Over the past few days, and especially the powerful readings that shaped the Liturgy of the Word this past Sunday and again today, have been leading us into a mystery that is so often overlooked in contemporary society. Far from eschewing the old “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth” philosophy, from the looks of things in modern society we seem to be embracing this “gotta get even” way of thinking more than ever before. How distant and alien this is from the radically new and transformative message of Jesus that we must forgive others as we hope to be forgiven ourselves; indeed, that we must love not only those who love us but we must love and forgive even our enemies!
Certainly in all the years of preaching retreats and speaking with literally thousands of men and women from all backgrounds, the topic of forgiveness is one of the major issues that good, loving people find themselves dealing with in daily life. And, not surprisingly, they find it to be one of the hardest things in fully living their call to follow Jesus faithfully. Because life’s hurts and disappointments come again and again living this Gospel message of pardon and forgiveness is one of the greatest challenges we all face in fulfilling this radical message of the Gospel.
Countless books have been written from a variety of perspectives about how to forgive those who have wronged us. There is no easy way. Frequently I find myself reminding the good people who come to St. Paul of the Cross Retreat Center in Detroit that forgiveness is an act of the will, not simply an emotional surrender or easing up of initial pain and hurt at a feeling level. Consequently, as a decision that we consciously make, it sometimes has to be repeated over and over again, even as we remember life’s hurts and the feelings that accompany those memories come flooding back into our hearts. Often, as we relive painful events in our lives, and because we re-experience those emotions, too, we then judge ourselves as having failed to truly forgive the other, and, consequently, failed to fulfill the commandment given us by Jesus himself. Yet, the truth is, as long as I make that conscious decision to forgive, to surrender the hurt and pain, and as long as I reiterate that choice over and over again, surely the forgiveness asked of us by the Lord has been met and lived out in our life as a disciple and follower of Jesus. The peace that we offer the other should fill our own hearts as well and we should not be misled by memories and emotions that can wreak havoc if we forget what is really and truly at the heart of forgiveness.
The concluding words of Jesus in our Gospel passage make it very clear that the kind of forgiveness Jesus asks of us is radical, so very difficult to achieve. Yet, in following his example, we do far more than what the pagans do, we love even those whose lives are devoid of forgiveness, mercy, or love. Why, we even dare to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect! Imagine that!
Fr. Pat Brennan, C.P. is the director of Saint Paul of the Cross Passionist Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Michigan.