What Impels My Heart?: The Trinitarian Logic of Contrition

When we act in the world, from what hidden center in us does the action flow? What is our effective origin, the principal of our life? Where are we coming from?

The visible manifests the invisible. If we are always outraged and offended (even if there is something of justice mixed in with that), we reveal our hearts to be without peace and therefore not existing from God. (For the Christian, our readiness to be offended by others is a sign that something has derailed our conformity to the Son’s procession from the Father in Their eternal Spirit of love. The fruits of the Spirit do not include irritability or unkindness or smugness or unquestioning self-assurance.)

If I can’t let it go when someone drives badly. If my child or my spouse or my friend or my enemy offends my amour-propre, my sense of entitlement, and I burn and I need an outlet for that. If there is some wrong in the world, and I just have to rain fire on the insolent and the ignorant.

Then my heart is like that of the tyrant and the abuser.

It does not matter how right we may truly be in any given case. If there’s the itch to retaliate, to shame, to signal our moral superiority, there is the Adversary who seeks to tear people down.

The only place for righteous anger is in the defense of the powerless. And even then, if we lack peace, we must withdraw from the fight until we are given peace. For the bully soul is in existential contradiction to the just cause that calls forth truly appropriate anger.

Yesterday’s psalm response from Mass was, Iuxta est Dominus iis qui contrito sunt corde. The given translation is pretty good: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted.” A more literal translation might be: “The Lord is close to the ones who are of pulverized heart.”

“Contrite” is a word, I think, that has lost its hard contours in a soft moralistic haze. It is the perfect passive participle of a verb meaning to grind, rub, bruise, crumble, wear down, wear out, wear away.

So, to be contrite is to be bruised and battered, ground down, crushed to pieces.

I am no Latinist, but I also find significance in the ablative singular (contrito corde) being matched with the plural “iis qui” (those who). It’s as if the Lord is saying He is close to all those who share this common origin: that of the pulverized heart. And that, of course, is the Heart of Jesus, the Heart of the world.

The Gospel readings from John over the last several days have focused on the confrontation with the Jerusalem elites over authority. After the Sabbath healing of the man ill for 38 years who could not reach the waters of Bethesda, Jesus is pressed as to His authority to be merciful. The self-appointed guardians, and miserly hoarders, of the religion bristle at Jesus’ too-free certainty that mercy norms the law.

In response, Jesus opens up the Trinitarian life, in a merciful attempt to get the merciless to understand the truth of religion: the Trinitarian reality that there is no true self that is not received in gratitude and expended in love.

“Amen, amen I say to you, the Son cannot do anything on His own, but only what He sees the Father doing; for what He does, the Son will do also. For the Father loves the Son and shows Him everything that He Himself does, and He will show Him greater works than these, so that you may be amazed. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives life, so also does the Son give life to whomever He wishes” (John 5:19-21). [The raising of Lazarus, therefore, a few chapters later in John is a most solid sign of the Father’s intention for every person: second chances, new beginnings, and, ultimately, a life so full of love it can never succumb to death again.]

In Thursday’s Gospel, we hear that Jesus does not testify to Himself, but rather the Father testifies to Him. The point is that the reality of the Trinitarian processions means that self-justification is radically pointless. The fabric of being itself is other-justification. This is the Kingdom of God because it is the Trinitarian life:

“If I testify on My own behalf, My testimony is not true. But there is Another Who testifies on My behalf, and I know that the testimony He gives on My behalf is true” (John 5:31-32).

The kingdom of darkness, on the other hand, is other-accusation in the service of self-justification. That is why the pharisee, the tyrant, the abuser must be opposed, and never enabled. That is why fraternal correction is so necessary. We see what hell the refusal to place other above self unleashes. It is no mercy not to tell the truth about this.

In the Gospel reading yesterday, which skips a Galilee return to keep our focus on this Jerusalem controversy over authority, we hear some of the inhabitants of the city say: “Is he not the one they are trying to kill? And look, he is speaking openly and they say nothing to him. Could the authorities have realized that he is the Christ? But we know where he is from. When the Christ comes, no one will know where he is from” (John 7:25-27).

Jesus responds: “You know me and also know where I am from. Yet I did not come on My own, but the One Who sent Me, Whom you do not know, is true. I know Him, because I am from Him, and He sent Me” (John 7:28-29).

Where do we come from? Jesus proceeds from the heart of Another, a heart of truth all bent on mercy. Jesus proceeds from the heights of divinity to be worn away, pulverized, in the dark night of this world, the desert of our lovelessness. Those who would proceed from Him, indeed proceed with Him, into the agonized heart of the world, must share in this contrition of Jesus.

The battered heart remains. The rest is dross. The Kingdom of God flows from the solidarity of the contrite heart. Let us love one another, and be about the works of love, in the confidence that God is close to the brokenhearted.