Ash Wednesday, February 10
That long ago.
An assignment in forgiveness. Except, for me, the assignment was narrowed. I was to focus on my unforgiveness, my refusal to forgive.
And I initially thought, this is good. This is healthy. Like fasting for the body. A deep cleansing.
That’s because I thought that this was just going to be an expansion of those aspects of forgiveness that I’ve worked with nearly all my life. What I know. Just more. Bigger.
It turns out that forgiveness for those big things that have happened to us in our lives isn’t the worst expression of letting go. Because, I have discovered, big things give you room to move around. They give you memories that you can finger. They give you big emotions that you can express in tears, or words, or just sadness. And they give you time. Big things don’t just happen to you in the moment that they happen to you. They plant roots, gripping your essence, and then they grow and bud and flower, so that you can see their reality manifest in your life.
Ah, you can say. I did this because I’m still afraid of that. Oh, look, I’m stuck here because I don’t trust myself in this situation.
Defining. Big hurts can define you, and you can recognize that definition and realize that you are, yourself, an editor of your life, and you can start to erase some of the lines and redraw yourself, your relationship with the world.
You can take a breath and realize that some parts of that big experience are now gone forever.
Forgiveness with room to grow. Room to heal. Room to smile again.
I began my Lenten forgiveness work with a series of visions. I stood in a room. Darkened. Around me were a set of doors. All locked. From the other side. No keys.
And that was the problem: no keys.
No keys for access.
No keys for knowing who is on the other side of the door.
No keys for understanding.
Trust me when I tell you, it is a waste of effort to guess what you are dealing with when you are faced with locked doors.
Logic goes to those “big” people. Those who threw their lance and managed to wound you. And rode away victorious, which could be, in fact, the biggest wound of all.
But those people don’t lock their doors against you. They don’t care who you are or how you are or what happened to you.
Or, at least, they don’t care about their wounding you. You can try to work out a dance where they admit their wrongdoing, and you find a way to see the situation from their side; but if this is what is needed to forgive, there would be very little forgiveness in the world.
We are clever enough to figure out how to forgive without the other person having to feel sorry for their sins and make amends.
For those big things that we can see in our minds and feel in our hearts. The ones that are so big that they give you the room to view them like works of art, standing and brazenly exposing themselves.
So, after a few weeks of facing the doors and having absolutely no clue as to how to open them, or talk to the people on the other sides of the doors, I just decided it was time to brush my teeth. Or wash dishes. Or listen to Shakespeare sonnets.
Anything but that.
Then something happened. And even I knew it was nothing. Well, almost nothing. No big deal.
And yet to this no-big-deal my reaction was an erupting volcano of rage.
If I talked to myself, I could easily imagine myself ranting and arguing and explaining and blaming.
It took a lot of my energy. It took a lot of my thoughts. It took a lot of my time.
For pretty much nothing.
This was right before Easter.
And I knew that I couldn’t present myself to God on Easter with such a soiled mind.
With such an angry heart.
So I wrote about it.
Writing helps me to define things.
And so I found in this small incident the key to the first door.
Now I would imagine that what she had done to me was something so horrific that I had forgotten all about it in order to suppress the pain and anguish.
Except while it’s true I did suppress the memory of the incident in order to suppress the pain and anguish, my grandmother had not done anything to me. At least not initially.
Unforgiveness comes from having no room to move within a wound. When that hurt is painted on you and becomes your skin. When the consequences of the hurt become your own thoughts.
I wanted to talk to her about a problem I was having with a prayer that we recited every time we were in church, at Mass. Well, by “we,” I mean the congregation. I had become so upset with the prayer, I had stopped saying it.
My grandmother, a devout Christian by all appearances and behavior, didn’t know what I was talking about when I raised the issue with her.
As she shuffled in the kitchen, cooking supper. Always a good time to talk with her. She wouldn’t have anything else on her mind except how long she would overcook the vegetables, and find ways to ruin the meat.
Except the boiled potatoes.
They were always cooked right.
What are you talking about, Julia?
That prayer. That prayer.
I’m someone who doesn’t give up on conversations easily. I always feel that the failure to communicate is mine. So I try harder to express myself.
So I tried harder.
The harder I tried, the less comprehension my grandmother professed.
The point of no-return for the fall came when I turned the conversation around back onto me.
Perhaps it was a look in her eyes. That look was often in her eyes as they looked on me.
Perhaps it was the shrug of her shoulders that told me she was forgetting that I ever bothered her.
That she held up that day.
Or that I held up for myself.
If she doesn’t even recognize the prayer I’m describing, and I’m obsessing over this prayer, who am I?
Or, more significantly, more to the point of my existence,
What kind of freak am I?
Who else thinks about this prayer?
Who else even thinks about the meaning of the prayers they say?
Absolutely no one.
The mirror that she held up that day, framed by her incomprehension and frustration with me, reflected nothing. There was no one in the mirror.
How do you get away from that kind of experience?
How do you get enough distance between you and it to have some perspective, some room to change the dynamic?
A wound with no room.
Realizing the nature of my unforgiveness, I easily found the keys to the other five doors.
And I got to see that they, too, were portraits of minute occurrences that had held up the same mirror: the mirror of nothingness.
And gathering the six wounds together, I could see that such an experience, for me, anyway, was the means of telling me that I was not welcome there.
Not surprising, anyway, was that three out of the six people were priests.
Priests who had held up the mirror showing me that I was nothing to them. That they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see who I am, and as a result made me feel unwelcome in my own church.
Close wounds. Intimate wounds.
I found that the pain of seeing no one in the mirror, held up after I said something to someone, was too much for me. I was a girl when this began.
Feeling unwelcomed was disorienting and disturbing.
So I learned not to speak about anything to anyone.
I couldn’t stop being myself. But I could stop telling people what I thought about.
Really thought about.
So there was this revelation.
Then, there was my telling two people I care for about how Shakespeare in his King Henry VI, Part 1, makes Joan of Arc the queen of zombies (literally, she calls up the fallen French soldiers and offers them her own blood if they will fight again – the power of zombies (they refuse)), and the other things he does to her (like making her beg for her life by saying that she’s pregnant – by three possible men), I got to hear my friend say, Good for Shakespeare! She was a nut-case. A freak.
And my other friend, saying, Right on! or some such enthusiastic hoorah.
And I’ve still said nothing to either of them.
The reason we forgive is so that we can breathe when the wound is poked, is deepened.
So that we can turn away from the thrust and know that all is right with God and the world in spite of the nip of flesh that has just been lost to you.