Luke 5:1-11
Compunction: What's that?
by Rev. Steven G Oetjen
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Luke writes to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.

While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret.  He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets.  Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore.  Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.  After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”  Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lover the nets.”  When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing.  They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them.  They came and filled both boats so that the boats were in danger of sinking.  When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon.  Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”  When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.

If you look up the world "compunction" in a modern dictionary, you will probably see it defined in terms of a feeling of guilt.  If someone is shamelessly doing something wrong, you might say, "Have you no compunction?"

Compunction in our Christian tradition, though, is a far richer notion from simply a feeling of guilt.  But most likely, we hardly ever hear it talked about.  Fortunately for us, today's Gospel provides an up-close look at what compunction is.  With Jesus in his fishing boat, Peter hauls in a miraculous catch of fish.  He had been working hard all night with not a single fish to show for it.  But now at the word of Jesus, he lowers the nets in he deep water and pulls in a catch so great as to tear the nets.  He now realizes that he is in the presence of a power far beyond his comprehension or worthiness.  The Gospel tell us his reaction: "When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, 'Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.'"

Another example is in today's first reading.  When Isaiah sees an awesome and terrifying vision of the Lord on a h9igh and lofty throne, his response is something similar to Simon Peter's: "Woe is me, I am doomed."  There are many different translations of what Isaiah said.  One says, "I am silenced."  Another, "destroyed."  The one in the lectionary says, "doomed."  Before St. Jerome wrote his Latin translation of the Bible, an older Latin translation based on the Greek text rendered Isaiah's words, "O miser ego, quoniam compunctus sum" ("O wretched am I, for I have been pricked")  It may seem strange for Isaiah to describe himself as "pricked" here.  But that word describes exactly what is going on inside Isaiah.  That Latin word "compunctus" is where we et the word compunction.

Both Isaiah and Simon Peter were pricked in the heart.  That's what compunction means most basically and literally.  This is their personal response, the response of their hearts, to the presence of God in their midst.  Part of this is terror, perhaps.  Part is guilt for their sins and a profound sense of unworthiness.  But compunction doesn't end there.  If it did, it would only lead us to despair.  The very same presence of God inspires a sense of lowliness at the same time it breathes into the soul a sense of his merciful tenderness.  John Cassian shares the words of his friend Germanus in the conversation about compunction: "Even I for my part for all my insignificance, am not unaware of the feeling of compunction.  For frequently, when tears well up at the memory of my past offenses, I am so shaken by an unspeakable joy at the Lord's visitation - as you have said - that the greatness of this happiness dictates that I should not despair of their being pardoned.  I think that nothing is more sublime than this condition, if only returning to it were in our own power!"

Compunction is just as much about joy as it is about sorrow; it is just as much about closeness to God as it is about a sense of distance and unworthiness.  When we are pricked in the heart and humbled by our unworthiness before God, God draws nearer to us than ever before.  "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Mt 5:4).  The heart is pricked by compunction, and tears pour forth.  But they can be tears of joy just as much as they are tears of sorrow.  "Those who are sowing in tears will sing when they reap.  They go out, they go out, full of tears, carrying seed for the sowing; they come back, they come back, full of song, carrying their sheaves" (Ps 126:5-6).

That's exactly what we find in St. Peter in today's Gospel.  Struck down with a sense of unworthiness, he pleads, "Depart from me."  Jesus instead draws closer than ever before.  "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men."  Peter would become a close friend of Jesus, even a collaborator in his mission.  Indeed, he would be a fisher of men.  Look at him later on when he preaches to the great crowd on Pentecost.  His graced words would leave them "cut to the heart" (Acts 2:37).  They, too, would be given the gift of compunction, and it would lead them to Christ as it first did Peter.