A Meditation in Two Parts on Mercy as Sheer Gift of Accepting and Offering (Inter)Personal Forgiveness
We begin with a comment concerning the title of this meditation, namely “fool’s pardon.” It derives from the title of a collection of poems by Harry Smart – Fool’s Pardon. Due to issues concerning length, the meditation unfolds in two parts. In this first part, some theoria concerning forgiveness is explored; in the second more personal and pastoral “strategies” will be unpacked.
This meditation is being crafted on the threshold of what Christians call “Holy Week,” an odd liturgical phenomenon, part Lent and part Triduum (if one defines week in the usual sense…being a liturgical and sacramental theologian the author realizes the enigma here). During this “week” Catholics throughout the world pause to reflect twice on gospel passion narratives (one of the synoptic accounts and always John’s account on the Friday that is paradoxically called “good”).
So we must return to the theological content of the event of Christ’s crucifixion. In a sense, it is the passion and death of Christ, or more specifically, Christ’s response to his passion and death that serve to model the Christian call to forgiveness. Quite simply put, there are two points that we need to highlight. The first concerns the passion and death itself; the second concerns the theological meaning of the passion and death.
First, Jesus endures a horrible suffering and death, an incredible act of violence, and does not pass that violence on, rather, from the place of the violence he graces us with a word of forgiveness. Second, redemption is a gift. Catholicism, like Protestantism, affirms that we are saved by faith through grace. It is the Protestant word “alone” with which Catholicism finds difficulty especially as it is not found in the Pauline writings. Our works do not save us in and of themselves; it is Christ who saves however mysteriously this might take place. (Of course, there are issues of theological anthropology embedded here.) As such, forgiveness is first and foremost a gift (a la the previous week’s meditation); we cannot really earn it though we may dispose ourselves to accept it. At the same time we can refuse it as well. (Here one gets into the interesting dynamics involved in the ability to allow oneself to be forgiven.) In a like manner you might say that heaven is the gift though we can refuse it; hell we must earn. (Of course, the Catholic approach to this is somewhat different than the Calvinist.)
In this brief meditation we simply want to begin an exploration of some thoughts (more likely, musings) on the nature of forgiveness. This is not an easy task as there are a number of different perspectives from which the nature and phenomenon of forgiveness can be approached. Some of the “musings” here may even seem a bit “conflicted” as a result of the multi-pronged discussions that sometimes surround the nature of forgiveness.
At the outside we need to acknowledge the inter-personal relationships among friends, enemies, families, and communities of whatever stripe that concern us here; hence, what sometimes is referred to as political or economic forgiveness is not envisioned in this exploration. When you move into the realm of the political and economic forgiveness you must apply the term “forgiveness” in a way different from its personal application. Another way of putting it is that the term is being applied analogously. This is the same idea that St. John Paul II has noted regarding “social sin” or “structural sin.” (Political and economic deserve consideration and we shall do so in a subsequent meditation.)
Pope Francis addresses this issue of forgiveness clearly in his Bull of Indiction:
From another parable, we cull an important teaching for our Christian lives. In reply to Peter’s question about how many times it is necessary to forgive, Jesus says: “I do not say seven times, but seventy times seven times” (Mt 18:22). (At this point Francis explores the parable of the “ruthless servant” focusing on verses 33 and 35.)
This parable contains a profound teaching for all of us. Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father, it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who his true children are. In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us. Pardoning offences becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves. At times how hard it seems to forgive! And yet pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart. To let go of anger, wrath, violence, and revenge are necessary conditions to living joyfully. Let us therefore heed the Apostle’s exhortation: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26). Above all, let us listen to the words of Jesus who made mercy an ideal of life and a criterion for the credibility of our faith: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5:7): the beatitude to which we should particularly aspire in this Holy Year.
As we can see in Sacred Scripture, mercy is a key word that indicates God’s action towards us. He does not limit himself merely to affirming his love, but makes it visible and tangible. Love, after all, can never be just an abstraction. By its very nature, it indicates something concrete: intentions, attitudes, and behaviors that are shown in daily living. The mercy of God is his loving concern for each one of us. He feels responsible; that is, he desires our wellbeing and he wants to see us happy, full of joy, and peaceful. This is the path which the merciful love of Christians must also travel. As the Father loves, so do his children. Just as he is merciful, so we are called to be merciful to each other.
Part of the difficulty attending forgiveness arises from confusion regarding the dynamics entailed. Some of this confusion pertains to the clichés that sometimes surround forgiveness. One simple example is “Forgive and forget.”
It might be helpful, therefore, to begin with a few words about a via negativa, or to put it more simply, what forgiveness is not. If this seems too strong, then let’s at least assume that some of these ideas are questionable. (Please note that these are ideas cobbled together from reading as well as from personal experience as well as from clumsy attempts at forgiving…and I do mean clumsy).
- Forgiveness does not necessarily forget; it is not amnesia. The old adage of “forgive and forget” has possibly caused some damage. This, it would seem, is a recipe for future disaster. We should not forget. There is another old adage which is more to the point: Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.
- Forgiveness is not denial. Sin happens. Forgiveness needs to look at sin in the face and name it for what it is.
- Forgiveness is not simply a matter of willpower. You cannot simply command forgiveness nor will it (though you can choose to act with forgiveness even though you cannot or do not “feel” it).
- Forgiveness cannot be given on command. It often takes time to reach what one might call “deep” forgiveness. In this matter, you might even speak about forgiveness having “stages.”
- Forgiveness does not take us back to where we were before the offense. To use a metaphor, you might say that sin leaves certain scars. There is also a sense in which one can experience some growth during and afterward; hence, we are not simply as we were before.
- Forgiveness does not mean the giving up of our rights. Forgiveness is not a form of passivity in which we are trampled. It is an active virtue that leads to a transformed future.
- Forgiveness does not mean simply excusing the offender (though, again, one might hesitate to use this kind of language). Here you get into the delicate relationship between mercy and justice (which we shall explore at a later point). Remember Aquinas’s idea: Justice without mercy can quickly become vengeance; mercy without justice is the mother of all sorts of awful things (roughly translated).
- Forgiveness does not mean leaving it to God alone. Yes, God forgives but we, too, are called to embody forgiveness.
So…what is forgiveness, or perhaps better put, what does forgiveness look like? Again, there can be no singular definition/description of forgiveness. Instead let’s examine four various attempts at describing the nature of forgiveness. It would seem that forgiveness, rightly understood, admits of several different descriptions or definitions. Among these we might include:
- Forgiveness entails the release of someone from a just penalty for hurt that was caused. Think, for instance, of what the philosopher Jacques Derrida suggests in his little essay On Forgiveness: “There is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable.” (Frankly I’ve tried to grapple with what he means by the “unforgivable.” In part, I think it has something to do with truly horrible actions; what one might call from the biblical perspective “the sin against the Spirit” or the unforgivable sin and perhaps what in Catholicism is called “mortal sin;” on the other hand it also seems to have something to do with whether the one who has offended has any claim to forgiveness. In this sense you are dealing with the gratuitous nature of forgiveness.)
- Forgiveness involves the act of being restored to a good relationship with God, others, and self, following a period or incident of sin or alienation. This seems to certainly be operative in the ministry of the Lord Jesus.
- Forgiveness happens when hurt, injustice or insult, are not revenged but rather, good is returned for evil.
- Forgiveness happens when there is pardon of guilt (again we are not talking about guilt from a psychological perspective) or remission of debt that liberates from the past.
One way of grappling with these various perspectives involves futurity. Whatever else forgiveness entails, while not “forgetting” the past (which is simply amnesia), it opens or restores a future to another and to oneself (which, of course, entails something beyond a few additional heartbeats or breaths). This futurity entails a quality of life.
All of this is well and good but still it begs the question regarding HOW one goes about forgiving, or perhaps better put, how does one open oneself to the grace of offering (and receiving) forgiveness? This we will explore in the next meditation.