Compunction of the Heart - A Form of Meditation for Lent

From: The Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 49 ‘The Observance of Lent’ ‘We urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times. This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge in evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self denial’ A small group from Thomas More College of Liberal Arts went for an evening Lenten retreat at the Benedictine Abbey in Still River, Massachusetts. As in our last visit (link here) we arrived for Vespers at 6pm, and then were the guests of the community for dinner. After dinner we had a talk from one of the brothers of the community and after individual reading or prayer we went to Compline before returning home. Just as before, it was a great experience for all of us.

To begin his talk the brother of the community who took care of us (most graciously too I might add) read the short chapter from the Rule of St Benedict on Lent. He told he was going to talk about a form of meditation called ‘compunction of the heart’. Before he described it he asked us who had heard of this. No hands went up. I have read the rule a number of times and so must have read the phrase each time, but it had never registered with me that it might be technique that I could practice. I must have just skipped over the words.

Here is my recollection and understanding of what he told us (any confusion present is likely mine, not his!): each time we go through the sacrament of reconciliation, the process of repentance, confession and forgiveness of sins moves us closer to God. The desire for reconciliation can be motivated both positively and negatively. The negative is the desire to be closer to God driven by a fear of the consequences of our sin and a need to escape the discontent of our guilt; and the positive is a genuine desire to be closer to God again for his own sake by healing the wound of separation. While the positive is better than the negative, either is better than none at all.

When we practice compunction of the heart, we recall our sins of the past and relive that motivation to be close to God but separated from the sin that caused it. We must be clear that sin has been confessed and forgiven, and so we are not to re- confess. However the recollection of that motivation to be with God and the desire to be Him can be used to spur us on to closer to him now.

We can do this anywhere – it is something that works well in snatched moments in a busy day.

Since this was our introduction to the idea, we were encouraged to read about it and find out more. We were warned also that if we tried it we should be sure that is was leading us to God. If it was a reliving of the sins of the past that was us to self-pity, we should probably stop and seek guidance. Also, he said, this is a something that is suited to a busy lay life because we really can do this anywhere. It works well for instance if we dwell on these thought for just a few snatched moments in a busy day.

So the next time I join the line for the supermarket checkout, who knows, perhaps some of those in front of me, apparently daydreaming while they wait are in fact practicing compunction of the heart.

Images: Ribera, (Spanish, 17th century) the Penitent St Peter; and the Penitent St Mary Magdalen

Below, people in a line for the bank teller, possible practising compunction of the heart.

And, below, relics of saints practising compunction of the heart.