On Compunction


In the language of medieval asceticism, the clear-sighted recognition and mature acceptance of our own limitation is called “compunction.” Compunction is a special grace, an insight into our own depths which, in one glance, sees through our illusions about ourselves, sweeps aside our self-deceptions and daydreams, and show us ourselves exactly as we are. But at the same time it is a movement of love and freedom, a liberation from falsity, a glad and grateful acceptance of the truth, with the resolution to live in contact with the deep spiritual reality which has been opened up to our vision: the reality of God’s will in our own lives.

The monk, then, desires to acknowledge his limitation, and he seeks to recognize his faults of sin. Compunction can indeed be a mystical grace, a fire “which is God Himself, which consumes but does not afflict. It burns sweetly, it produces a delightful desolation. It acts at the same as fire upon our vices and as ointment upon our souls.” St Bernard concludes that this mystical perfection of humility is the sign of Christ’s presence and action purifying the heart of the monk from within, “When you experience this power which totally changes you, and the love which sets you on fire, understand that the Lord is present in your heart.”

– The Silent Life by Thomas Merton

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