By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
There is a series of four Catholic prayers that contain the word “Act” in the title. They are: the Act of Faith, Act of Hope, Act of Love, and Act of Contrition. Interest in the latter far exceeds interest in the first three in terms of searches on the internet. To better understand this prayer, let’s continue to explore what “contrition” is, by turning to the Old Testament.
Being “contrite” – a state of soul An Act of Contrition
The word “contrite” derives from Latin (conterere) O my God, I am heartily sorry for
via French (contrite, 12th century). It entered into having offended Thee, and I detest
English vocabulary around the year 1300. It’s literal all my sins because of thy just
meaning is “to crush, grind, tear, turn twist or rub punishments, but most of all
together”. This word has been used in the Old because they offend Thee, my
Testament to describe the state of heart, God, who art all good and
or spirit, crushed because of sin. Today it is used deserving of all my love.
to refer to the manifestation of sorrow and I firmly resolve with the help
remorse for sin which leads to penitence and of Thy grace to sin no more
conversion. and to avoid the near occasion
of sin. Amen.
Embedded in human nature
Feeling “contrite”, crushed in spirit because of sin, is not a modern invention. In the Christian-Judeo tradition, it is attested as something that human beings have experienced from the get go. Adam and Eve, crushed because of their offense against God (referred to as Original Sin), hide from God because of it. God is no longer present to them in the same way He was before (cf. Genesis 3:8-11).
Day of Atonement
Yom Kippur, linked to the worship of the golden calf, institutionalized the Jewish act of requesting forgiveness of God. It is the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar. Texts from the Book of Leviticus describe the sacrifices to be offered to the Lord as a “sin offering”, in atonement “because of all the Israelites’ impurities and trespasses, including all their sins” (16:9, 16).
Formal prayers expressing “contrition” can be found in the Old Testament. The most famous are the seven so-called Penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). Through these prayers, God’s forgiveness is sought—but not for forgiveness’ sake. Seeking God’s forgiveness became the path for re-admittance into God’s presence, lost because of sin.
I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’
and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:5)
Feeling “crushed” is exactly what the author of Psalm 51 describes. “You will let me hear gladness and joy; the bones you have crushed will rejoice”. This statement comes after the author asks God for mercy and that God “blot out” his “transgressions”. Being cleansed of guilt, and having a clean heart are also expressed in the Psalm. However, the author realizes that the only possible “sacrifice” that could ever help him receive such cleansing is a “contrite spirit” and “a contrite, humbled heart” which will always be acceptable to God.
Prayers of contrition
All of the Penitential Psalms embody a different aspect of a universal human reality: the interior pain and suffering we feel when we have done something terribly wrong. But their unique contribution is faith in God’s merciful love which always responds to a contrite heart. This helped pave the way for the revelation of the forgiveness of sins first prophesied by Zechariah in his song sung when his son John received his name (see Luke 1:76-77).