Forgiveness is at the very heart of the Gospel, and it is a clear tenet of our faith. Jesus made it clear he expects us to forgive as we have been forgiven.
But what about traumatic, destructive wrongs done to us? What about toxic relationships and people who have done us serious harm?
Even in these cases, Jesus asks that we trust him enough to let him set us free, allow him to set things right, that he might redeem and renew.
Forgiveness of deep and malicious harm (I am not talking about childhood trauma here but things that can happen to us as adults) is going to first require a walk with the Lord along the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross. If we try to skip Lent and Good Friday in our lives when terrible things happen and go straight to Easter flowers and butterflies, we will not come truly to forgive as Jesus asks. There has to be truth and processing that truth emotionally and mentally as a human being must.
There is also the temptation, though, to over process. The wounds from a traumatic set of events can be so overwhelming, and the damage so extreme, we can’t stop going over and over it and trying to understand. “Why would so and so do such a thing? How could she? What was he thinking? It’s unjust! Not true! ” and so on. This is understandable and natural. But if we process over much we not only re-traumatize ourselves but we can get stuck for a long time. We can become very attached to these deep grooves our minds and hearts get used to running in, never letingt God close enough to lift us out of them and transform our suffering.
Fortunately for us, “Yahweh knows that we are dust.” (Ps. 103:14) He compassionately waits for us until we are ready to hear his voice calling us to forgive, to leave our nets and be free to follow him.
Three years ago my brother committed suicide. In the time leading up to his death, during the initial shock of it, and for a couple of years afterward, there were things that others consciously did that caused me irrevocable harm.
I knew I had to forgive all of this and everyone involved at some point but the prospect was overwhelming.And I was such a changed person. I felt like a much meaner, reactive person, even an alienated person so different than I had been before my brother died.
I was encouraged that St. Thomas Aquinas taught that love is in the will. Therefore to want to love is to love. Following that reasoning, I thought that to want to forgive is to forgive, or at least to make a beginning that Jesus would be pleased with. I did want to forgive. Sort of.
My mom used to say, “You just have to be willing. But sometimes you have to pray for it. Sometimes you have to ask to be willing, and other times you have to ask to be willing to be willing. And then there are times you ask to be willing to be willing to be willing!” So I began to ask.
The verse “It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me,” (see Gal. 2:20) was a strong foundation for me. I did not have to be my old self to make this quest because Jesus lives in me. I believed this. I understood that I had to “prepare the way of the Lord,” (Mark 1:3) and he would do the parts I could not.
I went to Confession. I confessed my inability to forgive, as well as my stubborn resentments, reactivity and rage, and also the way I chose to express these things at times, that had hurt others. I told the priest I needed help. I was stuck.
After absolution, I listen to the priests’ spiritual counsel about trusting and being attentive to God, recognizing in this case forgiveness would be a process that required work, guidance and grace.
I continued to pray, to fall, to confess, to try again. I tried to open my heart to God’s grace.
I realized I had a lot of tools at my disposal, things I had learned over the years to help myself through so many trials. “HEY,” I thought. “I have a PhD. in life!
One thing I know is in times of inner chaos it is important when one gets into a rut, to master one’s thoughts.
The first thing I noticed when I turned my attention to my thought life was that I was thinking of all that had happened, engaging in angry or upsetting thoughts at least once every fifteen minutes. Obviously that was not helpful.
So, similar to the way I manage distraction in prayer I began to try to notice when I was caught in those thoughts and pull myself back from them gently again and again though the day.
I found the most helpful way to do this was to replace those thoughts with the names of Jesus and Mary. When overwhelmed I would take a fast walk silently or aloud saying, “Jesus. Maria.” If not a walk, I sometimes filled notebook pages with the holy names. I mentally repeated them while I worked as a continual inner prayer, clinging to Jesus and Mary instead of negative thinking and resentment.
In this way, I commended these thoughts and their objects to Jesus, and to Mary’s prayers.
I chose “Jesus Maria,” partly because this is what was written on St. Joan of Arc’s banner that she had carried into battle. I was definitely in a spiritual battle so I carried the holy names into the thick of it.
It began to work. After some time I realized I was only thinking those negative thoughts now and then, and finally not even every day, and now, hardly ever.
I also began to spend quiet, focused time every day mentally going slowly and prayerfully over a memorized passage of Scripture or from one of the great mystics, that inspired me. Over time I noticed I was not as angry or reactive anymore. Doing this kind of prayer really quieted my heart and helped me begin to change.
I still did not feel that I could truly forgive or let go of the people, places, things and situations I was upset about, even though I was doing and feeling much better.
“What do I do?” I asked my brother in Carmel, Fr. Gregory. “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess you have to wait like Therese’ little bird.”
St. Therese loved the image of being a small bird in a storm, holding tightly to its branch, waiting for the Sun. I tried to make that trust and hope my own. I saw that my emotions were like the weather that comes and goes, and changes so often, but God unchanging would be my Sky.
One of our Friars, Fr. Bonaventure, gave a talk in which he spoke about the difficulty of figuring out how to love destructive people who gossip and lie, pollute relationships, ruin community. He mentioned that sometimes people like that are destructive and “must be sidelined.”
Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their dead and come follow me.”
I saw that one of the reasons I was still stuck in un-forgiveness was that I was still engaging people who were deeply invested in mischaracterizing and misunderstanding me. I was setting myself up to be hurt again and again. And I was losing my equanimity along the way. This did not help them, did not help me. I was struggling still in a tangled net.
I realized that part of forgiveness is is accepting people who are not sorry, who will never change, who don’t want your forgiveness … exactly as they are. Isn’t this what Jesus did from the Cross when he said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do?”
At my next confession I asked the priest, “How do I get there? How do I say ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” and really mean that?
After some gentle but direct questioning from him,and through my answers, I saw that though I had not deserved what happened to me, had not done anything wrong exactly, nor especially failed my brother, that my heart condemned me for being too passive, that there were things I should have known or done for myself, for my daughters, and for my brother.
The priest suggested that as part of my penance I go before the Lord and say to him, “Father, forgive me, for I knew not what I did.”
It was a quiet thing. Nobody rang any bells, as far as I know. But a stone was rolled away from my heart. Humility was sweet. And forgiveness came.
It was a gift.
Blessed be God.
All that has happened in these last few years is a part of my life and who I am. I still freak out sometimes. It still hurts at times. But I have finally left my tangled nets to follow Jesus in freedom of heart once again.
The sun is shining.
I’m even skipping.