I have been reflecting on the nature and necessity of forgiveness for my spiritual journey. I am writing from a personal perspective and not considering either global or national events, reflecting on the words of the crucified Christ who from the cross was able through sweat, pain, blood and anguished tears speak clearly Father Forgive them, and for his instructions to his followers over and over to forgive, even as much as seventy times seven.
In those reflections I have been considering what forgiveness is and what it is not, to often forgiveness is taught as forgetfulness, the harmful words ” now we can put it all behind us”, or perhaps worse “we need never speak of it again” are not forgiveness for me. Putting something behind and never speaking of it again are not what forgiveness is all about. Last week I spoke to a man who thought that in order to forgive he had to forget, and that because he was constantly trying to do that he was allowing the forgiven party to abuse him over and over again. What he was acting out was causing him more harm and was not forgiveness at all! He was struggling over and over to put an incident behind him and to make a fresh start but the relationship with the one causing the harm did not change, there was no moving on, and he was becoming more damaged as a result.
Forgiveness as forgetfulness also diminishes the forgiver and the forgiven one, and brings us into an area of lying to ourselves by saying that the hurt did not happen. To say the hurt did not happen is just plain wrong, to deny something is in effect to hide from it, we cannot grow through denial. Forgiveness of another demands an honesty from ourselves, the ability to say that we are hurt, that we have been wounded, and possibly the acknowledgement that we will always bear the scars of that hurt! As Richard Rhor st
“Pain teaches a most counterintuitive thing—that we must go down before we even know what up is. It is first an ordinary wound before it can become a sacred wound. Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance. I would define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control.”
All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If your religion is not showing you how to transform your pain, it is junk religion. It is no surprise that a crucified man became the central symbol of Christianity.”
I think I would argue that we cannot transform our pain; that it is only by openly acknowledging that pain before God, and perhaps before another trusted friend or mentor, someone of wise and deep spirituality who will not encourage us to wallow in it, that we might begin the process of healing that leads to transformation that leads to forgiveness, and that might well be a long and ongoing journey, a journey where when the memories rise, and we acknowledge the wounds that still hurt us we may feel that at times we are starting all over again. Special dates, anniversaries, birthdays and others may always be a struggle to live with. Places, smells, music, and even a fleeting thought may reveal that a wound is deeper than we first thought, and the journey goes on. I think then that I would argue that our pain transforms us as we lean into it, and as we lean into it we lean somehow into the wounds of Christ who offers us his pierced hands in an open embrace and says beyond all doubt “I understand”.
I wonder more and more if perhaps forgiveness is not so much letting go as letting grow, like a tree cut down whose open scar brings forth new growth and new fruit, it is a different shape now, but the new growth does not deny the scars, it simply adapts to grow from and around them. Some scars will always be visible, others will not, but they never simply disappear, but we must never deny them or the fact that from time to time they will need tending, and that sometimes, or even on an ongoing basis we may need help with that.
I want to reflect also that we are all wounded, some more deeply than others, and some better at hiding that than others, but we are all wounded and untended wounds can become nasty beds of infection where bitterness and anger can take route, and we not only harm ourselves through neglect but also others. Rhor again:
“If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity. I am afraid there are bitter and blaming people everywhere, both inside and outside of the church. As they go through life, the hurts, disappointments, betrayals, abandonment, and the burden of their own sinfulness and brokenness all pile up, and they do not know how to deal with all this negativity. This is what we need to be “saved” from.
If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somehow in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down. The natural movement of the small self or ego is to protect itself so as not to be hurt again.“
For me that journey is taking place through prayer, through counselling, through an ongoing dialogue with my own heart, and a newfound honesty about how I am feeling. It has led me to repentance, to acceptance, and to a place of peace where I am able to have more patience with myself, but there is no way I would say that my healing and transformation are complete and that I no longer struggle with my woundedness. I find it helpful that the resurrected Christ still bears scars because it allows me to bear mine and to learn to love myself in a deeper way. There was a time when I both denied and hid from my faults, when my attempts of forgiveness were shallow and brittle, but even they were a beginning springing from a desire to walk the path of love. Now I would say that forgiveness is not something I earn and is not something to be earned from me, I cannot make demands for change from the one I am forgiving but can pray that through that process I am changed. This is a journey, my journey in which the person I struggle most to forgive is often myself!