Scrubbing Guilt

One thing that Catholics are known for, and teased about, is guilt. Yet this past weekend, the communion meditation song caught my attention when it mentioned “scrubbing guilt.”

The seminarian at the church I attended studied music prior to pursuing holy orders and used his God-given talent of singing to provide a backdrop for heavenly reflection. As the feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen was on Saturday, he read the English translation before singing the Latin song composed by the saint in Gregorian chant. Accompanied by the organ, his lone voice was strong, yet gentle as he sang. I could do nothing but close my eyes and let the music surround me and just be in the moment. When he finished, my thoughts went back to the translation he read… what was that about scrubbing out guilt?

There are times when the internet is a wonderful thing. After a brief search on songs by the saint, I found Spiritus sanctus vivificans and the translation according to the website is as follows:

The Holy Spirit: living and life-giving,
the life that’s all things moving,
the root in all created being:
of filth and muck it washes all things clean—
out-scrubbing guilty staining, its balm our wounds constraining—
and so its life with praise is shining,
rousing and reviving all.

St. Hildegard of Bingen

The wording of this translation differs slightly from what was said at Mass, and much more blunt, but the meaning is the same. I know the Holy Spirit is considered the sanctifier, the one who makes things holy — that is set apart for God. That’s things like church buildings, altars, and holy water, but for people? Okay, maybe deacons, priests, and bishops as they are anointed to be servants for God, but everyday people? Here is a song praising the third person in the Trinity for washing “filth and muck” and “out-scrubbing guilty staining.” We’ve been conditioned to see the Holy Spirit as a pure white dove, so how can anything so pristine deal with the refuse? And yet just as Jesus came down into the dysfunction of the world to deal with us as a human person, God does not allow our dirtiness to stop Him from getting close to us. He continually sends out His Spirit to heal our wounds and revive our spirits.

If I can get my head wrapped around the thought of the Holy Spirit cleansing me from the muck and mire, what about guilt? Isn’t having a bit of guilt a good thing, since it makes us stop and think about the consequences of our actions and help shape the choices we make? Guilt is a two-edged sword that can quickly cut us in ways that can hamper our relationship with God. We can use guilt as an identifier for when we choose against God’s will, but once we seek true contrition with God, guilt for that choice no longer has a place in us. Too often guilt harbors in our intellect and instead of turning towards God, we turn further away with feelings of unworthiness. We are all unworthy, whether we are doing God’s will or going against it. Efforts do not secure our place in heaven; it’s all on the mercy of God. Yet if we seek a relationship with Him, even when it seems to be two steps forward and a few more backwards, our contrite hearts He will not spurn. 

I’m very grateful that the seminarian shared the work of this 12th century Doctor of the Church. And I’m even more appreciative of the saint’s reminder of the power of the Holy Spirit, almost a millennium later.

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