Forgiveness and mercy
“Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
This was a quote we reflected on during the retreat “Forgiveness: The Path Inward.” Sister Paula Damiano and I facilitated the retreat several months ago at Providence Spirituality and Conference Center at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Our first goal with the retreat was to establish what forgiveness is and what it is not. We looked at some myths that exist about forgiveness:
- “I can’t forgive because I can’t forget.”
- “If I forgive someone but don’t feel it, then I am being a phony.”
- “Some people don’t deserve to be forgiven.” (This was a tough one for many.)
- “People who love each other don’t have to ask for forgiveness.” (For couples, this was a poignant myth.)
- (And, the all-time favorite) “Asking forgiveness means saying, ‘I am wrong and you were right.’”
The participants seemed to really get in touch with a deeper meaning of what self-forgiveness and forgiving the other were all about by better defining the word.
Rituals of forgiveness are a huge step to healing the pain that often comes with the need for forgiveness. The prayer services and reconciliation service offered over the weekend were powerful for most, if not all, attendees.
We gave each participant snippets of some poignant resources on pain and forgiveness for reflection during the weekend retreat and after.
One beautiful resource we used was an article by John O’Donohue on “Exploring Our Yearning to Belong.” He writes, “When you can forgive, then you are free. When you cannot forgive, you are a prisoner of the hurt done to you. If you are really disappointed in someone and you become embittered, you become incarcerated inside that feeling. Only the grace of forgiveness can break the straight logic of hurt and embitterment.”
Next we looked inward. We shared other peoples’ stories of forgiveness. This helped some to resonate or connect with an external experience less threatening than their own internal and intimate story. We watched a video called “The Big Question.” It dealt with stories of public forgiveness. One story dealt with the very private Amish community thrown into the public eye. Ten young Amish girls were shot in a one-room school house, five fatally wounded. The story told how the families of the girls were able to forgive the killer and even go so far as to hug members of his family during funeral services.
What kind of courage does it take to genuinely forgive something that horrific? What kind of mercy was shown toward perfect strangers?
An act of will
Forgiveness is an act of the will. It is a choice to let go of the desire to get even with someone who has hurt you. That is the conclusion most of us came to during the retreat. We really do have control over forgiveness.
Reconciliation, on the other hand, is something over which we have no control. We can seek reconciliation. But if the other party refuses, there is nothing we can do except pray that the other will accept God’s grace and see the value in reconciling.
Forgiveness is a process, and a slow one at that. We cannot rush forgiveness. If we do it becomes insincere. It takes time, patience and mercy and it is never an easy journey to make.
There is a clear connection between mercy and forgiveness. When one breaks down the definition of the Latin word for mercy, Misericordia, it is derived from two words meaning misery and heart. When we are asking for God’s mercy, we are asking God to relieve us of a heart that is in pain or misery. In other words, we ask to forgive.
We held a healing heart prayer session in the Chapel of the Shrine of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin in February. Healing, forgiveness and mercy are inextricably linked. We all need to be healed in some arena of our lives. May we all have the courage to make the journey of our hearts toward that reality.
(Originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of HOPE magazine.)
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