In ecclesiastical usage "compunction" has a wider connotation and is found more frequently in the works of the Fathers of the Church than the later theological term "contrition," though both are employed, often as synonyms, primarily to express sorrow felt for sin. The basic meaning of the Greek and Latin verb equivalents is to "prick" or "pierce." On the day of Pentecost, those who heard St. Peter's explanation of the events leading up to the coming of the Holy Spirit "were pierced to the heart (compuncti sunt corde ) and said to Peter and the rest of the Apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?"' (Acts 2.37). St. Benedict (d. c. 547), in his Rule for Monks, used the word in the same sense to encourage his followers to stir up within themselves sorrow and repentance for their past sins (compunctione lacrimarum, ch. 20: compunctioni cordis, ch. 49). But it is Cassian (d. c. 435) and St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) who give the classic formulation of the full import of compunction. For these two writers in particular, compunction is one of the elements of affective prayer. They never lose sight of the primary idea of pain felt at the remembrance of the sins one has committed. This, however, is always accompanied by a fervent aspiration toward God as the soul realizes its need for Him. When one reads Cassian on prayer (Confederate 9.11, 26–33), it is difficult to determine whether the word compunction means pain caused by remorse or longing for union with God. Often both notions are intertwined. St. Gregory the Great distinguishes four stages of compunction: (1) the soul is overcome with shame when it recalls former sins (ubi fuit ); then (2) it realizes the just punishment it has deserved for these sins (ubi erit ); (3) it sees that amid the miseries of the present life there is a possibility of its falling again (ubi est ); finally, (4) it is affected with intense longing for its heavenly home (ubi non est ) (Mor. in Job, Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 76:275B–277A). St. Gregory underscores the point that a person can never understand fully the effects of sin unless he has experienced in contemplative prayer a fore-taste of the joys of heaven. Again, he contrasts compunction caused by fear, compunctio per timorem, and compunction brought about by desire, compunctio per amorem (Mor. in Job, Patrologia Latina, 76:291D–292C; Hom. in Ezech., Patrologia Latina, 76:1060B–C, 1070A–1071B). Later spiritual writers concentrated, for the most part, on the elements of remorse and fear in the concept of compunction without including the nostalgia of the soul for God and heaven that should naturally follow. Many have emphasized the importance of the "gift of tears"; there is a set of prayers in the Roman Missal whose petition is to obtain this favor. St. Teresa of Avila, alone among the postscholastic mystics, has written of the wounding of the heart by the love of God and the unbearable but joyful pain this love can cause (see, for example, Autobiography 29:17; Relations 8:16).
See Also: contrition.
Bibliography: gregory i the great, Morales sur Job, ed. r. gillet, tr. a. de gaudemaris (Sources Chrétiennes, ed. h. de lubac et al. 32; Paris 1952) 72–79. j. leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, tr. c. misrahi (New York 1961). g. morin, The Ideal of the Monastic Life Found in the Apostolic Age (Westminster, Md. 1950). Thesaurus linguae Latinae (Leipzig 1900–) 3:2171–72; 4:779–780. i. hausherr, Penthos: La Doctrine de la componction dans l'Orient chrétien (Rome 1944).
com·punc·tion / kəmˈpəng(k)shən/ • n. a feeling of guilt or moral scruple that follows the doing of something bad: spend the money without compunction. ∎ a pricking of the conscience: he had no compunction about behaving blasphemously. DERIVATIVES: com·punc·tion·less adj. com·punc·tious / -shəs/ adj. com·punc·tious·ly / -shəslē/ adv.