John Cassian has 3 important pages on compunction in his 9th conference on prayer. Here is #29,1,2 (p.347):
“Compunction arises from the contemplation of eternal goods and the desire for that future glory, for the sake of which, too, abundant fountains of tears erupt out of irrepressible joy and overwhelming happiness. All the while our soul is thirsting for the strong and living God, saying: ‘When shall I come and appear before the face of God? My tears have been my bread by day and by night.’ Daily, with mourning and lamentation, it declares: ‘Woe is me that my sojourning has been prolonged.’ And : ‘Too long has my soul been a sojourner.’”
And in the Philokalia, Evagrios (On Prayer #78) writes: “When you think you do not need tears for your sins during prayer, reflect on this: you should always be in God, and yet you are far from Him. Then you will weep with greater feeling.”
How can we obtain the spirit of compunction? Actually, it is a gift from God! But it requires our cooperation and our preparation. Awareness prepares the conditions for receiving this gift: awareness of our state of sin and of the goodness of God. “The beginning of compunction is to know oneself”, writes Ephrem. It is through self-knowledge that sin itself can finally turn to the good of the sinner, thanks to the compunction which it inspires in us.
This awareness can be helped by opening regularly our hearts to a spiritual father, by the meditation of Holy Scripture, and by practicing the Jesus Prayer. It requires hard labor, great application, endurance, and self-denial. We must also create a favorable ambiance: renunciation of distractions, fasting and humility. The Fathers recommend that we pray to receive compunction and the gift of tears.
What are the effects of compunction?
John Climacus highlights purity of heart. In The Ladder 7,9 p.114 he writes: “Keep a firm hold of the blessed joy-grief of holy compunction, and do not stop working at it until it raises you high above the things of this world and presents you pure to Christ.” Note that John Climacus has invented here a new word to express joy-grief, it is only one word in Greek, which is also translated as joyful sorrow. In his Ladder, he has a whole step on compunction; its title is significant: On mourning which causes joy.
Beatitude is another effect. Whereas one of the passions is sadness, compunction ends in beatitude, above all other joy. John Climacus, in The Ladder 7,40, p.118, writes: “He who is clothed in blessed and grace-given mourning as in a wedding garment knows the spiritual laughter of the soul”. It leads to deep joy, because it leads back to union with God, as the prodigal, torn in suffering and desire decided to go back to his father.
The primary effect of compunction is stimulation: it arouses us from our torpor and complacency, and leads us to take positive steps to improve our condition. We are drawn to conversion through the positive appreciation of the love and kindness of God: pierced by the realization that, despite all our sinfulness, we are loved by God. Then we desire to respond more fully to the love of God which we have experienced. So it has nothing to do with a depressive sense of guilt, nor with scruples, but it is the first phase of the whole process of conversion. It is an energizing force which stimulates us to conversion, to make great changes in our life. It is the beginning of love. It is not the end of spiritual life, but its very beginning.
If we go back to our parable, we find indeed the prodigal, having been through all the steps of this journey, back home, in the joy to be reunited to His Father.
Our Savior teaches us every day with His own voice: let us therefore listen to the Scriptures concerning the Prodigal who became wise once more, and with faith let us follow the good example of his repentance. With humbleness of heart let us cry out to Him who knows all secrets: We have sinned against You, merciful Father, and are not worthy ever again to be called Your children as before. But since You are by nature full of love for man, accept me as the Prodigal, merciful Father, and save me.