Monday, March 16, 2020

Lent – a period most timely for forgiveness.

Everybody goes through Lent differently.  Of course, the Church has always recommended the "big three"  - prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and I am not suggesting that one should ignore them or take them lightly.  But what we can easily miss is that these three Lenten practices are meant to expand our hearts so that our love for God and for one another becomes purified.  This can be missed, causing us to just ‘go through the motions’ of Lent, and leave our hearts unchanged when Easter comes 40 days later.

One of the hardest things to do, whether in Lent or out of Lent, is forgiveness.  If we are honest with ourselves, it’s much harder and way more effortful than prayer, fasting or almsgiving.  But because true forgiveness requires of us to really enter into the pain and sorrow of an injured past, that journey inward has a difficulty rating that far surpasses the ‘big three’.  I am not referring of course, to forgiveness of some small mistake or oversight by people who are the ‘small players’ in life.  Forgiving these people hardly requires us to go deep and is no ‘skin off one’s nose’, as the saying goes.

What I am referring to are those pains and injuries that have caused us to harbour grudges and those memories which are so vivid that they give us heartburn when we open those doors to our past hurts, doors which somehow never get fully shut and are always left ajar no matter how hard we may try to slam them close.

These ‘pains and injuries’ may not even be people.  They may be situations of tragedy, disaster and/or catastrophe.  Forgiveness in these cases involves much more of a letting go, which can only come from our side, because we are the ones who are holding on to them.  And some of us are holding on to them with a death-like grip.

As far as people are concerned, there could be a million reasons why we could be withholding forgiveness from them.  Sometimes, in a very unhealthy way, the kind of grudges and anger that a person can have against his antagonist can be like a trophy which is not only placed in a special display case in the living room of one’s heart, but is often also taken out and polished and shined so that the anger and pain is kept gleaming like the top of the Chrysler building in New York City.  You know this to be true, especially when you take special delight in rehashing the story and bringing out its delicious details of how that person had caused you so much hurt that there is now a hole in your heart that is deeper than the Mariana Trench.

How does one forgive?  The problem with so many people isn’t that they have unforgiveness.  This is such a common occurrence.  In fact, it’s much rarer to find people who don’t have issues or persons whom they need to forgive than to find people who have them.  The big question is how?  Unfortunately, it's an art-form that isn't well taught and if it is, one of the most futile and ineffective ways of forgiveness is to base it on forgetting the incident.  It's not effective at all, because the heart has a memory storehouse that also has a refusal to forget.  Hence, if forgetting is a hallmark of forgiveness, then all people who have really forgiven those who had hurt them should be walking around with serious dementia.

I have discovered that one of the questions that we need to ask ourselves when struggling with forgiveness is to ask what is it that we are waiting for to happen before we forgive.  It may seem to be a strange question, but it needs explanation.

Very often, people who are hurting are really waiting for something to be undone, for someone to say something (examples are “I’m sorry”, or “I admit that I’m wrong”, or “I was really such a dumb fool at that time”, or “I was really selfish and I regret doing that”, etc), or even waiting for something that was cherished but was damaged or broken to be repaired first and some recompense given (and this could be something material, or even a relationship like a friendship or a marriage).  I’ve even heard of relatives who have harboured grudges that have lasted decades because aunt so-and-so did not invite her cousin or nephew to the wedding dinner of her child.  I’m not trivializing these issues at all in giving them as examples, but I am trying to make you, my reader, able to connect and relate with this very important topic of forgiveness.

Articulating this is a very important step in forgiveness.  If you gloss over it, your forgiveness will not only be small, but you would prevent the peace that you want in your heart to happen from taking place.  We need to be absolutely clear about WHAT IT IS THAT WE ARE WAITING FOR to happen before we forgive.

When we are clear, the next thing we need to do is to ask the next very important question – is our forgiveness going to mean anything FOR OUR SOUL once whatever we are waiting for to happen actually takes place?  My point is this – if you are completely convinced that your heart will be healed and that you will be in peace once that hoped for ‘thing’ happens - when you actually hear that apology that took years or decades to be uttered, or the damage to be repaired, and then you extend the forgiveness which you had been holding back all these years as some form of revenge, the forgiveness you extend will hardly merit your soul earn you any graces.  In fact, your forgiveness that you extend at that point will have no value at all in God's eyes.  Like those Pharisees who prayed at street corners to win mens' admiration, Jesus says "they have had their reward".  

You see, forgiveness is very much like a band-aid (or medical plaster, in Singapore English) that one places on a wound, or chemotherapy that is used to treat and kill cancer tumors. If a wound that has healed over has absolutely no need of a medical plaster applied to it, like the way a cancer-free patient has no need of any chemotherapy, in an analogous way, neither does a wounded memory or past that has been addressed by one’s hoped for word or action need forgiveness.  Forgiveness at that point is not only unnecessary, but has hardly any value anymore.

God wants us to extend forgiveness when the wound is raw and bleeding, when the memory hurts and when the heart is broken.  Why? Because that is the time when a lot of effort is needed to forgive.  Too many people are waiting for there to be no more reason to forgive before they forgive, and that misses the point of forgiveness altogether.

We need to remember that the model of forgiveness for every person is Jesus Christ on the Cross of Calvary. When he died for all of humanity, there was not a single sorry that was said first, he did not wait for a broken promise to be mended, he did not only die after a recompense of any form was made. He extended forgiveness despite not getting anything because Jesus needed to put the balm of salvation on the open and bleeding wound over all of humanity.  Heaven knows that if he were to wait for humanity to be sorry for its sins before dying on the Cross, he would still be there waiting to die. More to it, the Cross would not have the redemptive power that it has now.  

There is a reason Jesus said that forgiveness is something that needs to be given not seven but seventy times seven times.  He knows that we human beings have a tendency to hold on to hurting memories for whatever reason.  Forgiveness is hardly ever a one-time act, because our memories are vivid and active. Those painful memories seem to have a life of their own.  Like the Mogwai who, when the conditions are right, not only proliferate but turn into nasty and evil Gremlins in the movie of the same name, these memories of hurt that we harbour also have a tendency to proliferate and fester and cause us to become nasty when the conditions are right.  We may need to forgive the same hurt with effort each time the memory strikes at the heart and re-opens the wounded past, and make sure that those conditions don't allow us to harden our hearts.

Lent is a very good time to do this without waiting for that ‘thing’ to happen before we extend forgiveness. Please don't say "oh Father, it is easier said than done".  You are stating the obvious.  It's your knee-jerk reaction to say this.  I have never said it is easy.  Neither was Jesus going to the Cross a walk in the park.  Don't give yourself excuses and a pass from doing this just because it is difficult.  If it is easy, it's hardly meritorious for our souls.  Our love for our enemies needs to be effortful in order for it to be meritorious for our souls.  

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