A Meditation in Two Parts on Mercy as Sheer Gift of Accepting and Offering (Inter)Personal Forgiveness
In the previous meditation (Part I) we explored a type of theoria regarding the nature and characteristics of forgiveness. Before moving forward we need to recall three simple points: 1. We are not here addressing “political” or “economic” forgiveness (though these admit of characteristics and dynamics analogous to inter-personal forgiveness; these constitute topics of a subsequent meditation); 2. We are not grappling with the delicate matter of the relationship between forgiveness (as an aspect of mercy) and justice (again a topic for a subsequent meditation); 3. Finally, we ARE addressing inter-personal forgiveness among friends (and enemies), within families, and within communities of whatever shape and size. In the previous meditation we also explored, however inadequately, both a via negativa (what forgiveness does NOT look like) and a via positiva (what forgiveness looks like). Given the ambiguities surrounding forgiveness, descriptions are perhaps more helpful here than definitions.
In this present meditation we simply examine a few strategies that press upon our messy attempts to bring ourselves to and across the threshold of inter-personal forgiveness. Two cautions arise immediately. First, the current author is neither a psychotherapist nor a licensed mental health counselor by training; he, rather, is simply a human being who, to borrow a line from Mrs. Doubtfire in the film by the same name, simply “sees what he sees” (which is to say that he has had to grapple with forgiveness in his own life as well as walk with some others in their journey towards forgiveness). This means the author has had to grapple with seeking to offer and receive forgiveness, sometimes in some quite shallow and silly matters, and sometimes in some quite deep and serious matters. (What the current author is, however, is someone trained in what might be called professional or academic theology; and hence, the next caution.)
This second caution, more theological in nature, arises as a result of “theological anthropology”: in suggesting “techniques” and “strategies” for facilitating inter-personal forgiveness, we must always and everywhere admit that forgiveness belongs properly to the order of gift/grace. One entrusts oneself, first and foremost, to God’s grace and allows it to do its thing, so to speak. Anything other would smack of the cheesiest kind of Pelagianism (the idea that we can do this alone). In traditional Catholic theology this sometimes is expressed as “cooperating with grace” (though even this image is fraught with danger).
Nevertheless, however sloppily we express this, we cannot allow theological niceties to detain us too long here. To tweak an image by secular writer Cheryl Strayed (not her real name but a “pen” name), forgiveness is not a pretty person sitting at the bar but an old dumpy heavyset person you gotta haul up a hill.
All this being noted the movement towards forgiveness often involves a journey of sorts. The image of “stages” might be useful here; this journey sometimes, if not always (or at least often) is accompanied by various steps that take time and that do not always admit of neat sequence.
Strictly speaking, you can neither schedule nor command nor, for that matter, even manipulate or “strategize” forgiveness. When it arrives, if it arrives, it does so often as sheer grace/gift and surprise. (For those of a more literary bent you might want to google Mary Oliver’s poem “The Visitor” to capture the dynamic involved here.) This does not mean that one cannot prepare the way (under grace, of course). WE can do things that facilitate the arrival of the gift/grace of forgiveness. Here we simply list several.
- The journey towards forgiveness requires both patience and hope. Various offenses take various windows of time and generally growth and maturation are required. Remember that some fires take more effort, longer periods of time, and quite a bit of water to douse. In this process we are not necessarily culpable for emotional reactions; we are culpable, however, for certain kinds of manifest behavioral reactions (barring psychological impediments). Forgiveness is a journey, a process, and we are at different places in that journey at different points in our life and in different dimensions of our humanity. It involves intellect, will, act, and affect to name a few, and sometimes these are not always in the same place at the same time and to the same degree. For instance, one may act in a forgiving manner without necessarily feeling as if one is forgiving. You might say that the process is a whole of sorts put sometimes some of the pieces are out of sorts, or not in sync.
- Pray for the gift of forgiveness. This prayer usually needs to take place over a (very) long period of time and it may very well be arduous, depending on the wound. This, it seems, is very important in the journey towards forgiveness and is a step often forgotten (especially in certain cultures where secularism prevails).
- Remember that sometimes people do not know what they’re doing (and sometimes they do). Sometimes we read motivations into actions that actually not there.
- See yourself as you are, or as God sees you: first, as loved, but second, as broken, fragile, wounded, and, yes, sinful. One of the beautiful aspects of the doctrine and theological symbol of original sin is this recognition that we all are born into the world in sin, in bondage, in brokenness, in fragility.
- Seeing yourself as God sees you and as you are, now try to see others as God sees them. This is not to suggest that one can play God. More to the point, there are secret places between God and the individual, unknown to others. Never pretend to know what goes on in that secret place.
- Visualization: Try to see the other as Christ. This is a rather traditional idea. We seem to have lost a sense of this. In his Rule, St. Benedict says that the stranger should be welcomed as if one were welcoming Christ.
- ACT with forgiveness.
Remember the old adage: Love the sinner but hate the sin. Perhaps we might speak about forgiving the sinner but not the sin. Sin is what it is. The sinner, however, is not simply constituted by his/her sins.
Forgiveness is not a “lonely” grace. It involves other people in the process. You can’t go it alone. One often needs the help of others in the journey toward forgiveness as well as the journey towards receiving forgiveness. Again this would seem to be one of the beautiful aspects of the sacrament of penance.
We also need other virtues but not in a self-righteous way. One simple example is that forgiveness also needs a good dose of faith and hope as well. Remember that forgiveness never stands alone. (Again, remember St. Thomas’ idea about mercy and justice. Forgiveness is neither weakness nor a way around the demands that justice in this world and in our church.) Again and again remember Thomas Aquinas (I will never tire of noting this): Justice without compassion/mercy becomes vengeance, and compassion/mercy without justice runs the risk of becoming the mother of all weakness.
In the end forgiveness (and its refusal) usually functions like a boomerang whether we like it or not. In refusing to forgive another we often refuse to forgive ourselves (ironically because we refuse to forgive another). Another way of putting this is: forgiveness moves one towards mental/psychological health. Refusing forgiveness (either its offer or its acceptance, both dynamics oddly enough being exercises in the brokering of power) is like burning down one’s house to rid it of a few roaches; and it’s said that roaches can survive an atomic blast. That’s pretty scary stuff.