Forgiveness: The Only Path to Tomorrow

May Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.  Rule of Benedict

If you have a dispute with someone, make peace with that person before the sun goes down. – St. Benedict

"Life is an adventure in forgiveness," Norman Cousins said. You will, in other words, have lots of opportunity to practice. Don't wait too long to start or life will have gone by before you ever lived it. – Joan Chittister, OSB

Brandon should have been making plans to go to college, to work, or even just to the movies on the day he died. Indeed, he could have been in Rock Island, helping his Aunt Jackie Walsh celebrate her entrance into St. Mary Monastery. Instead, following the call of an addiction that had hounded him for years, Brandon shut himself in his bedroom and accidentally overdosed on heroin, leaving his family bereft.

In the weeks following Brandon's death, Jackie worked through her grief as best she could with the loving and prayerful support of her new community. One thing kept nagging her, though: How could the drug dealer – a murderer - be brought to justice when they had no idea who he was? How could she go forward without the satisfaction of knowing he was paying for his crime?

Ultimately, this tragedy illustrates our psychological, cultural and spiritual need for forgiveness. Why? Psychologists observe that harboring anger and a desire for revenge tethers us to the past, where we obsess about our mistreatment and even plot revenge. Cultural critics observe that social anger can provoke ongoing retributive violence on a large scale (think Belfast, the Middle East, and our own history of race riots). Theologians cite the mandate of the Bible.

In fact, forgiveness gave Jackie peace.

Forgiveness Defined
Theologians and psychologists tend to tell us what forgiveness is not more than what it is. It is not, for instance, condoning wrong acts or absolving the offender of responsibility. It is not accepting continuing to be hurt. It is not reconciliation (although it might lead to a restoration of relationship and will lead to a restoration of relationship with God).

Forgiveness is an attitude of heart and mind in which we give up our desire for revenge, and instead try to offer the offender benevolence, compassion and love. We give up our feelings of anger, despite the fact that we are entitled to be angry. We give up our obsession and begin to seek peace.

"The Shack (by Wm. Paul Young) does a wonderful job of expressing in wise and Biblical ways what happens during forgiveness," Sr. Helen Carey says. "Mac begins to find peace as he works to forgive the man who committed a horrendous crime against him. Grudges gnaw away at us. They change us into grumpy and critical people. They can define us."

Reconciling with God
Conversely, forgiveness can define us. For one thing, it delivers a host of personal benefits to those who forgive, from lower blood pressure to less stress and anxiety. But practicing forgiveness defines us as Christians as well, as it tends and mends our relationship with God.

Sr. Helen offers another example.

"I used to visit a man who was on death row for murder," she says. "Over the years, through lots of counseling and evangelizing by prison chaplains, Adam (not his real name) was able to begin working through his own feelings of social alienation and anger. Shortly after he was baptized he said, I beg God every morning to forgive me and help me forgive myself."

Sr. Helen says the families of the dead men denied permission to Adam to write to them of his repentance, but that hasn't deterred him from continuing down his own path to forgiveness from – and reconciliation with – God.

"We are called to relationship with God directly and through others," Sr. Helen says. "In seeking to practice forgiveness, we can't always re-establish relationship or reconciliation with others. Adam is denied reconciliation with the families, but God grants it unconditionally."

That is, reconciliation with God is the fruit of forgiveness and the source of peace.

Fostering Habits of Holy Living
Although being asked for forgiveness may make granting it easier, we often are faced with at least seemingly unrepentant offenders. Loved ones say hurtful things. Colleagues trample on us. Someone cuts us off in traffic. Or, more chillingly, we are victims of unidentified criminals.

"Forgiveness must be embodied in a way of life, a life marked by specific practices that enable us to unlearn patterns of sin, to repent for specific sins, and to foster habits of holy living," L. Gregory Jones writes in Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis. "For Christians, forgiveness is not simply an action, an emotional judgment, or a declarative utterance – though Christian forgiveness includes all those dimensions. Rather, forgiveness is a habit that must ... involve attending to the particularities of each person's life story... ."

The particularities of each person's life story provide ample information for understanding (not excusing) why they do what they do. To wit, their own undisclosed hurt might cause our loved ones to lash out at us, our colleagues to undervalue us and the guy in the next lane to cut us off. Although Adam's crime was on a different scale, his own life story – perhaps studded with a childhood of abuse and neglect – might soften our hearts.

Remember, Jesus Christ - who surely understood the life stories of his killers - implored God to forgive them for they knew not what they did.

Healing Our Hearts and Souls
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of forgiveness for Americans occurred following the shooting of 10 Pennsylvania Amish schoolgirls in 2006. By sundown, the grieving families had offered flowers, food and forgiveness to the gunman's widow and children. In fact, the Amish take so seriously Jesus' command to forgive that they are prepared to forgive before an offense even takes place.

"Life in the Spirit and hope for the future begins with healing," write Tad Guzie and John McIlhon in The Forgiveness of Sin, "with forgiveness of a past which so easily immobilizes us and cripples the future."

The Amish response of forgiveness helped birth healing not only in themselves, but in the widow, the children and the parents of the gunman. To this day, according to a recent article in Newsweek, the gunman's family remains in loving relationship with the Amish families.

Jackie Walsh understands. Although she will never know the drug dealer or his family – and not be able to let them know of her forgiveness – she has found healing within herself.

"It has softened my heart to pray for the dealer," Jackie says. "I pray he has a change of heart and gets help. I know there will be no incarceration for him. I know there won't be closure. But forgiving him lifted a tremendous burden. It lifted the burden of anger and restored my ability to focus on God and living a Christ-like life. It gave me peace. And has it been easier to sleep at night? Oh, absolutely."

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