It's the thing that, if we allow it to, teaches us mercy for others.
Answering the phone, I was alarmed to hear only a deep, guttural sobbing on the other end. After a moment, the caller collected herself enough to say, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Who is this?” I asked, suspecting a wrong number.
In another second I recognized the voice; it belonged to someone who, 20 years earlier, had spread a serious falsehood about me, one that has damaged friendships and family relationships in the long term. I had, at that time, quietly refuted the lie, confident that the truth would be obvious to anyone who really knew me. I had also determined that this woman’s own painful past was the impetus for her malice, and indeed this appeared to be the case; it seems her phone call was part of a sincere effort to work through a 12-step program, and to come to terms with her own suffering.
I had prayed for this woman, and had already forgiven her in my heart, but now — for the first time — I finally said the words aloud: “You don’t need to think about this anymore,” I said. “I forgive you.”
The conversation was neither long, nor deep, and a friend of mine later said I should have asked this woman if she intended to call all the people to whom she had lied about me and take back her words.
I couldn’t see the point. The people who had believed the lie, I reasoned, must have been willing to believe the worst of me, and for all I knew, such a predisposition was rooted in my own faults and failings — in what I had done; in what I had failed to do. I neither craved a renewed approval from them nor wished to track people down in order to determine which sins of my own had created space for them to accept the lie.
Instead, I went to confession. I admitted once again that I am often an impatient, angry person; an intolerant person; a thoughtless and self-involved person who frequently misses social cues. When I prayed my penance that evening, I asked Christ to reign with His peace, between me and all of the people I had unknowingly or selfishly injured because of my meanness and my me-ness.
It was frankly easier to forgive the woman who had lied about me than to contemplate what behavior of mine had made her words so believable, to anyone. My own mercy toward the woman, in order to be truly just, required that I face some penitential realities.
The great confessor and saint Philip Neri, known as the Apostle of Rome, once heard the confession of a man who had repeated gossip among his neighbors. “For your penance,” said Philip, “kill one of your chickens and bring it to us tonight for supper. Pull its feathers as you walk here.”
The man was delighted; what an easy penance, to participate in one of Philip’s renowned pranks! Walking through the streets and alleys of Campo di Fiore, gleefully tossing chicken feathers all about, the man presented the naked bird to Philip, who received it with pleasure and then said quietly to him, “Now go, if you please, and collect all the feathers, and bring them to me, as well.”
“But Father,” the man objected, “the feathers are strewn all about Rome by now, and beyond! Who knows where the wind has blown them; I could never recapture every feather.”
“Yes,” said Philip, “just so with gossip.”
Philip’s habit of genial mercy, served with a side of serious thought, is a model for the way I want to live my life.
Perhaps, as my friend suggested, I should have gently asked my repentant liar to try to gather all of her strewn feathers, but even if I had, it would not change the fact that we live in a world full of suffering. In fact, the older I get, the more I recognize that the suffering of this world is the one thing in life that is fair — more fair, perhaps than we would like: we all have our turn at suffering. No one misses out; no one escapes suffering at some point in life.
The woman on the phone had suffered. She had finally come to understand that in her suffering, she had inflicted suffering upon me. It is crucial for us to accept that our own sins are often far-reaching, unseen and remarkably destructive. Once we understand this, it becomes much easier to forgive others — even seventy times seven.
It’s enough to make one want to gentle oneself — to remember that “as I both suffer and sin, this person does, too,” and so hold oneself back from the angry retort, or the spiteful action. To extend a little feather of kindness, or patience, or an extra dollop of mercy, to help dilute all the harm we do to each other, even when we don’t fully see it.
A version of this piece first appeared online in 2012.