The act of repentance by Dismas, the good thief on his cross next to Jesus on Calvary, fulfilled God’s greatest desire to pour forth the richness of his grace into his soul.
Dismas and Christ
The ultimate goal in the spiritual life and our journey on earth is to totally see and experience our utter wretchedness and helplessness in light of the immense goodness and love of God. The desire of God is to pour forth his grace into our souls as a gratuitous gift to us, cleansing our souls of all sin to make them pure, holy, and spotless. If this is the ultimate goal, then it is possible, as highlighted in the Gospel, that great sinners give God greater glory in fulfilling his own desire by cooperating most fully with his grace. The truly repentant soul has a full knowledge of its wretchedness before God and so cooperates more fully in receiving the grace that flows from its heart, resulting in the full forgiveness of its sins. The closer the soul’s act of repentance is to the absolute truth of its own sinfulness, the more it will dimly reflect this quality of God, who is truth itself. The nearer we come to reflecting God’s qualities, the more we are pleasing to him. In totally acknowledging and accepting its condition, the depth of sin is no longer hidden from its eyes, and the soul is fully open to the reception of God’s grace and the forgiveness of its many sins.
The significance of the depth of repentance becomes clearer when considering the temporal punishment due because of the commission of sin. The commission of sin can become habitual, and so the scars and residue of sin corrode the soul. Grave or mortal sins completely cut us off from the life of grace. Venial sins impede our growth and corrode the soul, and it is this corrosion, along with the roots of sin, which need to also be purified. We begin to see the roots of sin, our many imperfections, when we have been healed from the attachment to venial sin. All sin, and the attachment to sin, seriously inhibits the flow of grace into our souls. The many imperfections that remain hidden from our eyes contribute also to the impure state of the soul. It is only through God’s grace that we can become consciously aware of them; otherwise they remain completely hidden. The build-up of residue over a lifetime can severely affect the health and state of the soul. It impedes our ability to be truly sorrowful for offending God and exhibiting a depth of contrition which heals the wounds of sin hidden deep within our souls. Contrition is “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again.” 1 The deeper the contrition the more the soul is healed, with an increased likelihood that the temporal punishment of sin is diminished, or if contrition is perfect, the soul is completely purified.
To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God, and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain. 2
If an act of repentance is sincere and heartfelt, then the depth of purification performed by God is of a degree that the soul can be transformed to a state of purity ready to inhabit his kingdom. This is a great and sublime mystery. The act of repentance by Dismas, the good thief on his cross next to Jesus on Calvary, fulfilled God’s greatest desire to pour forth the richness of his grace into his soul. His fervent charity in response to the merciful love of our Saviour attained the complete purification of his soul.
If God is able to “raise up” every single person who has ever been born in the final resurrection at the end of the world, then the power of God knows no bounds. This power remains locked up, hidden, and unfulfilled if we do not give God what he desperately desires; the real sorrow for offending him and heartfelt contrition for our sins. The great paradox is that his grace can only produce this contrition. We automatically think that we are the ones who repent and convert, but it is the Holy Spirit who mysteriously moves us, and provides the inner strength to sincerely repent of our life of sin.
The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart. Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him: “Restore us to thyself, O Lord, that we may be restored!” God gives us the strength to begin anew. It is in discovering the greatness of God’s love that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin and being separated by him. The human heart is converted by looking upon him whom our sins have pierced. 3
In turning away from sin, the Holy Spirit opens up a window in our soul that for the first time enables our soul to see the greatness of God’s love. Our soul is therefore filled with a desire to not offend God and to never be separated from him. Dismas’ sincere act of repentance also made full satisfaction for a lifetime of sin. We are all called after receiving the sacrament of confession to make satisfaction for our sins through penance. Mysteriously, just as the depth of contrition is not our own doing, so also the satisfaction we make for our sins is reliant on our divine Saviour.
The satisfaction that we make for our sins, however, is not so much ours as though it were not done through Jesus Christ. We who can do nothing ourselves, as if just by ourselves, can do all things with the cooperation of ‘him who strengthens’ us. Thus man has nothing of which to boast, but all our boasting is in Christ … in whom we make satisfaction by bringing forth ‘fruits that befit repentance’. These fruits have their efficacy from him, by him they are offered to the Father, and through him they are accepted by the Father. 4
If it is God’s grace that can only produce the depth of sorrow and contrition displayed by Dismas, then his cooperation in receiving his grace is something that is surely not beyond everyone’s means. If we all have the means to be sincere and honest in our failings before God, why is it so difficult to have this absolute honest view of ourselves before him? The reality is that God invariably has to bring us outside of our comfort zone. On his cross next to Jesus, the crucified Dismas was well and truly outside his comfort zone. He was dying on his cross, and so the opportunity to receive God’s help in such a desperate state was significantly increased. It is often only when we are reduced to a state of helplessness, or even desperation, that we call out to God for help. His grace is always there, and in exhausting every other human and visible aid, our cry for help finally cooperates with God’s desire to come to our assistance. He places this desire in our hearts as he himself is desperate to fulfil it. We often only begin to hear his call to reach out to him when we have reached rock-bottom and exhausted all other visible means.
We all like living in our comfort zone. Suffering in all its many sizes and shapes takes us outside our zone of comfort. It challenges our worldview, whether it is suffering arising from a sinful lifestyle or from the actions of others. We can also suffer through having to not only bear with the faults of others, but also our own faults and failings. The degrees to which we are taken outside our comfort zone through the experience of suffering are as variable as the human race. What is more difficult for one will be easier for the next person. The variation matches the individual uniqueness of each person and his circumstances. In shifting us outside our comfort zone, the experience of suffering can break through our feelings of self-sufficiency and independence, where we feel no real need to have God at the centre of our lives. It provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our situation and go beyond the surface of everyday life. It is during these moments of reflection where God’s grace can work miracles in the individual soul. It can awaken the soul to the temporary nature of life, the vanities of the world, and the need to make changes in life. For the soul who has not converted and received the gift of faith, these moments are crucial in determining whether he walks in the right direction. The choices we make in response to the suffering we experience in life bear eternal consequences.
We are all called in our own particular and unique way to reflect a ray or stream of God’s love and truth that only we can reflect. Our personal calling is to love God in a unique manner where we glorify him through responding to the individual graces that only we can receive. The path we walk in life is distinguished by the unique set of circumstances we live in; no one else will have the same opportunities to be charitable to the people we encounter in life. In a similar way, each soul predestined to inhabit the eternal kingdom is mysteriously also predestined to a degree of glory where the depth of love possessed by the soul determines its individual place in heaven, which no other soul can inhabit.
There are many people born in the world who are born into unfortunate circumstances, either dire poverty or a country ruled without democracy, where opportunities to receive the gift of faith in Jesus Christ are severely diminished. There are also those who are the victims of family violence, suffering the emotional trauma of childhood abuse, which often leaves lifelong scars which are never properly healed. They are the victims who often become offenders themselves, saddled with addictions or mental health problems. Being brought up in an unstable family will most likely reduce an individual’s exposure to the Christian faith. This will undoubtedly be coupled with an early life experience that significantly lessens the likelihood of the development of faith in the years that follow, and therefore, belief in a loving and compassionate Father. For many who have received nothing from life, it may be that they receive everything at death. Like the good thief, they may be called to give God glory and become saints ‘all at once,’ where Jesus will reward them as he did with Dismas, saying: “In truth I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise”(Lk 23:43).
God is infinitely just and merciful. His mercy knows no bounds, and we will be judged on what we have received. If we have received much, then more will be expected from us. “When someone is given a great deal, a great deal will be demanded of that person”(Lk 12:48). We are invited by God to be consciously aware of what we have received in life as being a gratuitous gift from him, our sovereign Creator, where our talents and personal circumstances are not of our own making. Without this view, we will be filled with our own sense of self importance and self-reliance with no need to depend on God: “… no individual among you must become filled with his own importance and make comparisons, to another’s detriment. Who made you so important? What have you got that was not given to you? And if it was given to you, why are you boasting as though it were your own?” (1 Cor 4:6-8).
If we have had a stable upbringing, live in a country that is democratic, and have opportunities to embrace the faith, then much more will be expected of us compared to the many who are born into utter poverty or live under a regime ruled by fear and injustice, where belief in any God is forbidden. Perhaps it is the case that many of us who have received the gift of faith may be called by God to come and know him little by little, and bring him glory in this manner, rather than ‘all at once’ at the end of our lives.
For those of us who have received the gift of faith to be totally dependent on an invisible God for our strength and to persevere in life, it is, for most of the time, just too uncomfortable. We want to rely on visible supports and things that we can feel and experience that help us cope with whatever suffering we are experiencing. Suffering is God’s means of purifying our soul; it is only fruitful though if we cooperate with it. If we rebel against suffering in all its many forms, then we will become embittered, hardened, and hateful towards our neighbour and God. Both Dismas and the bad thief began their journey to Calvary blaspheming God. “Even the bandits who were crucified with him taunted him in the same way” (Mt 27:44). Grace touched and transformed one soul as it journeyed into the depths of human suffering, while tragically, the other became harder and more obstinate through its continual rejection of grace.
Dismas accepted his cross, and so his suffering was fruitful where grace touched and moved his heart to a make a perfect confession of not only his guilt and deserved suffering, but also the innocence of Christ. He implicitly proclaimed the power of Christ’s divinity as he requested that Jesus remember him in his kingdom. The admission of guilt and the right assessment of the punishment he was receiving opened the valves in his heart to enable the full and complete regeneration of his soul. Next to the searing goodness and love of Christ, he recognised his Saviour. When suffering is accepted, in a mysterious way channels are opened up in the soul where God’s grace transforms and heals the deep wounds of sin. The experience of suffering can lay bare our secret thoughts and intentions which can be positively transformed by God’s grace. However, if we rebel against suffering, our outward rebellion mirrors our hardened heart blocked up with sin and selfishness. Sadly, the goodness and love of Christ provoked the blasphemy of the other thief, where his guilt and bitter reaction to suffering extinguished any receptivity to grace with only the venom of sin remaining in the soul. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us as well” (Lk 23:39). As the venom of sin remained in his heart, he was unable to recognise the innocence, let alone the divinity, of the Son of Man hanging next to him. The good thief possessed the fear of God as he was able to recognise its absence in the bad thief when he rebuked him. The fear of God is the beginning of all wisdom and the foundation for the perfect love of God. This was the fruit of the Holy Spirit breathing new life into his soul. His confession which followed consoled the heart of our crucified Lord and gave our Saviour the deep joy of rewarding him with entry into his kingdom.
But the other spoke up and rebuked him. “Have you no fear of God at all?” he said. “You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it: we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He answered him, “In truth I tell you, today you shall be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23:40-43)
In the eyes of God, a single act of pure love is more precious than all the greatest works. “The smallest act of pure love is of greater value in the eyes of God and more profitable to the Church than the greatest works.” 5 The confession of Dismas was this single act of pure love after a lifetime of sin, and in God’s eyes it was the most precious thing he could have offered him.