[“Feast in the house of Simon the Pharisee,” by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1618 and 1620]
Recently I was looking in the Catechism of the Catholic Church to see how the Church defines the word “compunction,” and to my surprise this word that has a long history in writing on the spiritual life is not listed in the index or glossary. I started to wonder if I have been reading too much from St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, and Walter Hilton’s The Scale of Perfection. If the word “compunction” has fallen out of use in discussing the spiritual life, then I think we could use a reminder of what it is.
Compunction means “to prick the conscience.” It implies something more than just an examination of one’s conscience, which could be done in a somewhat detached manner, but to be moved to feel remorse and sorrow about our sinfulness. Knowledge that one has committed a sin does not necessarily mean that a person will seek forgiveness, rather it is the emotional component, the sorrow about our sins, that moves us to contrition for our sins.
In today’s first reading from the second book of Samuel, King David gives us an example of compunction leading to contrition. King David was not only an adulterer, but he was a murderer. After taking the wife of Uriah, one of his military leaders, in order to cover up his adultery, King David arranged to have Uriah killed. David then married Uriah’s wife himself. King David knew the law and the commandments. He knew that what he did was wrong, but he did not have compunction yet. God sends the Prophet Nathan to remind David of all the blessings that God had bestowed on David — taking him from being a shepherd in the field to becoming the King of Israel, and the many times that God had protected David from his enemies. Then Nathan pricks David’s conscience. He directly points out the wrong — the sin — that David had committed. Nathan did not find nice ways of suggesting to David that what he had done “might have been wrong.” No! Nathan hits David between the eyes and tells him that he has spurned the Lord and has done evil in God’s sight? And he tells David that there is going to be consequences for his sins. King David was moved to contrition. He was humble and honestly declared, “I have sinned against the LORD.”
Then we heard the beautiful account of the sinful woman in the Gospel who comes to Jesus as He is dining with Simon, the Pharisee. Often we think of this woman as being a prostitute, but St. Luke does not say that in his Gospel, and it is only in his Gospel that this story is told. St. Luke simply describes her as a sinful woman. It is apparent, that her sinfulness is known throughout the community, for Simon the Pharisee is shocked that Jesus allows her to touch Him, and reasons that Jesus must not be a prophet because He does not know that the woman is a sinner. Perhaps St. Luke is vague about the nature of the woman’s sin because he wanted her to stand for all of us. Who of us could not also be described as being sinful?
I think it is also interesting to note that she did not have a direct encounter with Jesus before her compunction and contrition. Rather, St. Luke tells us that she “learned that” Jesus “was at table in the house of the Pharisee.” What must she have learned about Jesus that moved her to contrition? She must have experienced some disciples of Jesus, who undoubtedly spoke about the Good News that He preached; that God loves each and every one of us, that is why He created us, and continues to pour out His love into our hearts, despite our sins. They most likely spoke about Jesus’ message of forgiveness and reconciliation, in contrast to the messages of condemnation that the sinful woman undoubtedly heard so often. Hearing the Good News that Jesus preached, even as related by some of His disciples, pricked her conscience. Her finally heard the cry of her soul, weighed down as much as it was by her sins. This compunction, instead of burdening her soul even move with guilt and condemnation, broken open her heart so that it could be bathed in the love of God. The pricking of her conscience was a means for setting her free. The sinful woman’s compunction moved her to contrition — true sorrow for her sins.
Both King David and the sinful woman in today’s Gospel were made aware of God’s love in their life. This encounter with God’s love, when God’s love encounters their sinfulness, both King David and the sinful woman experienced compunction. Not only did they know in head that what they had done was sinful, but they experienced compunction — the pricking of their conscience — so that they felt sorrow for their sins. Their compunction moved them to contrition.
And how does God respond to this compunction and contrition in our souls? God is moved by our nothingness. He is moved by our pettiness, our betrayal, our lack of faith, our sinfulness — He is moved to mercy. When we acknowledge our sinfulness, when we are moved to true contrition, moved because we love God who has first loved us, then we encounter God’s mercy. Then we hear Jesus say to us, as He said to the sinful woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”
After encountering God’s love and mercy our entire lives should be transformed. With St. Paul, we should cry out, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” Then, living the love and life of Christ within ourselves, we give witness to those around us still living in their sin, so that they might experience compunction, have their conscience pricked, so that they too may be moved by God’s love to contrition, so that they too can experience the forgiveness of God.