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Lent: A Time of Piercing Forgiveness

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 03/24/15

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

by UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Marmer.  I will adapt some of his insights and advice and relocate them into a specifically Catholic context.

The most complete form of forgiveness we might call “reconciliation.” In reconciliation, we find a mutuality between the wronged and the wrongdoer.  The wrongdoing and its ill effects are fully acknowledged by both. If possible, efforts at reparation are made. Credible re-assurances of contrition and reformation are made. The relationship between the wronged and the wrongdoer is restored to its prior condition. This kind of forgiveness requires spiritual, moral and emotional maturity on the part of both the wronged and the wrongdoer.

A second form of forgiveness is “forbearance.”  Here, the mutuality between the wronged and the wrongdoer is incomplete. The wrongdoer might not accept full responsibility for the wrongdoing (“See what you made me do!”) or admit the extent of the harm (“It wasn’t so bad!”). Or, the wrongdoer might not be capable of full reconciliation. For example, I’ve worked with adults who are coming to terms with a disastrous childhood. They would very much like to reconcile with their parents.  But their parents are very old and variously impaired—more like elderly children than spiritual, moral and emotional adults. These folks have come to see that their parents are simply not capable of reconciliation, and that it would be both futile and cruel to insist on it. At the same time, they want to maintain a relationship with their parents, so they exercise forbearance. They make a choice to not let the value of the relationship be overshadowed by the real wrong that they had suffered.

A third form of forgiveness is “release.” In some cases, the wrongdoer admits no wrong, or cannot be found, or may even be long dead. Such cases can produce acute suffering in those who have been wronged; these poor people can be tempted to despair of ever finding healing. It seems that they will be forever defined by the wrong that they have suffered and that the fingerprints of the wrongdoer will forever mark the soul of those who suffer. But even in such cases, there is healing available for those who exercise release. Such persons make a decision to not allow their genuine grievances to be what is most important and effective in their lives.  They choose to live in such a way that the borders and possibilities of their lives are not constrained by their pain or grievance. They choose to be larger than the wrong that was done to them. To exercise release is to exercise a special kind of heroism.

Is it enough for a Catholic author to say this much, especially as we are on the verge of Holy Week? No, of course not.  For Catholics, the impetus to exercise forgiveness must be something more than an urging of forgiveness as a practice of good emotional health that any competent therapist might recommend. Faithful Catholics who live for and from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and who know well the costly grace given them freely in the confessional know that the exercise of forgiveness is for them a privileged opportunity to be made into the image and likeness of Christ. They know that they are loved sinners. They know that God made a shocking and costly choice to save them from their sin. They know that bearing wrongs patiently and exercising forgiveness is a concrete proof of their gratitude for the divine mercy they have undeservedly received. 

Faithful Catholics recall that Jesus said to His disciples:  “Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) In other words, as we have received forgiveness from God, we are called upon, with God’s grace, to exercise forgiveness.  Jesus took upon Himself our sins, overcame them, and calls us to share in His victory. Our sharing in His victory over sin includes repenting of our sins, and extending forgiveness to others, in imitation of Our Blessed Lord, Who “…was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

When I write next, I will speak of a type of forgiveness that sometimes appears all too easy, and may in fact be all too difficult, namely, the forgiveness of ourselves. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.

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CatholicismFaithPracticing MercySpiritual Life
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