It was a pleasant day in 1942. A young woman arrived home to a strangely empty house. Her family, including a favorite 10-year-old little brother, were gone; she was never to see them again.
Not long after, they returned for her and sent her to the so-called “labor” camp known as Auschwitz where she spent the next three years until liberation in 1945. Several years ago this woman became my neighbor, friend and confidante.
One day I shared with her some troubling family issues involving one of my children and his uncles, my sibs. As a result of misunderstanding their nephew, the uncles blackballed an awards ceremony honoring him. I deeply resented this slight, and told my friend I would never have anything more to do with them.
“Your brothers?” she said in wonder.
I saw her look of astonishment. And in her face I also saw the young woman who, in one fell swoop, lost every member of her family. She looked at me intently but gently. Putting her hand on my arm, she simply uttered two words: “Forgive them.”
Instantaneously, I was given to understand the depth of her message. What would I feel, how would I feel, if after this falling-out, those brothers were to disappear as hers had? The suddenness of this realization totally destroyed my sense of outrage and resentment. And even more amazing is the fact that, since that experience, the act of forgiveness has never again been difficult for me, much less impossible.
This is grace at work for sure, and I attribute it to the influence of this dear friend who had for three years endured real shame and torture. My sense of insult was indeed trivial by comparison.
Our recent Mass readings have dealt with forgiveness. St. Peter questions Jesus about how many times one must forgive another: Is seven times enough? [We are so mercenary we need to know the exact number. Heaven forbid I should forgive anyone more than required!]
So Jesus responds: Not seven times, but seventy times seven!! In short, there are no limits, just as God places no limits on forgiving us.
This past week also saw two relevant feasts back-to-back: the Exaltation of the Cross, and Mary, Mother of Sorrows.
In his first statement from the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Obviously, he had already forgiven his executioners, but as always he subjected himself to his Father’s will and desire, and prayed for that. And Mary, a mother watching her son not simply being insulted, but tortured and maligned: how could she forgive these barbarians? Unfortunately, the Gospels have no record of her remarks or thoughts on that occasion. But we can fill in the blanks, knowing that she had been aware all through her son’s life that his faithfulness to God’s will would mean horrors for both him and herself. She had accepted all of that years ago and couldn’t break the habit.
One thing I know about the refusal to forgive: it hurts me more than the one who has “hurt” me. Some wise person remarked that refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Oh, that awful burden of anger! The heaviness of carrying those grudges! Is there anything worse?
Nothing is more liberating than the act of forgiving another. Counter-intuitive as it seems at first, it gradually becomes easier, and we find ourselves looking for words like Christ’s from the cross. My prayer must not be for myself, and not for the punishment of others, but rather that they will know the happiness of conversion and the forgiveness of God through me.
Here is one of the foundational teachings of Christ, so often repeated as the prelude to a physical healing. “Only God can forgive sins,” said his critics. Not so, according to our divine teacher. We have been made in the image of God and are called to grow more authentically into that holy image. We’ve therefore been given the power – and indeed the obligation – to forgive, to feel and show mercy. As we practice this divine habit, our teacher smooths our way, making it easier and easier to turn away from our life-destroying thoughts and desires.
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Merchant of Venice, Act IV