Posted by: mmreflections | March 10, 2009

School of Forgiveness: March, 2009

Holy One, Abba-Father, Mother-Comforter, Spirit of Truth, everywhere present, filling all things, treasury of blessings, giver of life, dwelling within us, cleansing us all stain, saving our souls, gracious Lord, praise you and thank you for the gift of unconditional love and forgiveness.

One Sunday morning after the Divine Liturgy at which I spoke of forgiveness a young man whom I shall call David approached me to talk about my homily.  It is with his permission that I share his story.  His father, having a serious drinking problem and frequently coming home violently angry at different hours of the day or night, would end up beating him and his mother.  Shortly after his thirteenth birthday his father came home late one night in one of his drunken rages and proceeded to hit his mother.  When he intervened to protect his mom, his father turned on him and was about to strike him as he usually did.  But this time David raised his hand to his father and said to him, “Don’t you ever hit me again!”  At that point his father grabbed him and threw him out of the house and told him never to come back.  It was a cold Nebraska night when he walked to the neighboring farm where his friend lived.  Theyallowed him to stay for a few days but then his friend’s mother told him he had to go back home; he couldn’t stay with them any longer.  David returned home and rapped on the door.  When his father came to the door, David pleaded with his father to let him come home again.  He told his father, “You can beat me all you want, just let me come home!”  His father told him to go away and never come back again.  That day, at the age of thirteen, he left the farm and home never to return. 

He hit the road and made his way to Denver, Colorado.  There he was fortunate enough to be taken in by  benefactors who helped him finish high school and go on to college.  After graduation he joined the Peace Corps and lived in South America where he met the woman who became his wife.  Becoming interested in the Catholic Faith, he came to me for instructions and  became a faithful and active member of the parish.  On this particular morning when he told me his story, he explained that whenever I spoke in church about forgiveness he found himself in a great deal of pain.  Why?  Because he went on to say, “I cannot forgive my father.”  Not long after that morning he moved away from the parish to pursue a career in music.  I never saw him again but learned from a brother priest that he had died suddenly and was buried from another parish back East.  I don’t know if he ever forgave his father.

About the same time a woman from the parish approached me and told me she did not like my frequent talks about forgiveness.  She chose not to receive the Sacraments because of her refusal to forgive a member of her family for something that happened twenty years before.  Again and again I found myself meeting people who were really unhappy and in pain because of issues regarding their inability to forgive.  This was often balanced by others who were unable to accept forgiveness and continued to punish themselves over mistakes made years ago. 

On another occasion a very devout and pious Catholic woman approached me after a Sunday Divine Liturgy and boldly and harshly addressed me saying, “I forgive you!”  I was caught off guard because I had little association with the person and had no idea of having in any way hurt her.  I asked her what I had done that would have prompted her to offer me her forgiveness.  With that she seized the opportunity to vent all her anger towards me about my way of doing things in the parish not to her liking.  Needless to say, I was left speechless.  The words, “I forgive you!” left me with an unsettling feeling regarding forgiveness.  Apparently I was missing the mark whenever I was teaching lessons about forgiveness.

In the early years of my service as a priest I often spoke of forgiveness from a very rational approach.  It all came from my head!  It was something we must do.  “If you forgive the faults of others, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours.  If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.”  (Matthew 6:14-15)  These words from Scripture all seemed to be very clear and emphatic.  Just do it!  As my heart opened to the pain friends and members of my parish were experiencing whenever I spoke about the subject of forgiveness, I found myself praying for guidance, wisdom and understanding.  At some point during this time situations began to arise which opened up personal wounds.  My eyes were opened and I realized there were many deep wounds from the past which I had experienced from the words, actions and lack of consciousness of others which were buried but not really forgiven.  At the same time my eyes were opened and I realized there were many wounds I had inflicted upon others by my own words, actions and lack of consciousnessness.   For many of these hurts which I caused I found myself struggling to accept forgiveness.  Now speaking about forgiveness was not quite as simple or easy.  Something was missing!

It finally dawned on me that true unconditional forgiveness was not something we can do on our own.  This was a very special grace that we can only receive by the goodness and grace of God.  “Forgive us the wrong we have done as we forgive those who wrong us.”  (Matthew 6:12)  This was a rung of the ladder which I found difficult to reach.  Having considered myself a most forgiving person, I was surprised to suddenly wake up to the fact that this was an illusion.  This was the reason my words of forgiveness from the pulpit were less than healing but rather were causing pain.  I knew in my head the great need for healing and forgiveness that accompanies it but I treated it as something that all of us can easily offer and receive.  For many of us forgiveness had become a matter of words but true unconditional forgiveness was lacking.  We have been led to think that we can truly forgive by our own power. 

What I discovered on my own personal journey is that one of the great and most important gifts for which we ought to pray is true forgiveness which always accompanies unconditional love.  “Ask, and you will receive.  Seek, and you will find.  Knock, and it will be opened to you.  For the one who asks, receives.  The one who seeks, finds.  The one who knocks, enters.  If you, with all your sins, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to anyone who asks him.”  (Confer Matthew 7:7-11)  This new awareness of my own need to forgive and to accept forgiveness, along with the realization that I could not truly fulfill this command on my own power, led me to a new direction in prayer.  I needed the help which could only come from the Holy One who is the very source of true forgiveness and the giver of every good and perfect gift.  True forgiveness had become the next rung of the ladder on my spiritual journey.  In answer to my prayer I discovered exciting and delightful ways this gift would manifest itself in my life just at the right time and just when I was ready.  With each new experience of forgiveness came deeper healing of past wounds I never expected to be possible.   For me alone much of this healing was impossible but I learned that for God all things are possible.  I also learned there is a time for everything under the sun; there is a time to hold back from forgiving and a time for forgiving.     

“There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens.  A time to be born, and a time to die.    A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.   A time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.  A time to be silent, and a time to speak.  A time to love, and a time to hate.”   (Confer Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

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