Monday, June 24, 2002

Community: Forgiveness

Peter asked Jesus,"Lord how often shall my brother sin against me,and I forgive him?
As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but seventy times seven." (Matthew 18:21-22)

When I walked into her hospital room, she could tell I wasn't having a good day. Tony and I had got to know each other pretty well over the past few months and there were times when the roles of patient and chaplain seemed to get reversed. She was dying of congestive heart failure and had been in and out of the hospital numerous times with stays ranging from several days to several weeks. They'd dry her lungs out, patch her up and send her home again where there wasn't anyone to take care of her. Soon she'd be back again. Tony was a devout Catholic and as serene as Buddha. She'd had a hard life, raising a large family on a meager income mostly by herself since her husband had been an alcoholic until he died years ago of liver failure. Her joyful faith was an inspiration in spite of all the trouble she'd seen. We had wonderful long discussions and she had much to teach and inspire an inexperienced recent seminary graduate.

She kept pressing me about why I was so long of face that day and I ended up confessing my anger at the person who had wounded me so badly. He was my superior on whom I had depended on and whose good will I needed and I felt hurt and betrayed and helpless to do anything about it. After a time, I asked her how it was that she had endured so much and had such a hard life and no help from an abusive husband, yet could be so calm and serene in spite of it all. She told me she had forgiven him. Anger is far worse than heart disease or a cancer, she told me. Sickness can destroy our body, but anger can destroy our soul. Someone does us an injustice. If we let that injustice dominate our heart, we continue to suffer injustice every day of our life, long after the original incident is passed. But we can transform that injustice and pain through forgiveness and find peace once again.

Well, I'd heard all that before. Certainly, I know we should forgive our enemies. The problem is, how do we go about doing that? Some things are much harder to forgive than others. Perhaps some things should never be forgiven. Does forgiving mean forgetting? It's one thing to forgive a friend who's made us mad or even an enemy who has injured us once, but how can we forgive someone who has repeatedly injured us. How do victims of serious crimes forgive the perpetrator? How can a child forgive dysfunctional parents for years of abuse? How do people forgive such things as sexual abuse or the destruction of a reputation or the infliction of an injury that has life long consequences. Sometimes it's not possible to distance our self from the person who has hurt us. We have to go on enduring their malice or the after effects of the injury day after day.

According to Jesus, forgiveness is a process we must practice over our whole life. Somehow, we are called to develop the capacity to receive, embrace and transform suffering. It takes a big heart to do this. Many people never experience justice in this life. How can we apply this teaching to all the pain and suffering we hear about in the news? It seems endless; war, terrorist attacks, kidnappings, economic exploitation and injustices, attacks on human dignity, sexual and physical abuse. The pain and suffering I've endured looks small up against the vast misery of the world. As long as humans have lived in community, there has been conflict and suffering inflicted by one party on another. In the Genesis story, the first two brothers came into conflict and one killed the other in a fit of jealousy.

I was beginning to learn that forgiveness is at the very heart of the spiritual quest. Buddhists don't talk about forgiveness; instead they talk about the impermanent nature of feelings such as anger and the perceptions that lead to suffering. I've learned that both western religious traditions and eastern ones are driving at essentially the same thing, only from different directions. The transformation of suffering takes place through receiving, embracing and transforming. Books, advice columns, mediators, negotiators, counselors and support groups proliferate.

It's a huge subject and time was short. How could you do it, I asked. How were you able to forgive him and find peace in spite of all that has happened. Oh, she said, I couldn't do it on my own. I'm only human. I knew he was God's child, the same as everyone and that somehow God understood him and forgave him. After all, Jesus forgave the people who killed him, from the cross. So I forgave him with his forgiveness. I would say to myself, "I can't forgive you myself, but I forgive you with the forgiveness of Jesus."

It was only a first step, a baby step, but it was all I could manage for now.