For those of you who have followed this blog since its inception, you will remember a particularly raw entry that appeared shortly after Christmas. Reflecting upon that post some ten months later, I find that I’m not impressed with myself. At the time I was writing from a desperate place; I had been unexpectedly wounded by someone close to me and was really beginning to grapple with nonviolence for the first time. I wrote myself as a martyr and painted the rest of the night’s participants as wolves. While not unforgivable, the post is pretty melodramatic and should be taken in the context that it was written. I was an overworked, sleep deprived, burnt out, sanctimonious college student studying religious ethics. That type of melt down was bound to happen – it happens to us all. What about seeing the splinter in our brother’s eye, while ignoring the beam in our own?
All of that being said, it was still an incredibly painful situation that left a wound that I’ve had to come to terms with over these months. For the majority of this time I’ve thought that simply not wishing ill, not harboring any resentment but keeping myself as far away from the person that hurt me was what counted as forgiveness. It wasn’t until I began making the list of people I wanted to invite to my wedding that I had to confront this misconception. Despite how I felt, I knew that if I didn’t at least extend the invitation to my cousin that it would open the door to not only a lot of questions but, ultimately, a lot of arguments. Simply put – I was, due to family obligation, being forced to confront the question of what forgiveness really is.
My go-to scripture is the Beatitudes. I feel like this passage points the way to what it means to become fully human. Sadly, this time around I couldn’t glean anything from the passage. I couldn’t figure out what the nature or quality of forgiveness was – just that we should forgive. Then, out of nowhere, it came to me; the parable of the Prodigal Son.
That’s some pretty heavy shit.
Reader’s Digest version: The younger, foolhardy, son asks his father for his inheritance early only to run off and squander it on pleasurable things. Once the inheritance has been spent, the son returns home to a father who welcomes him back with open arms.
If we take our time to read the story we find that its focus isn’t the son, rather it’s the father, and if we slow ourselves down even more we are given not only the methodology of forgiveness but also the quality that forgiveness should take.
Firstly, we need to dispel the myth that the son is repentant; he is not. He squanders away his inheritance, leaving him filthy, starving and – horror of Jewish horrors – tending pigs. In a moment of clarity, he remembers that his father’s servants were well fed and schemes a way in which to return to his father so that he can be fed; “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your servants.” (Luke 15:19-20) His plan is to placate his father, in hopes that his father will have enough mercy to fed him – this is not repentance, it’s self-interest. Yet, in these two short line we are given the first clue about forgiveness; Forgiveness isn’t predicated on the repentance of the receiving party.
Next, we need to consider the fact that the father is not unwise to the motives of his son. He has spent his life with his sons and it’s likely that the youngest’s recklessness isn’t a new development, but rather a hallmark of his character. In all reality, this probably isn’t the first time the youngest has hit rock bottom – nor is it likely to be his last – anyone that has been parent to an addict understands, fully, both current motives and what the future could hold. Thus, we are given the second set of clues; Forgiveness is not bestowed out of ignorance – simply, that we do not forget what has happened, or ignore that we could be hurt by this person again.
Finally, the father is depicted embracing the son, pronouncing forgiveness, clothing him in finery and arranging for a celebratory feast. It his here that we are given the flavor of forgiveness. Forgiveness is reconciling with those who have wounded us, joining with them in our very hearts. We are to welcome our offenders with all the joy of the father – we are to clothe them with the riches of our heart.
So, what are we getting at here? In order to forgive, we need to:
- Forget about the other person being sorry
- Give up the idea that forgiveness means forgetting.
- Understand that the person who harmed you, can harm you again.
- Be prepared to continuously forgive the person for both old and new incidents.
- Fully reconcile, each time we are hurt, with the person who harmed us.
This is the sort of forgiveness that Jesus calls us to – and it is incredibly difficult. For weeks I wondered if I had the strength to forgive my cousin in this fashion, sometimes I even wondered if I wanted do. Despite having the answers outlined above, I still questioned how I could do it. These questions were still plaguing me as I attended Mass this Sunday, and in a grand example of God’s love for us – the reading just so happened to be the passage containing the Prodigal Son.
Ok, God – I’m listening.
What I gleaned from an excellent homily was that forgiveness is like learning how to swim; at first we need a support bubble to help keep ourselves afloat while we desperately paddle against self-perceived death. Over time we gain both courage and confidence, no longer needing our floaties to help us stay above water. Finally, we become experienced swimmers, cutting an elegant arc through the water. The only way that we can learn the type of forgiveness the father displays is by doing it – by jumping into the water, having a strong support network to keep you afloat, and by practicing.
We – I – are called to forgive because it propels us down the path on our journey to full humanity, because it stops the cycle of anger and hurt in my own body, because it’s healing to the very wounds that eat at us and because I want to come from a place of love.
And so.. I have to take a deep, deep breath, cringe a little bit and jump in to the vast ocean of forgiveness. This is the first step of that journey.