Learning to live forgiven
Is it ever embarrassing to talk about forgiveness? In recent columns I have talked about striving for a proper understanding of mercy and forgiveness—topics that unfortunately these days seem to lend themselves to misunderstanding. Clarity is a welcome friend when talking about mercy and forgiveness, and the centrality of the Cross is essential. So understood, why speak of embarrassment when talking about forgiveness?
My embarrassed hesitation stems from a decision to talk about forgiving oneself.Talking about forgiving oneself can easily degenerate into the moral laxity and the pseudo-therapeutic posturing recently derided by psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple in his latest book, “Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality.” We might start with the best of intentions to talk about forgiving oneself and end up paying homage to the modern god worshipped in the Cult of Self-Esteem.
Dalrymple writes: “…it is not uncommon nowadays to hear someone say ‘I’m learning to forgive myself’ (usually under the guidance of a therapist), as if such learning were hard and valuable work equivalent, say, to learning the subjunctives of a foreign language. According to the more traditional ways of thinking, learning to forgive oneself is learning how to act without scruple, how to forge ahead without regard to other people, how—in effect—to become a psychopath.”
Hence my embarrassed hesitation to speak of forgiving oneself. Nonetheless, many prayerful and intelligent people have asked me recently to conclude my Lenten reflections with this very topic. I have decided to take a theological rather than therapeutic approach, in order to avoid Dalrymple’s just and withering criticisms. Let’s talk about forgiveness of oneself in the context of sorrow for sin.
Facile talk about mercy, the overweening confidence of secular psychology, and the moribund practice of sacramental confession in many parishes make references to sorrow for sin a rarity. (“I haven’t been to confession in 17 years, Father, but it’s ok because I’m basically a good person!”) A proper sorrow for sin is necessary both morally and spiritually. An exaggerated sorrow for sin (and, yes, it does happen these days) can be crippling for the soul and an impediment to a proper love of God. That exaggerated sorrow for sin, which can hinder spiritual maturity, can be found in good people who do struggle to forgive themselves. Satan would have such poor souls believe that their identity is defined by their sins. These poor folks need to be reminded that their identity is defined by their baptism.
Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that contrition (that is, sorrow for sin) is the greatest sorrow in the world and also taught that the sorrow of contrition can be too great. Poor souls torturing themselves over repented sin would do well to recall the wisdom of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: “Grief for sins is necessary, but must not be perpetual. My advice is to turn back at times from sorrow and the anxious remembrance of your ways, and escape to the plain, to a calm review of the divine mercies. Let us mingle honey with wormwood, that the salubrious bitter may give health when we drink it tempered with a mixture of sweetness: while you think humbly of yourselves, think also of the goodness of the Lord.”
A proper sorrow for sin, that is, authentic contrition, requires genuine humility. Humility is rooted in the truth. One side of the truth is the awful fact that I am a sinner; the other side of the truth is the amazing fact that I am a sinner loved by God, Whose Mercy and Justice call to me from Calvary and from the empty tomb of Christ. Sorrow for repented sin is the first step towards freedom; sorrow for repented sin need not and should not be our constant accuser.
I found practical advice on forgiving oneself (or, as I prefer to call it, “Learning how to live forgiven”) many years ago in a book called “We Dare to Say Our Father.” (I was sorry to learn that its author left the priesthood in 1967.) His words on forgiving oneself are worth pondering: “We love them all, we forgive them all…However, let us be careful lest we forget someone. Someone exists who has disappointed and offended us, someone with whom we are continually displeased and with whom we are more spiteful than we would dare be with anyone else. That is ourselves. We are so often fed up with ourselves. We are sick of our own mediocrity, revolted by our own inconsistency, bored by our own monotony. We live in a state of indifference and even of unbelievable hatred towards the nearest neighbor that God has given us to guide and to offer to him. We would never dare judge any other of God’s creatures with the contemptuous negligence with which we crush ourselves. It is said that we must love our neighbours like ourselves. We must therefore also love ourselves in the way we try to love our neighbour.”
He has the problem clearly in view. Sorrow for sin can be corrupted. It can be twisted into a self-loathing that God does not ask for. He goes on: “Therefore, we must ask God to teach us to forgive ourselves, to appease our wounded pride and our disappointed ambition. Let us ask him to allow the kindness, the love, the indulgence, the incredible trust with which he forgives us, to win us over to such an extent that we shall be freed from that dislike of ourselves which follows us everywhere, and of which we are not even ashamed. It is impossible for us to know God’s love for us unless we alter our own opinion and feelings about ourselves, and side with him, even against ourselves, when he loves us. God’s forgiveness reconciles us with him, with ourselves, and with the whole world.”
In other words, “the accuser of the brethren has been cast out” (Rev. 12:10). Let’s not invite the accuser (Satan) back in with an exaggerated sorrow for sin that cripples us, denies the power of the Cross and Resurrection and dishonors God. Forgiving oneself, rightly understood, means cooperating with God as He speaks His Justice and offers His Mercy.
When I write next, I will speak about authentic Easter joy and its counterfeits. 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.