Apriest said to me: "The one theme I will not be preaching on, even during the penitential season of Lent, is guilt. I think guilt is very negative. It denies the goodness of God."
Maybe. But in my everyday life, there are a heck of a lot of things I wouldn't do unless I had a sense of guilt. I'd never do any housework, to begin with. Left to my own devices, I would live like Quentin Crisp, the bohemian eccentric, who praised the joys of domestic squalor. If you never dust or clean, he said, after four years it doesn't get any worse.
I admired the eccentric Anglo-Irish lord who encouraged John McGahem to make use of his library, when the writer was growing up in Leitrim. The venerable squire, who was obsessed by beekeeping, had a priceless collection of Ming and Dresden china, but seldom washed the dishes, preferring to use one exquisite piece after another until they were all soiled. Were it not for a sense of guilt, I would do likewise. Perhaps a guilt, accompanied by its half-sister, fear of mortification.
Guilt drives me forth to the grinding supermarket shopping trip, a perfect location for the condition known as anomie (a loss of identity and meaning to life). Guilt loads up the trolley, with household goods and cleaning liquids and provisions for the family. I only do it because if I didn't do it, I'd feel guilty. There is an element of guilt in the occasional corporal work of mercy: I know it is the right thing to visit the sick, and be kind to the homeless, but it isn't always just moral knowledge that informs me. It is also that I know I will feel guilty, if! don't do as I ought to.
I agree that unreasonable feelings of guilt can darken some people's lives, and I know that one shouldn't perform religious duties merely from a sense of guilt, although occasionally, guilt's step-child, duty, does enter the picture.
You don't always feel holy on a Sunday morning, but you know that you must do your religious duty howsoever you feel. Praying, anyway, is a bit like writing: you don't always feel like writing, but you know that you will only write by doing it habitually. Start writing, and you will write; start praying and you will pray.
Guilt is sometimes a sense of responsibility in overdrive. I once had a secretary who was imbued with a thoroughly Jewish sense of guilt, and arudous about everything. But she was one hundred and ten per cent reliable, and would rather have faced a firing squad than let anyone down. She might have been happier if she had lightened up, true, but her high sense of responsibility made everything work like clockwork. Here, guilt served the best interests of others.
Guilt is more a western than an eastern concept, because it arises out of a sense of personal responsibility, and therefore individualism. Eastern societies have "shame" cultures, rather than "guilt" cultures. To lose face, to be made to feel shame, is the deepest humiliation in Japan and China. Sh.une has almost died in the West.
I do not subscribe to the notion of "collective guilt", precisely because that exonerates all personal responsibility. Frederick Forsyth makes this point well in his thriller "The Odessa File". The crimes of the Third Reich were not committed by "the German people". They were committed by quite specific Nazis.
Yet to be without a sense of guilt would make one a psychopath. The cold, unfeeling personality who can inflict great harm on others without any sense of guilt or remorse is the person who seems most deprived of God's love. A proportionate sense of guilt is a sign of humanity, responding to Divinity. Guilt isn't always a negative sentiment. It can also be productive. Many renowned people have constructed admirable monuments because they felt they had to atone for doing wrong. The film star Loretta Young built a number of churches in California in a spirit of atonement. Marlene Dietrich said cattily, if wittily, that "Every time Loretta sins she builds a church. That's why there are so many Catholic churches in Hollywood."
Guilt sure helps to get the domestic cleaning done, "Out! Out! damned spot!"
Valois, who has Dame Ninette de just died, aged 102, virtually invented British ballet, and schooled some of the finest ballerinas of the 20th century Margot Fonteyn, Alicia Markova, Moira Shearer, Beryl Grey, Violetta Elvin — and many more. But Dame Ninette, born Edris Stannus in Co Wicklow — was a martinet of the first order. Her sense of discipline was ferocious and she would punish a ballerina for the slightest misdemeanour. If Dame Ninette had become a Reverend Mother, she would now be denounced as a repressive authoritarian, and she would probably been sued for mental distress. But her ballerinas, though terrified of her until the day she died, agreed that without that iron discipline, her goals would never have been achieved. Great endeavours do require great leadership, and that generally means discipline and authority.