Why it's so important for your health and your soul
“Mercy” is a hot topic in Catholic circles these days. Many people speak of Pope Francis as the “Pope of Mercy” and he himself has declared a Holy Year of Mercy. Mercy is surely an essential element of Christian proclamation, but sometimes I find myself wondering how well truly Christian mercy is understood. In my last column, I wrote that mercy is not the cancellation of the moral order or some fantasy that somehow sin does not matter. I noted that mercy, “…while free, is never cheap. God’s mercy is rooted in the Cross.”
During Lent, we hear much talk about forgiveness. Just as a facile treatment of mercy undercuts both mercy as well as justice, so too, a facile treatment of forgiveness, however well intentioned, can do much harm.
Intuitively, we know this to be true. All of us have had the experience of being wronged, followed by someone urging to us to forgive: “You’ll feel better, and you’ll get so much healing if you’ll just forgive.” All that may very well be true—why then do we hesitate to forgive, when exercising forgiveness can bring healing? Do we want to remain miserable? I doubt it. I think we hesitate to embrace the healing that forgiveness can offer because, at least sometimes, we need to receive healing *before* we can forgive. So often, we hear such glib talk about forgiveness, as if it were some kind of magical formula. It seems we are being told that if we say, “I forgive,” then—presto-changeo—ta da!—instant healing!
But we know that can’t be true. We instinctively hesitate to embrace such a casual attitude towards forgiveness because we know that such magical thinking won’t work, and, worse still, it threatens to remove from further consideration the grief, pain and anger we have suffered when we were wronged. At some level, we already know that if our grief, pain and anger are merely dismissed, we will never receive the promised healing that exercising forgiveness is purported to bring. What to do?
Sometimes, especially if we have been seriously wronged, we need some form of “pre-forgiveness” healing. At a minimum, we need to take our wounds to prayer and mourn in God’s presence. We need to meditate on the compassion of Jesus Who suffered innocently; we need to invoke the compassion of His Sorrowful Mother. Once we are assured that our pain, grief and anger are real and are not dismissible—that solace can enable us to exercise forgiveness. (If the wounds we have suffered are very profound, we should turn to the guidance of skilled therapy and spiritual direction, in addition to prayer, in order to find that needed pre-forgiveness healing.)
In our better moments of clarity, the promise that exercising forgiveness can bring a deep level of healing is attractive to us. We don’t want to be bound by our wounds and pain. When I was working as a hospital chaplain, I read a book called “Trauma: The Pain That Stays.” Proper forgiveness offers us the prospect that the pain does not have to stay.
If we refuse to forgive, or we refuse to seek what we need in order to forgive, we will let another’s wrongdoing (with its painful consequences) define us. We will open ourselves up to bitterness and resentment, which can become so toxic that we move from painful feelings and hateful thoughts to vengeful (perhaps even murderous) actions. But when we are mindful of how merciful God has been with us, when we reflect upon the divine readiness to forgive us even though we have offended God infinitely, then we are more likely to consider how we might extend forgiveness to others.
“Forgiveness” is a generic term that needs to specified so that it can be applied rightly to concrete situations. An excellent summary of the kinds and benefits of forgiveness can be found in a brief