In a few words, perfect contrition is contrition based on the motive of love, and imperfect contrition is that which is based on the fear of God.
Perfect contrition is that which flows from the perfect love of God. Now, our love of God is perfect if we love Him because He is infinitely perfect, infinitely beautiful, and infinitely good (love of benevolence) or because He has shown us His love in such an admirable way (love of gratitude).
Our love of God is imperfect, if we love Him because we expect something from Him.
Accordingly, in imperfect love, we think above all about the favors received, and in perfect love, we think above all of the goodness of the One who bestows these favors. Imperfect love makes us preferably love the favor itself, whereas perfect love makes us love the Author of these favors, and that less for His gifts than for the love and the goodness that these gifts manifest.
From love, contrition flows. As a result, our contrition will be perfect, if we repent of our sins for the sake of the perfect love of God, whether from benevolence or from gratitude.
It will be imperfect, if we repent of our faults owing to the fear of God, whether because sin has made us lose the reward that we have been promised, viz., heaven; or because we have earned the punishment imposed on the sinner, viz., hell or purgatory.
In imperfect contrition, we think particularly about ourselves and about the evils that sin brings to us, according to the light of faith. In perfect contrition, we especially think of God, His greatness, His beauty, His love, and His goodness; we consider sin an offense and that it has been the cause of the many sufferings endured to redeem us. We wish not only our own good, but that of God.
An example will help us grasp it better. When St. Peter had denied our Savior, "he went forth and wept bitterly." Why did he weep? Was it for the shame that he was going to endure in front of the other Apostles?
In such a circumstance, it would have been a purely natural pain and without merit. Is it because his divine Master is perhaps going to strip him of his dignity as an Apostle and Supreme Pastor, or drive him from His kingdom?
In this case, the contrition would be good, but imperfect. No indeed! He repents, he weeps because he has offended his beloved Master, so good, so holy, and so worthy of love. He weeps because he has responded to that immense love with base ingratitude, and that is perfect contrition.
Now, don't you, too, dear reader, have the same motive as St. Peter to detest your sins, for the sake of love, for the sake of perfect love, and for the sake of gratitude?
Without any doubt, God's favors are more numerous than the hairs on your head and every one of them should make you repeat the words of St. John: "Let us love God, because He first loved us" (1 John, 4, 19).
And how has He loved you?
"I have loved thee," says God Himself, "with an everlasting love, I have had pity on thee and I have drawn thee to me" (Jer. 31, 3).
"With an everlasting love I have loved thee."
From all eternity, before there was even a trace of you upon the earth, He cast upon you this look of love that penetrates everything. He prepared for you a soul and a body, heaven and earth, with all the tenderness of a mother who prepares to welcome the child who is going to come into the world. It is God Who has given you life and heath; it is He Who gives you the good things of nature every day.
This idea was sufficient for the pagans themselves to bring them to the knowledge and the perfect love of God. For a greater reason, it should bring you there - you a Christian who possesses the love and the supernatural goodness of God for you. Through the prophet He says, "I have had pity on you."
You were condemned like all men as a result of original sin; God sent His only Son who became your Savior and redeemed you with His blood by dying on the cross.
It was of you that He lovingly thought in His agony in the Garden of Olives, when He shed His blood under the whips and the thorns, when He followed, carrying His cross, the long and painful path of Calvary; when, nailed upon the cross, He expired in the midst of ghastly torments, it was of you that He thought, with a tender love, as if you had been the only person in the world. What shall we make of that? "Let us love God, because He loved us first."
Moreover, God drew you to Himself by baptism, which is the first and chief grace of life, and by the Church, in whose bosom you were then incorporated. How many men have been able to attain the true faith only through the strength of effort and sufferings! But to you, God gave it to you from the cradle, out of pure love. He drew you to Himself, He draws you every day by means of the sacraments and by numberless graces, interior and exterior, with which He showers you.
You are, as it were, submerged in an ocean, the ocean of goodness and divine love, and He wishes again to crown all these graces by placing you near Him and making you eternally happy. What will you give Him for such love?
Isn't it true that you must make a return for these advances? Then let us love our God, since He loved us first.
Let us come to the point: How have you responded to the love of a God so lovable and so good? Without doubt, by your ingratitude and by your sins. But do you repent of this ingratitude? Ah, yes, without any doubt, and you burn with a desire to make amends for it by a limitless love. Well, then, if that is so, you have at this moment perfect contrition, that which is based on the love of God and which is called contrition of love or of charity.
But in contrition of charity itself, there is a degree, more elevated yet, that consists in purely loving God, because He is infinitely glorious, infinitely perfect, and worthy of being loved, the abstraction of His mercy for us. Let us make a comparison. There are, in the firmament, a number of stars so distant from us that we cannot perceive them, and yet they are all as large and as bright as the sun that so freely imparts to us warmth and life.
Likewise, suppose that man had never been in possession of this eternal star that is God's love. Suppose that God had created neither the world nor any creature: He would be no less great, no less beautiful, no less glorious, no less worthy of being loved, for He is
Himself and in regard to Himself the greatest good, the most perfect, and me most lovable.
Such is the sense of the formula: I am heartily sorry...because You are infinitely lovable and You deplore sin. Reflect a moment and consider God's love; especially contemplate the Savior's bitter sufferings. In this light, you will easily understand, and it will pierce your heart through.
Here, then, are the practical means to achieve perfect contrition.
FATHER AUGUSTINE LEHMKUHL, S. J.