Posted March 01, 2010:
Forgiving is a Journey

by Irma Zaleski.

Some twenty years ago, I spent two weeks at Madonna House. Although I had already known the community for a few years and thought I knew them quite well, my short stay made me realize how little, in fact, I had known or understood how demanding and difficult their life could be.

And so, at the end of the two weeks, when I was saying good-by to Jean Fox, who was then the director general of women, I could not resist asking her a question that had occurred to me several times during my stay.

"How was it possible," I asked her, "that living so closely together you have not yet murdered each other?"

She laughed and said, "We are severely tempted at times, but we try not to forget what our foundress often said: a community can only survive if it is based on constant forgiveness.

I thought of that recently when I was reading the Gospel of St. Mathew and came to the passage where Peter, who had just been granted his apostolic authority "to bind and to loose," asks Jesus a question.

"How many times must we forgive those who have sinned against us? As many as seven times?" "Not seven times," Jesus replied, "but seventy-seven times" (Mt 18:21-22).

I had read this passage many times before but, as often happens when we read the Gospels, Christ’s words struck me as never before.

I remembered that, in the Hebrew tradition, number seven was a sacred number and referred to the holiness of God who had no limits of space or time. From that perspective, "seventy times seven" could be understood as never-ending. In other words, Christ commanded his disciples to forgive constantly.

Such a demand, by any human standard, seems to most of us impossible to fulfill. It is difficult enough to forgive those who have offended us even once, but we can hardly imagine forgiving them "seventy-seven times," that is, again and again and again.

Even a small offence—a hurting remark, a small disappointment, sometimes just an indifferent or unfriendly look—may cause us to dislike and resent a person forever.

How then, can we manage to forgive a much greater hurt again and again and again? How can we forgive a terrible crime or injustice, an evil done to us or those we love? How can we forgive childhood cruelty or abuse that haunts us still? How can we forgive it again and again? Can we ever forgive it at all?

Even if we could, would that be the right thing to do? Would it not seem to condone evil acts and encourage the evil-doer to an even greater sin?

How could Christ ask this of us? But he did. So it is our daily work, and we must get on with it as best we can.

First of all, we need to remind ourselves that forgiving is not the same thing as condoning. We are not asked to condone the evil they have done but only to let go of our anger and hatred.

And, however impossible such forgiveness may seem to us, we must attempt it, for this is what Christ has told us to do. This is the way he walked, and if we want to follow him, so must we.

We must also try not to be discouraged when we have to face the fact that we often cannot forgive all at once.

Sometimes, even years after we were offended or hurt, after we thought that, at last we had forgiven it all, we find ourselves walking down the street, sitting on a bus or in our bed at night, when suddenly we remember our hurt and are again overcome with fear, anger, or hatred.

Does this mean that we have not forgiven at all? No, I think it means that we have not yet completed our work of forgiving. Forgiveness is a life-long task.

There is another painful task that we must undertake. We must ask forgiveness from all those whom we have harmed or hurt. We cannot go any further on the way Christ called us to follow unless we at least try to do that.

If, for whatever reason, this is impossible to do (they may have gone away, or died, or refused to have anything to do with us) we must ask God to bless them wherever they are and give them the grace to forgive us; not only for the relief of our own conscience but also for the sake of their own healing and peace.

It may be as difficult for us to believe that we are forgiven, as it is to believe in our own ability to forgive. We cannot ever forget the harm we have done.

We are tempted to seek out those we have harmed, to ask their forgiveness again and again. I know from my own experience how strong that temptation may be. But I have also learned to recognize it as a temptation, one that I must resist.

I have learned to remind myself, again and again, that God has already forgiven me; that those whom I have hurt have also forgiven me as best as they can, and that I should not impose on them any further pain by my own need to dwell on the hurt I have caused them. And so, I realized, it is I who must keep forgiving myself.

This is another task of forgiveness that we all need to undertake. We must also ask for the grace to forgive ourselves. And that may be most difficult task of all.

To admit to ourselves that we have done wrong, that we are not as good and "holy" as we thought we were, and that we need to be forgiven as well as forgive, is not easy. And so, we are often unable to forgive ourselves all at once.

This constant, patient work of forgiveness is especially difficult for those who live in a family or any close community. For is there a parent who did not sometimes lose his or her temper with a child who misbehaved again and again? Has there ever been a family in which no one ever irritated anyone else, lost his or her temper, or thought nasty thoughts?

The most innocent, cutest baby can, at times, drive us out of our minds. We can drive our family out of their minds and need to be forgiven by them again and again, forgiven constantly, as Catherine Doherty taught her community to do. How could we live with anyone or how anyone could live with us without such constant forgiving?

As I was reading St. Mathew’s text again, yet another aspect of constant forgiveness came into my mind. Perhaps, I thought, when Christ told Peter that we need to forgive others always, he, who knew how difficult such forgiveness would be for us, wanted to reassure us that we must not expect to do it all at once; that we can only do it moment by moment, step by step. I rather hope that he did mean that.

We do not have to do it alone. Christ has already done it all for us; our task is to participate in his forgiveness.

At that terrible moment on the Cross, when he was tormented and despised, Christ called out to the Father, "Forgive them, for they do not know what they do!"

All was forgiven, and God’s forgiveness embraced us all. For not only did Christ forgive those who actively participated in his torture and death and those who had abandoned him to his fate, but he also forgave every human being who has ever lived.

We cannot do it as he did, once for all. For he was God and God is infinite—beyond time or space. He knows everything; he sees everything all at once.

He knew us from all eternity; he already knew all our failings and sins. He has already saved us, forgiven all our sins, and restored us to grace. He does not have to do it again and again.

But we do. He set up, as it were, an open account—our sacrament of forgiveness—that we can and must draw from and pass on to others again and again.

We are mortal creatures. We live our earthly life moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day. This is the reality of our finite life. We cannot do anything, or complete anything, all at once. We cannot forgive all at once, we cannot repent all at once, we cannot live our lives all at once.

That does not mean that our forgiveness is not good enough, that we must try harder to forgive. It rather means, I think, that we have not yet completed our work of forgiveness. We are not yet in heaven; we are still on earth, still working out our life of faith.

We must accept and carry the burden of such endless forgiving, perhaps for the rest of our lives. Perhaps, only at the moment of death, only when we enter eternity and come face to face with the timeless, eternal love of God, will we be able to forgive and accept it all. This is, I think, one of the things we pray for when we pray for a "holy death."

And for that, we must also wait.

Irma Zaleski is the author of several books published by Novalis, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


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