CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #27
FORGIVENESS – WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
Recall a time when you needed to be "forgiven". Why was "forgiveness" needed? What were your thoughts and feelings in your need? Assuming you were "forgiven" – by yourself and/or another – how did it happen? What were your thoughts and feelings when you were "forgiven"? Now reverse that and think about a time when you "forgave" someone else. We could approach the subject another way. What happens when a person holds a grudge or harbours resentment or is chronically angry? In other words, what is happening in a person who is unwilling or unable to forgive?
In the light of such reflections, we are reminded of relationships and how important they are – our relationship with God, with ourselves, with other people and with the events and things of our world. Our very humanity is constituted – or de-constituted – in and through relationships. The richness of our humanity is defined by the richness of our relationships. When relationships are damaged or broken, we know – as if by instinct – that something must be done. At the very least it is a life-saving reaction, at its best it is a restorative movement that takes us more deeply into relationships and therefore more deeply into our humanity.
And what do we typically do to restore, heal and deepen relationships that have been damaged?
· We name what has happened, as best we can;
· We admit wrong where that is appropriate and we apologise;
· We allow the one who has been hurt to speak of his/her hurt and
· We listen to them and hear them out with care and concern;
· We resolve to avoid such hurt happening in the future;
· We celebrate the reconciliation in some way.
THREE PARADOXES OF FORGIVENESS
When we have been hurt by someone – especially when we are young and vulnerable – the negative feelings may run very deep. In fact, they may stay with us throughout our lives. It can be quite destructive if we add "guilt" to these feelings, berating ourselves for not having "forgiven" the one or ones who hurt us. In such instances, forgiveness is not the issue – psychological healing is the issue. Paradoxically, the path to forgiveness may involve encouraging ourselves to actually feel the anger, feel the resentment, feel the "hatred". In this way we may gradually expand the margin of freedom to a point where we can say something like: "God, if it was up to me, I would like to see this person fall under a bus; I would like to want to leave it in your hands though". There is forgiveness, or at least the beginnings of forgiveness.
The second paradox is suggested by Simone Weil: "Amid the multitude of those who seem to owe us something, God is our only real debtor. But our debt to him is greater. He will release us from it if we forgive him. Sin is an offence offered to God from resentment at the debts he owes and does not pay us. By forgiving God we cut the root of sin in ourselves. At the bottom of every sin there is anger against God. If we forgive God for his crime against us, which is to have made us finite creatures, he will forgive our crime against him, which is that we are finite creatures" (Simone Weil, "The Father's Silence" in G. Panichas, The Simone Weil Reader, David McKay Co., 1977, 433).
The third paradox is found in the common resistance to forgiveness. Why do we resist it? Perhaps because it makes us feel vulnerable? Maybe we find an identity in our hurts or in having an enemy, and forgiveness threatens to deprive us of that identity? It is amazing how many of us cling to our little bundles of death – our resentments, grudges, favourite hurts – and how we are so ready to bring them out at the appointed time and share and compare them with others similarly clinging to their bundles of death. (And this is not the case with those whose lives have been blighted by deep hurts, people who struggle just to go on, often showing a quiet heroism.) The great paradox of it is that, when we live through the death, we come into a whole new freedom and vitality – a freedom and vitality that resentment blocks.
A STORY: "THE HANDS"
The other day I had a vision. Well, some images came into my mind. Very inter-connected they were, and they told a story. I suppose that’s a vision. I was talking to a friend at the time and the vision quite distracted me.
All of a sudden I saw a small boy. About nine years of age, short black hair, wearing a white T-shirt. No one I recognised. He just stood there and looked at me. When he had my attention his face slowly contorted, his bottom lip quivered, tears came into his eyes. He raised his right fist and burrowed his knuckles into his eye, like children often do when they are crying.
At that moment I saw that his hand had a nasty wound on it, red raw around the edges and black in the middle. I looked down towards his chest where he held his other hand – that too carried a similar wound.
I was shocked and went to say something. I didn’t, though. Instead I was overcome with the worst rage I have ever known. I was speechless. I jumped to my feet and grabbed a lump of wood that was leaning against the wall nearby and stormed off. I was not immediately conscious of what I was doing or where I was going. It seemed to be out of my hands.
The next thing I knew I was confronting this man. He was an older man. I knew him to be a priest, though I’d never seen him before. I was so wild I believe I would have beaten that man to death with the piece of wood, if it had not been for what happened next.
He looked up at me, startled. Suddenly his eyes were filled with terror and he threw up his hands in self-defence as I moved towards him. I stopped. Or, more properly, I was stopped. His hands had exactly the same wounds as those of the little boy.
I was transfixed. The man still didn’t seem to understand and was not quite sure what was happening. As far as I could see, he didn’t seem to be aware of those wounds either. Then he was not there any more. I was on my own, left with a strange sense of peaceful sadness.
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
Recall a time when you were forgiven by yourself/another. What was it like?
Recall a time when you forgave someone. What was it like?
What happens when we nurse a grudge or do not work through our anger?
Reflect on the process of forgiveness outlined in the bullet points. What would you add or subtract?
How do you deal with your negative emotions towards yourself and/or others?
What do you make of Simone Weil’s suggestion that we need to "forgive God"?
Can you recall what it was like when you got rid of a "bundle of death" you had been carrying?
Do you think it is possible to say too quickly that you forgive? Reflect on this.
What do you find most difficult about forgiveness – giving it or receiving it?
What was your reaction to the story of "The Hands"?
Catalyst Suggestion Sheets are written by Michael Whelan SM and published by Catalyst for Renewal Incorporated in conjunction with the Catalyst journal, The Mix. For further information please contact: Catalyst for Renewal Incorporated, PO Box 139, Gladesville, NSW 1675, Australia. Tel/Fax: +61 2 9998 7003.