Mrs Ryan in Dawson’s Creek called it “the greatest gift Our Lord has given us, but for a long time, I’ve not known what forgiveness is. Yes, the Our Father we pray every day talks about it, so it’s important, but nobody really tells you what forgiveness truly is. One big misconception that is common is that to forgive you have to mend your relationship with someone, no matter how dangerous that might be. You may have long forgiven, but if you equate keeping someone away with unforgiveness you won’t realise it. I have made that mistake myself, partly out of a specific person’s emotional manipulation. She would press the issue in a way that could only mean I had forgiven her if I let her in.
I’ve listened to a short homily from Lent 2014 on Youtube, and it made me realise that I have forgiven more than I think I have. It also made me realise how much better I could be at loving my enemy, since I don’t consistently pray for these people. I’m pretty bad at remembering prayer intentions in general anyway. Still, it helped me to clarify what it means to will the forgiveness of another person, and how feelings can be deceptive when we use them to judge if we have forgiven. I like the final suggestion he makes, about praying for them to become saints. I can see how easy it can be to fall into snarky attitudes and see that they need to become saints while I’m clearly a martyr in this situation, but if done from a place of love we should be fine.
It’s hard to feel like we can be in a place of love when someone hurt us, but the biggest and hardest lesson I have learnt about forgiveness is that hurt doesn’t equate hate. In fact, some times the love itself comes from the hurt…we are hurting because we care about them rather than be hurt because we care about ourselves. More often than not it’s a mix of both when the person who hurt us isn’t a stranger. It’s easier to see we have such mixed feelings if the person we have to forgive is family, not so much when it’s a stranger on the street who attacked us. Sometimes there are mitigating circumstances to spark compassion in us, which helps with wanting to forgive, but other times there is nothing at all. It was one of the most challenging things about my first exam in my degree in Philosophy, which revolved around Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil. Ultimately, I feel like I have more compassion for Eichmann than most, and probably a lot more than he really deserves.
One reason it’s hard to forgive when someone doesn’t repent is that we feel we deserve to see them beg for our forgiveness rather than giving it freely. I admit I struggled with this a lot: I wasn’t sure it was possible to forgive when you’re holding onto your righteousness. I realised, at my expense (as always), that often I was the one who gave cause to others to hold on to their righteous hurt. It didn’t seem fair to hold others to a higher standard than the one I lived with myself. I had to put down the stone I was ready to throw at the adulterous woman. One of the least talked about aspects of the story of St Maria Goretti was that her concern with stopping her rape was not for fear of losing her virginity, but because it would be a mark on her attacker’s soul. She forgave him before she died, an event that kicked off his eventual conversion and the forgiveness extended to him by her mother. They would be in St Peter’s Square together at her canonisation.
The lives of the saints show us how grace can mold us to be like Jesus, who forgave those behind his death when on the Cross, in the very heart of the pain of such a gruesome death. A lot of the stories he had told in His life and ministry revolve around forgiveness, most famously perhaps after the adulterous woman, the story of the prodigal son. While most people focus on the welcoming back of the younger son by the Father, there is another side to this story: the eldest son. He is the picture of jealousy and unforgiveness. He doesn’t forgive both his brother and his father. He resents how the younger man went off to squander his fortune and was welcomed with a celebration and restoration of his status, with no consequences for his actions other than those that led him to repentance in the first place.
He also resents the father’s generosity, because he never treated him like that. We are left with a clear impression that he won’t be joining the feast: to do so would require him to forgive his father for not making a fuss about him being a faithful son, and his brother for going away and still getting the better end of the bargain between the two. I think the eldest son is a great warning sign for our own attitude towards forgiveness. Perhaps the story carries on unseen, and the brother will fall to his knees and pray earnestly for his brother and father and a change of his attitude (which may not come straight away) and lie down to sleep while the party he snubbed rages on. The ideal would have been that he went to the party, even better if he did so when his father talked to him (a saint would have rejoiced with the father, but he is no saint), but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to forgive: forgiveness means letting go of the resentment that is poisoning our souls. Everything else is decorations on a cake.
Today’s blog post has been part of the Love Blog Challenge 2020 on the subject “Forgiveness”. Find the rest of the series here