads to our nature seeking some type of reward afterwards - in other words, it can be motivated by self love which can lead to self-indulgence. On the other hand, fasting in the manner the Church prescribes for Fridays or Lent is much more reasonable and doesn't flatter our ego. Pride and complacency is what trips us up, and it is ultimately God's grace that brings us through the fire unscathed - not us.

    Marie Therese - I'm happy - I'll pray for you at adoration this afternoon.

  5. "my deepest anguish and sorrow was the awareness I had so repeatedly offended God who is Love."

    I have nothing to add other than this where I am right now, in the midst of constant struggle.

  6. Veneremur--one thing I learned years ago from a very wise Protestant preacher is, rather than extreme fasting and mortification for your something GOOD that also stretches your "comfort level." Visit old people in the nursing homes or go with your priest or deacon who visit the shut-ins, serve meals to the homeless who live under the viaduct, help illerate adults learn how to read, shovel snow for the mean old man who lives on the corner, or bring over a casserole for a person who just came home from the hospital or who just had a baby, etc. This way you are reaching out EXTERIORLY, rather than INTERIORLY..


  7. Anonymous6:13 PM

    Thanks for your comments on mortification. It's not something I've done very much (or well), even fasting - I can't fast very well for some medical reasons. But you've given me more to think about. Thanks again.

  8. Austringer7:33 PM


    I would add a word of caution regarding what the Protestant minister said. First, it's not "either/or". (By the way, I've been told that "either/or", rather than "both/and", is typical of a Protestant approach.) And I'm afraid that what he suggests has already made its way into Catholic practice: many fashionable clergy and laity appear to be bored or uncomfortable with that old-fashioned penance and mortification thing, and instead put all the focus on doing positive, good deeds. Obviously there's nothing wrong with good deeds -- but I think that a "both/and" approach more truly expresses contrition. We ought not to eliminate penance and mortification.

  9. Kat - hang in there!

  10. Reading Terry's blog is mortification enough for me!

    (just kidding, Ter!)

  11. Austringer--

    I think the point that the minister was trying to make is that for many people "physical" penance is, perhaps EASIER ""??"" in many ways.. Oh yes--sign me up--I'll do bread and water fast, I'll go without coffee and become a crankypants, I'll walk barefoot across the hot blacktop in the middle of the summer and blister the bottom of my feet, I'll give a $1000 to whatever charity and live on ramen noodles for the next three months..OK I checked off my block and now I'm done...

    But PLEASE PLEASE don't ask me to serve soup to the dirty people under the bridge, they smell and what would my neighbors and my coworkers think?? Or the smell of a nursing home makes me gag. Or why should I care about my neighbor home from the hospital when I have my OWN problems??

    It is THAT kind of penance and mortification that really cleanses one spiritually, the kind that really puts you past the "spiritual" comfort zone. We don't want to be like the rich Pharisee whoo tells of his fasting twice a week, his constant prayer, his tithing above and beyond, yes he DID all thiese things but it did NOTHING for him spiritually.

    I think Terry touched on this a bit in one of his previous posting about the "men in the back of the church...." I am also a BIG BIG Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta fan.. :) Her whole life was one big mortification and penance..


  12. Austringer10:06 PM


    I just don't think it's possible to say with such certainty, in contrast to penance and mortification, that "It is THAT kind of penance and mortification that really cleanses one spiritually, the kind that really puts you past the "spiritual" comfort zone."

    We're all individuals (sorry, now all I can think of is that scene from "The Life of Brian"...), and what is penance and mortification for you might not be to someone else. I've helped prepare meals for the homeless, and then served them at the downtown Mpls. Catholic Charities. I've brought the Eucharist to hospitals and nursing homes -- and you know what? I have found that to be easy. In fact, it's hard to really connect it with the idea of mortification/reparation at all, partly because I grew up with an "old-fashioned" view of penance, and also because I enjoy those activities. But to give up cheese????!!!

    I think the wisdom of centuries is to be expected: by all means, do those good deeds. But don't let them replace the traditional's both/and.

  13. Austringer10:07 PM

    Sorry -- I meant "respected", not "expected".

  14. We've had several of these discussions at our daily Mass coffee hour, especially when Lent is approaching, and we will ask around "So what are you giving up for Lent??" Give up TV, chocolate, same ol same ol...Occasional someone will chip in and say "I'll try to say the Rosary every day," or "I'm reading a spiritual book"..rather than giving up something they are adding something (in a way they are probably giving up something, exchanging one secular activity for a spiritual one).

    But one thing I try really hard to keep in mind is that I don't want to practice the same Lenten -or otherwise- sacrifices that I did when I was a child. Yet we don't want to go overboard either. I recall watching the video on St Teresa of Avila on EWTN a few years back when one of her sisters walked in on St Teresa administrating the "discipline" to herself. I don't remember the exact words but it was something along the lines of "Aren't you being a bit harsh on yourself??"

    Yes we should all be remorseful for our sins, and I think it is a great thing to do "extra credit" so to speak, especially in reparation <> for blasphemies, for the unborn, etc. , be it Adoration, rosaries, service to others, etc. This may be the case where each individual should ask God what kind of things He would have us to do.

    Great topic..

  15. Austringer11:34 PM


    Yes, it is beneficial to mature in our sacrifices and penances! I think a mature approach to penance is born of a mature understanding of the horror of sin.

    I like the idea of giving something up (some activity that takes time) AND replacing it with a more spiritually beneficial practice. As an example: one of my many vices is to play solitaire on the computer while waiting for something to download. Well, that was the initial excuse ("I'm just sitting here, might as well"), but the it became, "I'll just play until I win again." Evil? No...but it is an indulgent time-waster. So, during Lent (and, like now, for special intentions and for reparation), I give it up and instead offer prayers for the people I've promised I would pray for. Both/and.

  16. Certainly we must be afraid of Hell, I guess at least at the beginning of our spiritual lives, until the love of God becomes more of a motive than the fear of hell. And taking the history of the Church and Scriptures at face value, it's mind-boggling how people almost no longer consider it.

    But what really bothers me is how some Catholics almost take delight in the idea of very few being saved. Sometimes it can lead one to despair when one reads of saints and mystics views about who goes to Hell. You get the impression that only medieval monks even have a chance at Heaven.

    How do I balance that then with my trust in Christ's mercy? I can remember one person was quoting a saint who had a vision of judgment and said that out of 10,000 people who went before the judgment seat, 4 were saved, and 3 just barely, and all were monks. Just the idea makes me want to despair ... Can something like that really be true? (I know private revelations are not in the deposit of faith, but I do believe in the Fatima, Divine Mercy, and Sacred Heart ones, so what right do I have to make a distinciton)

    And it's this attitude that leads to everyone's favorite kind of person - the one who says its a sin for a woman to wear a bathing suit, listen to rock music etc.

  17. Try St Julian of Norwich's writings for help with despair, they work, quickly.

  18. Terry, I was kidding!! Honest!

  19. Thanks, shadowlands, I put it on my Amazon wishlist. Despair is a dumb sin for Christians, yet I'm tempted to it a lot ... I guess not all strong temptations are for sex and alcohol.

  20. Mercury,

    The world would make anyone despair at times. I know I do. Try reading the scriptures while you're waiting on the Julian book.

    The book of Colossians, is christianity and hope in a nutshell. Only about four pages long. You can find all the biblical translations online too, so pick your favourite and away you go. Hope springs eternal!

    The last Pope wrote a poem about Mercury, you know. Here it is.

    Girl Disappointed in Love

    With mercury we measure pain
    as we measure the heat of bodies and air;
    but this is not how to discover our limits--
    you think you are the center of things.
    If you could only grasp that you are not:
    the center is He,
    and He, too, finds no love---
    why don't you see?
    The human heart--what is it for?
    Cosmic temperature. Heart. Mercury.

  21. I have been brought back to the Fatima event since our Holy Father, in his interview on the way to his May pilgrimage, spoke very candidly and soberly about the "sins within the Church" the sexual abuse of minors scandal involving priests and bishops, and the very clear message that the Third Secret is not fulfilled, but is a part of the Church's destiny. In other words, it's not over yet. Far from it.
    And we better be vigilant and ready...the continued attack against him and the Church will not abate; in fact, it will increase.
    And, sadly, within the Church itself.
    Just take a gander at NCReporter and all the vile, filthy and horrid comments re: anything good, holy and beautiful. It's true; this is "from within".
    And that's chastisement enough, thank you very much.
    Any Catholic who wants to know, live and love the Faith; to know, live and love the Lord as He reveals Himself (and I include everyone here...the trads can be as nasty as the dissenters!) in the Holy Church He founded, will have to undergo martyrdom in one form or another.
    Obama doesn't scare me as much as the so-called Catholics, of every stripe, that are "filth" within the Church...not because of their sins, but because of their disobedient hatred towards the Church for whatever reason.
    THAT'S the chastisement we are presently living.
    Mary help us!

  22. Shadowlands ... thanks for that poem - you have no idea how it corresponds to some very painful events I'm going through, and the answer is just that: Know He is the center and cling to that.

    Nzareth Priest - It's D. von Hildebrand's 'Devasted Vineyard': where I live in Germany and 2 generations of Catholics have no idea what the faith is ... and one has to look hard to find it even in the Church itself here: In the Archdiocese of Freiburg, under Archbishop Zollitsch, of course. Hans Küng is taken very seriously by many of the priests around here. Adoration is hard to come by, as is the sacrament of Penance, as is daily mass, as is reliable catechesis and spiritual direction, or any other bulwark to the faith - save the eucharist itself, which is often celebrated by a priest who seems not to know what he's really, truly, doing.

    What liberalism has wrought here is ancient beautiful empty churches and valid sacraments administered by priests who don't believe. This, in turn has given the 'Lefevbristen' ammunition to lead away those who do remain faithful and turn them against the church itself and into bitter sanctimonious Pharisees. The one orthodox priest I've met here, an 80-year-old Redemptorist from Bavaria, constantly deals with laxity and ignorance among the laity and vicious attacks by the trads.

    And don't get me started on how Europe has actually done to themselves what WW2 could not. Millions of lives lost and billions if not trillions in property destroyed was able to be overcome. But today, they are depleting themselves through contracpetion and complacency, and the total devaluation of marriage and human sexuality. And in the cities, the number of fundamentalist Muslims continues to grow ... The countries of Western Europe are literally being destroyed through sins of selfishness, and the effects will be more far-reaching than any war could ever accomplish. Funny how Satan works...


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