If the unity of Christians in one body makes the church a sign of God in the world, and if men tend unfortunately to conflict and division by reason of their weakness, selfishness, and sin, then the will to reconciliation and pardon is necessary if the church is to make God visible in the world.
Nor can this pardon, this communion in forgiveness, remain interior and invisible. It must be clearly manifest. So the mystery of the church demands that Christians love one another in a visible and concrete way.
Christ will not be visible to the world in his church except in proportion as Christians seek peace and unity with one another and with all men. But since conflict is inevitable, unity cannot be maintained except in great difficulty, with constantly renewed sacrifice, with lucid honesty, openness, humility, the readiness to ask forgiveness and to forgive.
—Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration
Forgiveness is one of those subjects that we could plumb until the end of time. And there are so many entrances to its mines to approach forgiveness: who to forgive, how to forgive, when to forgive, why forgive. To me, forgiveness is one of the most challenging concepts in the whole of God.
So I guess that the best place to begin touching this matter is at the beginning: with our pain. We like to think ourselves above hatred, at least the kind of hatred that would consciously refuse to forgive someone. Certainly there are crimes committed that could draw such a response: I cannot, I will not forgive. But this solid freezing of the heart, mind, and soul is much too great a topic to address here and now.
So let us begin with those everyday occurrences that crush our hearts, but that, because we are such grown-up people, and are able to carry on in life without resentment (we tell ourselves daily), we fail to address.
First, we must look at ourselves.
One of “my” lessons is the lesson of peerage. It is associated with the number 11. It goes:
Between two people all things are the same.
Two ones standing together. It’s a visual lesson, I guess.
(Before you get too comfortable with the idea of lessons from God, just know that the lesson of 12 (difference) goes: Between two people all things are different.
My life has had its frustrating times, to be sure.
When my daughter was young, I found applying the lesson of peerage to be quite useful. She would come home from school spitting, “I hate Edna!”
Taking her on my lap and getting her to spill out the cause of the complaint (generally, the failure to return a treasured pencil, or some such tragedy), whipping out my little lesson cards, I would tut, “What do you think? Perhaps Edna didn’t return your pencil because she hates you?”
“WHAT?!?” would be the inevitable response.
“Edna hates me? Edna doesn’t hate me. She probably put it in her desk and just forgot to give it back to me.”
It works very handily the other way, also.
“Edna hates me!”
“Perhaps you hate Edna?”
This would usually produce some reflection.
“No. I don’t hate Edna.”
“Then perhaps you’d better tell her how you feel tomorrow and see if you can work it out.”
Worked every time. Funny how my daughter never caught on to this strategy.
But it reflects how, when we come right down to it, we do not want to harbor hatred in our hearts, even when another person has done something to hurt us — intentionally or unintentionally.
And so we tend to make excuses for ourselves and the other person. We ignore our little acts of revenge, our avoidance of the person, our awkwardness with him. But all this just results in the suppression of our feelings and judgments.
One big reason we have to ignore our everyday pain is that we do not trust ourselves. If we tell the truth about it all we may wind up hating God. We may actually do something atrocious. We may become so depressed about it that we become less functional in our lives.
And what if we find, at the bottom of it, that seventy times seven just doesn’t cut it? That after seventy times seven times a hundred our heart is still hard and dry? There’s still a clenched fist at our side when we think of him? There’s still a sigh, and a turning away from the offender?
We have to let the wound open.
I do this by making a time that will be quiet and protected from disturbance. Thirty minutes, perhaps. I say a prayer to God to lead me to a path of forgiveness for this person.
And then I imagine having a conversation with this person.
Across a dinner table, perhaps. Some place neutral and nonthreatening.
And I listen. I tend not to go into my feelings and wants. I do my best to just observe the person and listen.
This is a very difficult exercise.
If it’s too painful, and I don’t fall asleep in response to the turmoil, I will stop and try again the next day.
The person on the other side of the table can be inoffensive, so my feelings might be acute, reacting to his nonagressiveness. If you’re so nice, why did you hurt me? I want to say. But I don’t. I just keep listening.
But then, there was once a time when the person told me how she wanted to hurt me. That she was glad that I was in pain.
We may prefer to turn our face away from the incident, describe it as so minor that to complain about it is to reveal how wrong we are to react to it, and wind up feeling more angry at ourselves than at the sinner.
But we need to go forward. We need to open up the wound, no matter how we judge the cause. One major step is sharing the incident with a friend and being fully honest with how we reacted to the situation. Just this small act can release a lot of the steam that has been building up inside of us, waiting to burst out. And this, in turn, can begin the process of admitting to the hurt and letting it go.
Of course, opening the wound will make us even more aware of the pain we are in. So, creating a circle of support is wise here. Hold out your hands to your friends, counselors, directors, and others with whom you feel safe. Use the sacraments, church services, contemplative prayer, and scripture to keep our lord, Jesus, and his father always in your healing circle.
And, even if is through words written, a conversation recorded, or just in the imagination, include the offender in your circle.
Do this in the name of forgiveness. In the name of divine love. In the name of God.