In the past I made New Year’s resolutions this time of year. I wrote the usual list: lose weight, stop procrastinating, go on more dates, clip coupons. I’d stick it to my refrigerator.
I relentlessly pursued a whole new lifestyle centered around these resolutions for about 10 days, maybe less. Then I’d follow just a few, sporadically, thinking of excuses why I didn’t adhere to the others.
Certainly, the list was completely abandoned by the second week of January, when my birthday arrived.
Eventually, I thought, “What’s the point? Why bother? These resolutions are an exercise in futility.”
So I simply stopped. This was years ago, and I never looked back – until this year.
I’m making only one New Year’s Resolution, and it’s one that I’m pretty sure I can adhere to: forgiveness. I’m going to forgive. It doesn’t matter who it is or what they did to me, I’m going to forgive them. They don’t even have to know it, but I’m still going to do it.
I started thinking a lot about forgiveness over the summer, when I was involved with someone who had a long-term struggle with addiction and was initially successful but then relapsed. I had to question my life-long inability to forgive. I decided to seek advice on forgiveness from spiritual leaders; after all, forgiveness is a cornerstone of our faith, and if I can’t do that, what kind of Catholic am I?
In the end, I saw that the addiction was far too powerful for me to fight. Our involvement came to a painful end. I wasn’t able to forgive and didn’t want to continue the relationship. It was an enlightening experience, but I’m glad it was over by the end of the summer.
In the meantime, my research on forgiveness gave me quite a bit of guidance. I also began to understand the infinite, holy power involved in forgiving. While scouring YouTube, I came across an extraordinary lecture from one of my heroes, Bishop Desmond Tutu.
He spoke about the years following the dissolution of apartheid in South Africa. The new laws stipulated that police and military officers be put on trial for having committed the atrocities associated with apartheid. Bishop Tutu was present at these trials, as were the families of the black South African victims. The trials were going in much the same way as the Nuremberg Trials after the Holocaust: One defendant after another pled not guilty on the grounds that they were simply following orders. They could not be held responsible.
And then, one policeman took the stand. He was asked the same questions about committing all the acts they described: killing, setting houses on fire, imprisoning, assaulting and shooting. This officer admitted that he did all these things and also that he was following orders.
But then he did the most astounding thing: he turned to the hundreds of black families and whispered, “Please forgive me.”
For a split second, deafening silence. Then, thunderous applause from the crowd. Imagine that: applause.
These people lost their homes, loved ones, dignity and human rights. Yet they forgave him. I got chills at Bishop Tutu’s lecture. Even writing this, I still get choked up.
A personal challenge
This story presented me with a challenge: if those people can forgive all that, surely I can forgive anyone for anything. I’ve never had to deal with such horrors; my problems pale in comparison. So this is when I decided to make 2012 the Year of Forgiveness.
As Catholics, of course, we are called to forgive those who trespass against us. But this is so much easier said than done.
What to do? How to start? Are there any steps to follow? Is forgiveness something that could even be reduced to a recipe-like series of actions?
Scouring the Internet, it seems every self-help guru would like to sell us on the idea that it’s as easy as following a recipe. We all know it’s not that easy. But some concepts, ones that the Church would agree with, make the whole process clearer.
One friend helped me with this venture. She gave me a copy of the St. Francis peace prayer and told me to visualize the person who hurt me. While praying, picture them being bathed in love and light.
I really pondered the meaning of the words and was struck by this lines in particular:
“Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console…it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”
These ideas go against everything we are taught by our secular don’t-get-mad-get-even culture. But the idea that we are comforted by giving others comfort and forgiven by forgiving others is a much more valuable teaching. It does two things for us: connects us to our pain and connects us to each other. We cannot separate from those that hurt us if we seek to pardon them. And this is where I looked to my friend for advice. What if I no longer want to be connected to the person who hurt me?
She let me know that I don’t need to confront the person directly; I can just forgive them while praying, leaving it up to God’s will. I found this to be particularly helpful, because it is far more complex to forgive those who didn’t apologize or who don’t think they did anything wrong or who hurt us so much we can’t even face them. But we can certainly leave it up to Him to do it for us.
I found after a bit of practice that it really worked. I felt so much peace after reciting this short prayer. How simple and yet how powerful! Maybe those self-help gurus were right after all.
Another person I looked to for guidance is Father Richard Rohr, who said exactly what I was wondering about:
“Forgiveness has nothing to do with logic. It is the final breakdown of logic. It is a mystical recognition that human evil is something we are all trapped by, suffering from, and participating in. It calls forth weeping, humility, and healing much more than feverish attempts to root out the evil. The transformation happens through the tears much more than through threats and punishments.”
I love this. If we rely on logic, we will never forgive. Sometimes we just have to give our rational minds a rest and see that inner peace does not follow a logical path.
From a very far-reaching place, I got more advice. I recently began studying Ayurveda, a diet and lifestyle that originated in India hundreds of years ago. I was struck by a particular passage: “At the top of each hour, partake of three life-giving acts: drink a cup of warm water, do two minutes of deep breathing and forgive someone.”
It hit me suddenly: forgiveness is healthy. It contributes to our overall well-being. It is unhealthy and counterintuitive to hold on to resentments and bear grudges.
This idea speaks to the question I thought of, and many others ask: If we forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it, doesn’t it mean we’re giving them permission to hurt us again?
The answer is, of course, it’s not up to us to decide that. We forgive others because we deserve to feel peace of mind. As Father Rohr said, we will never have peace if we concentrate on the person who hurt us. Our humility in the face of the pain others inflict is the agent of transformation.
Similarly, he refers to the wounds of Christ as the means through which transcendence happens. Certainly, when Jesus asks his Father to forgive those who crucified him, we see what Father Rohr means. It is a certainly a challenge, but it is what we are called to do.
I also learned, through multiple confessions, that sometimes the hardest one to forgive is ourselves, after we realize just how deeply we’ve hurt someone else. So just as important as forgiving others, we must forgive ourselves. I am definitely including myself in my resolution for 2012.
So this is my Year of Forgiveness. I eagerly await the inner peace. For all CatholicMatch members, happy New Year! Forgive others and forgive yourselves; start the new year off with a clean slate.
To help you along, here is the Prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen