I have a favorite word I use often to describe my time here on this earth – exile. While occupying this planet the race of man has not only been given the gift of life but also the gift of choice. We have been chosen; we have been saved. But in our exile we may choose to accept or reject these gifts. Our home is in God and we are restless in our exile to return home. Your gift in our exile is life. What we do with it is our gift to You. So, our exile is also about acceptance.
In this time of my banishment from the full possession of God I learn bits and pieces of that possession so that when the pilgrimage of my exile ends and I am allowed to come back home I may fulfill my intended destiny and possess You fully.
We can choose the world to be the monastery in which we work, play, pray, and grow; in which we come to recognize, accept, and embrace the potential wonder of our exile. Thus, this time of exile should be regarded as a time of sweet pursuit. But why is this exile necessary?
We failed once in our choices. This is our second chance. Through it we can choose to align ourselves with the New Covenant. From this exile we purify the ways we think, speak, and act. Our choices point the direction of our journey.
I am pretty much against most any form of fighting. The physical aspects of defending virtue, possessions, ideals, or beliefs is, to me,repugnant. I can only see myself driven to it if violently presented with no alternative. My feeling is that conflict resolution can be obtained ina wide variety of other ways – ways other than fighting. There are also ways of fighting that are not physical, but only slightly less violent – mental ploys that are dripping with deceit, denial, and guile. These too I shun, though I am somewhat inclined to engage in them at times. If, then, I am so averse to fighting of any kind; indeed, if we as a Christian people are encouraged to exhaust all other means before fighting, why is it we spend most of our lives fighting our kismet – our fate – our destiny?
The moment we were created body and spirit belonged to God. Our existence is not complete until it rests in union with God. The component of our spirit called “the will” is the gift by which we are freely able to make choices. If our destiny is union with God, why do we make so many choices that fight against it?
As a consequence of our human frailties we have proclivities for defending the very selves we need to diminish in order to properly recollect and pursue our destiny. We are competitive about ourselves and so seek to emphasize our beliefs, to uphold our ideals, to compensate for our shortcomings. At many times these are all ways of fighting our destiny rather than coming to terms with it. This “fighting,” physical or mental, is a self-imposed smoke-screen that obscures our direction. Letting go of all such fighting, of all such kicking at the goad, is a positive step toward harmony with our destiny.
One of the points we may miss in Your rich story of the prodigal son is that no one (including the father) knew exactly what the boy would do when given his inheritance; and even when it became apparent, no one knew exactly how it would end.
The inability to foresee how anyone might behave is an important element in being merciful and forgiving. It’s something we should keep in mind even when regarding the most obvious sinners. Hope, indeed, springs eternal in the potentiality to do good – a potentiality everyone has, yet often ignores. But You forgive our tendency to ignore as did the father his wayward son. The message is that we should be just as forgiving. Rather than throwing his hands up in despair or vitriol the father (and You) show patience and hope – as should we. If we are able to keep this before us there is no reason why we should be so quick to take vengeance or exact punishment when someone does something bad. The potential to turn themselves around is always there, and that is a source for hope, not retribution.
I know there are some people who should probably be locked up, but the potential to change our lives (as did the prodigal son) precludes capital punishment. Where there is life there is hope; just as the prodigal son’s father had, patience, hope, and forgiveness – and then great joy and celebration.
The story doesn’t tell us about the rest of the prodigal son’s life. He may have reformed for the rest of his life thus justifying the patience and hope in his potentiality; or he may have relapsed presenting new opportunities for more patience and hope. Such is the way we present ourselves to God with all our ups and downs – and God is always patient and hopeful for us.
We do not want to know anything bad about those we love. In fact, we don’t want there to be anything bad about those we love. I kind of think this is the way You feel about us too.
When we fall in love with someone our earliest instinct has to do with the goodness of some aspect(s) of that person. As we learn more about that person we try to hang on to that early perception. We use that perception to veneer the faults and foibles we see in the other as our relationship grows. We have a strong proclivity toward denial of anything that denigrates that perception. We hang on to what we love about that person despite their faults. We overlook and forgive their faults because of the goodness we still see in them.
Our own innocence diminishes with age, but You still perceive that early, pure goodness in each of us, and You forgive us our straying from it.
Thoughts along these lines cannot help but point up the absolute necessity of forgiveness in a love relationship. It is not an addendum, it is actually a component. To forgive is to love. Thus every thought, word, or action that works against forgiveness works against love. Maybe the reason we don’t want there to be anything bad about those we love is because it makes love easier. When the faults and weaknesses pop up, love demands work!
It seems to me that most people (including myself) are more inclined to punish than forgive. When an injustice is committed our thoughts almost always go automatically toward revenge, berating, imposing penalties, getting even, exposing the wrongdoer, or making sure they “pay the price.” Our thoughts do not usually go spontaneously to ignoring, forgetting, or simply overlooking an injustice. The reason this is so might be because of certain concepts about God that are taught from an early age.
The specter of a just God who judges us and has the power to cast us into eternal punishment looms large on impressionable minds. It is also something of a paradigm of the way we treat others. Hence it is “like God” to punish wrong.
To this day Your message of forgiveness, love, and humility in the face of wrong is a more difficult and intimidating challenge than punishing or leveling penalties. And, as You well know, we always pick what is easier for us to do. From “go sit in the corner,” to “you’re grounded,” to “road rage,” to “payback,” to the electric chair, punishing is easier than forgiving. The path to mastering forgiveness never seems easy, though it really is. The simplicity of “letting go,” overlooking, forgiving and forgetting couldn’t be easier except for one thing that gets in its way: the “self!” We are so in love with our “self” that whenever it is a victim, whenever it is shamed, insulted, embarrassed, or ignored it must level a price for it – a price that nullifies the hurt by equaling it.
We seldom know the hearts of those who commit injustices. Their seeming evilness often hides their redeeming qualities. But You see deeply into what they really are and You are more willing to forgive them than to punish them – thus showing us that the priorities of our natural inclinations must, from a primary concern for love, be revised.
When we closely examine our lives I think we are always able to find at least one thing that both confounds us and blocks us while, at the same time, it shames us. In my own life I’d have to say it’s my relationship with my own brother. He’s my only sibling and he’s 12 years older than me. It might seem fitting that I look up to him, but I have a hard time with that. It puzzles me how my wife and her two brothers have usually not been very close just as I have not usually been very close tomy brother – but our four grown children are truly very close to each other.
In the case of my brother and me I usually figure the “problem” lies in the 12 year age difference. We never had much of a relationship when I was young. He was in school or out with friends pretty much all the time until he quit school to join the navy. I was six or seven then and the times I did see him he always teased me which I didn’t like. When he got out of the navy he got a job as a salesman in a city 200 miles away, got married, and settled there. We knew each other but we were not really part of each other’s life – except for one thing – music! That has been the only great bond of mutual agreement over all these many years. Now, when I’m in my 60’s and he’s in his 80’s we see each other about once a month and talk on the phone occasionally. He is alone with his dogs and his ways are set in concrete. It is rare that we can talk about anything without arguing. He would say we are “discussing.” Only with music is that not the case.
I cannot speak for his feelings (which have always been unfathomable to me) but I, for my part, feel a sense of shame that I have failed so many times to get closer to him. There seems something wrong with the ease with which I lump my own brother with others with whom I may not get along. It’s not hard for me to think of all the ways he makes the relationship difficult. But, if I’m serious about this, maybe I should think more about the ways Imake the relationship difficult. Though the blood in our veins is the same our ways of thinking are almost totally opposite. The attitude of a salesman has unconsciously pervaded his modes of dealing with other people. He is good at persuading others. I have allowed my distaste for this trait to continually affect my attitude about him – even to this day. But this attitude of mine fits also with the rest of the people closest to me whom I love most. It is precisely them whom I wish to be most perfect and of whom I am less tolerant of flaws. Are they the measure of my love for You?
Forgiving is a big part of loving unconditionally. To dismiss hurtful actions, words, or attitudes and to not only ignore them but to totally disregard them is a hard thing. Yet, forgiving hurt that is directed specifically at me is much easier than forgiving hurt that is directed at someone I love. My pride, my ego, my self-image, my character and my integrity can be attacked, slandered, or even destroyed. I lean on You because You are the ground of my existence. If Your life is my spiritual guide; if humility and servitude is the example and message of the saints – then I can, with the strength of the inner life I cultivate, ignore, dismiss, and disregard it all because it debilitates my wish to love.
But if these arrows are aimed at my parents, my wife, my children or grandchildren, my best friends, or even those I greatly admire from afar – that, somehow, is a different story. Where I might refuse to defend myself, I am willing to go to war for others who are dear to me.
What intuition in us confines forgiveness only to what is easy to forgive? And what makes it so difficult to forgive those who transgress people we love? One possible answer to the firsts question is “the self.” The self always looks for the easiest, most comfortable way. Being a totally unforgiving person makes one feel uneasy, uncomfortable, and even ashamed. So we look for that which is easy to forgive; namely, transgressions against that self. We can often deal with these transgressions inwardly and privately because they are sort of “hidden.” By that I mean in many cases those who have offended us don’t even know they did it.
But regarding an answer to the second question, we must look to our proclivities to champion the underdog, to defend the defenseless, to right wrongs – because both the transgressors themselves and our actions against them show outwardly, and our “self” is very concerned that they do show because they bolster both our self-image and the image we wish to project to others. Simply forgiving these transgressions makes us a “wimp.” But – and here’s the tricky part – that would have made You the greatest wimp in history!
My brother’s got a dog. Actually he’s got two dogs right now. He’s had as many as three at a time. One of his current dogs is a pit bull named “Mugsy.” Mugsy has compiled a reputation of infamy. The dog flat out scares me – and I love dogs. This one has attacked and bloodied other dogs on two different occasions in a local dog-walking park. Needless to say, he’s been banned from that. On another occasion he killed the neighbor’s cat. He even went after me once, grabbing my pant leg and growling because, apparently, I got up too quickly from a chair near him. The most recent entry on his rap sheet was his biting of my brother’s hand severing the flexor tendon of his pinky finger and requiring a visit to the ER for stitches. That was the last straw for me. Now I refuse to go into my brother’s house unless Mugsy is outside. He scares me!
Now the reason I’m writing to You about this is because this whole story got me to thinking about forgiveness. My brother forgives that dog everything he does. He defends him and makes excuses for him. His attachment to him seems unconditional. I can’t do that! If Mugsy was a person I’d want to stay far away from him. I think if he was a person, my brother would avoid him too; but for Mugsy, the dog, his forgiveness and love are boundless.
In a way, it’s like Your love and forgiveness of us no mater how evil, nasty, and repulsive we may be. Yet I cannot help but thinking that the key (even to unconditional forgiveness) is remorse. My brother might imagine that Mugsy’s sad eyes express remorse – but I’m not so sure. I’d want to hear from him that he’s sorry and will try harder. I’ll wait for that!
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like there’s a real difference between being forgiven and feeling forgiven.
When I am forgiving I want whomever I’m dealing with to not only know that they are forgiven, but to forget the matter entirely. Yet, if I examine things for which I’ve sought forgiveness and received it, I find the joy of being forgiven colored by the darkness of the memory of that for which I was forgiven. The guilt (or maybe shame) clings to the memory despite being forgiven. I would not wish it was this way for people whom I forgive. But I realize in myself that it is probably as true for others as it is for me.
The faults and failings that have been confessed over the years for which forgiveness was sought and gained renders the joy of a clean slate – but with baggage! The baggage mounts as the years go by. The baggage, of course, are the memories of the trespasses for which we sought and obtained forgiveness. Indeed, if I look back on the failings for which I’ve been forgiven, it’s not the forgiveness I remember but the failings. Forgiven or not, it’s the memory of those failings that haunts me.
I have a feeling that what this shows about me is a misplaced fixation on my past errors rather than on being forgiven and forgetting them. I think this is what You want. If I trusted You perfectly I could do it. But my faith and trust are still shaky. That, in itself, is a fault. Yet, there is no time in my life when I occasionally do not think back to my major failings with a feeling of shame – even though I do believe and trust that You have forgiven me. Maybe those twinges are Your way of reminding me of my weakness and lack of trust, and that the only one I can really count on to forget my past is You. Would that I could forget. The memories underline the necessity of placing full trust in You.
Sins and faults for which I seek forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation, generally speaking, have become monotonous lists of the same things over and over again. You must be a bit bored (not to mention disappointed) to keep hearing the same old same old. You must wonder about my sincerity to reconcile with You and to amend my life. But I’m of the opinion that real sin for me is not on any of the lists of sins that I may see or make up. My real sins are far more subtle and insidious. They elude the lists.
When I examine my conscience I stick pretty much to the commandments, church laws, and works of mercy. I think that’s pretty much how I was taught so that’s what I stick to. But I am aware of many other subtler traits that separate me from You – sins that don’t fall directly under any of the commandments or laws.
What about arrogance? What, in my mind, separates me from others, separates me from You.
What about self-righteousness? Am I the measure of mankind? No, You are!
What about manipulativeness? Am I here to use others or to serve them as You did?
What about conceit and ego? Pride precedes the fall. It is the meek and humble You have called blessed.
Then there is my cynicism which tends to look upon people with a jaded eye instead of seeing the love that flows from You to them.
All of these are selfish things – things that center on me. Denial of self is the only solution.