Why does regret harry us in old age? Obviously, the longer we live, the more we understand our lives. That is why someone 18 years old is considered so much more mature than someone 14. Experience surely is the best teacher, and we learn from our mistakes. Yet the remorse that chills the conscience in the autumn of life is more than this.
If they have been dimmed for decades, how is it that events, so long in the past, push their way to the forefront of our minds? And why the newfound sense of remorse? Why do so many people come to confession, saying something like: “It happened so long ago. Maybe I confessed it, but maybe I didn’t. I want to mention it now. I don’t know why, but it’s been bothering me.”
We teach children that sin is a transgression of commandments, and, as their lives are filled with rules, they do not challenge this. But adolescence brings a freedom from childhood restraint. At that point, if our sense of right and wrong is not more than a set of hand-me-down rules, we lay them aside when they appear to chafe or to constrain us.
Reducing morality to a set of maxims is akin to mistaking a map for the world itself. Rules are real enough, but they draw their meaning from life.
But reducing morality to a set of maxims is akin to mistaking a map for the world itself. Rules are real enough, but they draw their meaning from life. The moral life is about flourishing. It is about turning away from that which would limit our lives and embracing all that would make us whole.
This is why, having reached a summit in the climb, we sometimes find ourselves looking back with concern. Our own lives do not appear quite right to us. We can see where the trek took a wrong turn. It is as if we could hear the Baptist, saying to us:
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths (Mt 3:3).
If our way looks now awry, we have two comforts. First, remorse can be a sign of growth. It is a grace, which often comes with the wisdom of age. Scripture tells us that moral insight is an inspiration. It is the work, the very presence, of another in our lives: the Holy Spirit.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him:
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
a spirit of counsel and of strength,
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord,
and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord (Is 11:2-3a).
And the second consolation? It is the very meaning of Christmas: We have a redeemer. The author of life, the one who gives it purpose, has entered our lives as Messiah. Of course, our lives appear ragged and rude in his presence, but that is because he is love itself. All is coarse and unkempt in comparison to the Bridegroom, who is sheer beauty, all love.
Who knows whom Shakespeare pictured when he penned his 30th sonnet? Yet only in Christ do his words fully resonate. If regret harries you, Christ is seeking you. Lay down the remorse. Embrace the redeemer. Let all losses be restored, all sorrows end.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.