Friday, January 16, 2015

Forgiveness: Not So Fast

Since before I can remember I have said the Lord’s Prayer. Taught me by parents I thought would live forever, The Lord’s Prayer seemed eternal and unchanging. Then when I was ten it changed.

My family began attending Episcopal services instead of Congregational, and I no longer asked and offered forgiveness of debts and debtors. Now I had to wrap my tongue around the word trespasses and the ungainly phrase those who trespass against us.

As a young Christian, I never thought much about the difference between debts and trespasses—one an unpaid bill, the other a boundary violation. In fact, I never thought much about this part of the Lord’s Prayer at all. By saying Forgive us our debts or trespasses or whatever, I only figured I was striking a sort of level bargain with God:

Forgive me, Lord, because I’m doing my best to forgive the people who have been mean to me. So let’s call it even. Got a deal?

My experience researching and writing the story that led to the memoir excerpted elsewhere on this blog brought me up against forgiveness in a serious way for the first time in my life. What do you do when you believe you were misled and mistreated in the name of spirituality?

I was hard on myself when I realized how long I had stuck with a teacher and then a teaching that I now believe was bad for me—like a spouse sticking with an abusive relationship. Many friends had a ready answer for me:

You have to forgive yourself.

Let me just say that the whole business of forgiveness gets terribly muddled the moment you say you only have to forgive yourself. First, such an approach cuts God out of the equation completely, and you can forget about the Lord’s PrayerSecond, this approach assumes that forgiveness is within your power in the first place.

Researching and writing the story of the guru Gulliver, I discovered that forgiveness was not in my power, not directly anyway. I prayed and “thought things through” and tried to think compassionate thoughts and even tied to hit the forgive button in my heart. Forgiveness just wouldn’t come. I finally concluded that forgiveness might not be within my power, that it might require some outside help, and I wasn’t thinking therapy. I was thinking about God, the Holy Spirit. I was thinking a lot about grace.

Please God, take this hatred from my heart. 

I made a few discoveries along the way, and I want to close with these.

1. I came to believe that I couldn’t forgive by myself but that I had to participate in forgiveness. That’s what the words from the Lord’s Prayer have come to mean for me.

I’ll do my part, God, as I understand it, but you know I need your help. 

In my case, my part involved two years of grinding through the story and swearing to myself the whole time that I would not publish until I “got to forgiveness.” In thinking I could get to forgiveness, I suppose there was still quite a bit of my own will, as in, I can do this if I just stick with it long enough. But certainly this much has to be true:

We can’t get to forgiveness until we want to get to forgiveness. Sometimes resentment and hatred can prevent our even wanting it.

2. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius helped. In one exercise, the retreatant is instructed to imagine hell and some of the lost souls there. I make no judgment by writing the following, and of course I am not qualified to make such a judgment, but this was my experience—I imagined Gulliver, my guru, in hell, center stage, horribly tormented. I won’t be graphic about Gulliver’s torments. All I will say is that imagining Gulliver in hell gave me compassion for him. I had no sense of, I told you so. I had a deep sense of pity for him, the soul inside the actions I considered evil.

3. Something else helped me separate Gulliver the human soul from the evil behaviors that he was guilty of. That something was fiction. The decision to fictionalize my story came to me only two months ago after a meeting of the Spiritual Exercises, a sleepless night, and half of a morning’s mass. In the middle of the liturgy of the Eucharist, I realized that if I fictionalized the story, I could let it go.

Letting the story go meant publishing it. But it also meant letting Gulliver go. By calling him Gulliver, I created a space between myself and the historical human soul I was describing. The effect was almost magical. I will now call him Gulliver to the end of my days, even if you think you know who I’m talking about, because it provides distance and safety for my own soul.

4. When in doubt, turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). Don’t understand a prayer or teaching of the Church? There’s a paragraph or page just for you.

In my case, this morning, it was paragraph 2842, in the middle of the chapter on the Lord’s Prayer and the lines about forgiveness. It is one of several paragraphs, and this is already a long post, so I am going to quote it and let it be. Please know that I am far from understanding this paragraph entirely, but I know that I need to understand it. This is what the CCC says:

. . . as we forgive those who trespass against us

2842 This “as” is not unique in Jesus’ teaching: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”; “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful”; “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” It is impossible to keep the Lord’s commandment by imitating the divine model from outside; there has to be a vital participation, coming from the depths of the heart, in the holiness and the mercy and the love of our God. Only the Spirit by whom we live can make “ours” the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. Then the unity of forgiveness becomes possible and we find ourselves “forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave” us.

If I read that correctly,  forgiveness is fundamentally Trinitarian and therefore a mystery. No wonder I had such trouble understanding it.

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