Mercy and Forgiveness — 4

In this fourth post, I’d like to consider the relationship between mercy and forgiveness and the experience many of us have as ‘average church-goers’. We are not, by and large, theologians or scripture scholars; most of us are lay people, and the majority of us would probably admit to being weighed down at times by a sense of failure or bafflement that, despite our best efforts, we seem to make the same mistakes over and over again. We find it hard to forgive others, and sometimes even harder to forgive ourselves. We are an Easter people with more than a whiff of sulphur about us.

I think it’s perfectly normal to feel like that, but feelings alone are never a very good guide to what is going on. Moreover, mercy and forgiveness are not the whole story, at least, not as we experience life. There are other concepts that, practically speaking, prove just as important: justice, for example, and a multitude of other factors that come into play whenever we talk about sin, love, mercy, all the big things in life. We are complicated and complicating creatures. At times we feel we’re running some kind of race, but it’s not always the one we think we are, and our own muddled thinking may be to blame for some of our problems. God’s mercy isn’t at war with his justice, yet we tend to think it is. Many of our difficulties follow from that false opposition. Let me try to explain.

How often, when we talk of someone’s being merciful, do we mean that they have let somebody else off scot-free (incidentally, a very telling term relating to a tax or settlement of an obligation) and allowed them to escape a punishment that was properly due to them? We forget entirely the biblical origins of the word (see post 1) with its connotations of pity and fellow-feeling. Effectively, we harden our hearts and close ourselves to forgiveness  — a bit like the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who was angry that his younger brother should behave badly and then be welcomed back joyfully. The injustice of it! (And if you don’t have a sneaking sympathy for the elder son, believe me, you are very, very virtuous.)

If we don’t rebel against such undeserved good fortune in another, we try to make a distinction between forgiving and forgetting — which is reasonable enough until we recognize that all the effort we are putting into remembering makes it impossible ever really to forgive. The truth is that forgiveness is rarely a once-for-all act. If it were, it would be much easier. We human beings may have to forgive again and again, taking the anger and hurt we have experienced and dashing them against Christ, who alone can draw the poison. We have to insert ourselves into a dynamic of forgiveness, as it were. I’m guessing the elder son in the parable sometimes found his brother’s face at breakfast hard to bear and had to make a conscious effort not to say or do something cutting. It would not be strange if he sometimes failed, just as we do.

We make life harder for ourselves by wanting God’s justice to be exactly like our own. Our modern ideas are associated with law and the scrupulous apportionment of blame and punishment. We talk about ‘justice being done’ in a court case and mean that guilt has been ascertained and punishment meted out. An older idea of justice certainly includes that notion, but it has as its primary focus the restoration of right order, which is a more difficult concept for most of us to grasp. Right order isn’t a wishy-washy attempt to annoy no-one or ‘live and let live’ in a world that has very little to trouble or vex it. Concern for right order implies a powerful and sustained attempt to ensure fairness in a world that is manifestly unfair, flawed, difficult to categorize. It means working to resolve conflicts before they degenerate into hatred or hostility, and a readiness to acknowledge the claims of others in an equable manner. It is really quite exhausting, because justice of this kind can never be automatic, either in its operation or in its sanctions — unlike the fixed-penalty fines for certain transgressions of the civil law.

There is a further problem, of course. We look at the Crucifix and see Jesus hanging there, knowing he has taken on himself our sickness and sin, and we feel guilty (see post 2). We turn our gaze away from him and focus on ourselves, seeing nothing but negativity. Then we remember that it was love, not nails, that kept him there; that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘if I could have suffered more, I would have suffered more’; and all our theoretical ideas about sin and punishment come tumbling round our ankles and we must look Mercy in the face and know him, as for the first time, ruefully admitting that our ideas were too small for so great a Redeemer, one who wants to share his very life with us (see post 3). We speak of sins to be forgiven, debts to be repaid, but he annihilates them all in the abyss of his love! He wants us to be what God intended from the first: true images of himself, whole, healed, beautiful.

One of the great gifts of the monastic order to the Church has been private sacramental confession — an opportunity to meet the mercy of God and experience the joy of being forgiven not just once, on our death-bed, but throughout life, again and again. Over the centuries the Church has articulated the theology of this sacrament with great care. Everyone knows that it is not enough to state one’s sins and express sorrow for them. One must also put right what one can and have a firm purpose of amendment — the desire to change for the better. These are sometimes seen as necessary pre-conditions for forgiveness; and sadly, people often become so focused upon their ability/inability to meet them that they miss the fact that God’s grace is already operating in them, already drawing them to the sacrament to experience his mercy and forgiveness. In an important sense we can say that we have already been forgiven if we seek God’s forgiveness, although we have still to make the changes in our lives that forgiveness demands. A problem comes, however, when we have to apply to others the grace we have ourselves received. Forgiven, yes; but forgiving?

One often hears people say that forgiveness has to be earned, that there has to be evidence of repentance. I don’t think that measures up to the gospel standard. God in Christ forgave us without any evidence of repentance on our part, without our doing anything at all to earn his forgiveness; and I think he expects us to follow his example in relation to others.  We are to make others whole as we have been made whole ourselves. The disciples were told to forgive an uncomfortable number of times. When asked who our neighbour is, Jesus replied with the Parable of the Good Samaritan to show how we ourselves must be neighbours to others. We are to concentrate on what we can do, not on what we think someone else should do, but we have a tendency to waste time and effort on their sins and shortcomings which we usually see more clearly than our own. An example will show what I mean.

I have sometimes been questioned about the fate of Judas by those who want absolute certainty regarding something the Church wisely prefers to remain reticent about. It is a little too close to ‘delighting in the sins of others’ for my taste — I have enough sins of my own to worry about — but I can see why it can be troubling. We want a world in which the parameters of good and evil are marked in black and white, where good is rewarded and evil is punished. Having to tread a path that’s largely different shades of grey is more problematic. It means we have to make choices, and how will we know we’re making the right ones? We won’t always, alas, and there’s the difficulty. Where sin is not so much a matter of debts to be calculated and repaid but a sickness to be healed and an estrangement to be ended, our firm footing in the world can look decidedly wobbly. Knowing that we can never fall below the love of God is fine in theory, but in practice we can feel lonely and exposed, buffeted by conflicting opinions and desires. We want to do the right thing but, like St Paul, have the sinking feeling that oftentimes we fail. We forget that Christ came among us to deal with failure and restore us to fullness of life.

In calling on the Church to celebrate an Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis is asking us to be stretched in ways we never thought possible. He is asking us to experience more deeply than ever before God’s unfailing love for us, and to share that love with others. I have no doubt that, as the year unfolds, there will be much to ponder, much to do. Pope Francis is asking us to become, in effect, what Mary, the Mother of God, was: an aqueduct, a channel for the life-giving fountain which is Christ. That is no mean task for us all.

Note: the Vatican has set up a special web site of resources for the Holy Year which you can find here. If you feel daunted by the size of the task the Holy Year lays upon us, let’s ask the prayers of St Mark, whose feast-day it is. The short ending of his gospel concludes with the disciples’ feeling afraid, not yet the confident evangelists they were to become. (Mk 16.8) I think most of us can probably identify with that.


11 thoughts on “Mercy and Forgiveness — 4”

  1. Thank you for a profound reflection that sheds light on a subject that I for years found troubling. One thing that still troubles me is that my late Uncle in his life after WW2, abandoned the Catholic faith, which had sustained his life as a prisoner of war for several years, as memories of what he’d actually done during the war seemed to convince him that God’s mercy wouldn’t extend to him because of the things that he’d seen and done (in War fighting) which he believed went against the commandment of ‘Thou shalt not kill’.

    It was troubling to me as my words were inadequate to convince him that God’s mercy was greater and all embracing and that those things that he’d done were part of his duty while serving his country. There was no harm in regretting them, but he shouldn’t bear a life long guilt for them. Easy for me now to express those thoughts, but in a fraught, highly emotional discussion between us, I find them difficult to express well enough to convince him.

    Due to his inability to accept that forgiveness, his children ensured that he had a totally secular funeral, arguing with me that he ‘didn’t do God’, despite they themselves having been baptized catholic as children – none professed their faith now.

    Its so easy to use trite words to express something, when deep convincing, profound words are needed – they failed me when not, I, but he, needed them and I can only regret that fault.

    However, I have the consolation of your description that God’s mercy and forgiveness will have been working within him – he was being drawn towards it, even though he couldn’t see it for what it was. God be praised.

    • May I add one further thought which may be of comfort? The Catholic practice of praying for the dead, especially in monasteries, where we pray for them at the end of every Office (service) and every meal, as well as throughout the month of November, when we have additional Masses and special prayers, means that no one is ever left unprayed-for. Whatever remains to be forgiven after death, we ask should be forgiven. That is part of our duty and privilege as members of the Communion of Saints. I think a lot of people torment themselves with the thought that they cannot be forgiven. We can reject God, the possibility of mortal sin is always there, but I think we are sometimes too quick to assume we have made such a choice. In your uncle’s case, I would dare to say that his regret at what he did during the War was an indication that he never rejected God completely. I promise you my prayers for him.

      • Thank you Dame Catherine. I too pray for the dead, so while now an Anglican, a Catholic heritage is one that I do value. I managed to organize a memorial service for him, so he was prayed for at that. It was a substitute for the Catholic funeral that he might have had, if his children had cared enough to listen to him more carefully than they did.

  2. What a thoughtful week you have given us.
    Sometimes a phrase or a word will stand out in our own minds to give us an insight we need in our own lives.
    Among all the great thoughts you shared with us for me and perhaps only me “the abyss of his love” was a startling revelation. A new way of seeing the unbounded love and mercy of God.
    Thank you.
    Those were words that this morning when I am feeling rather grim and low have brought great and immediate comfort.

  3. Here’s Thérèse, too : ‘Il me semble que si toutes les créatures avaient les mêmes grâces que moi, le Bon Dieu ne serait craint de personne, mais aimé jusqu’à la folie, et que par amour, et non pas en tremblant, jamais aucune âme ne consentirait à Lui faire de la peine… Je comprends cependant que toutes les âmes ne peuvent pas se ressembler, il faut qu’il y en ait de différentes familles afin d’honorer spécialement chacune des perfections du Bon Dieu. A moi Il a donné sa Miséricorde infinie et c’est à travers elle que je contemple et adore les autres perfections Divines !… Alors toutes m’apparaissent rayonnantes d’amour, la Justice même (et peut-être encore plus que toute autre) me semble revêtue d’amour… Quelle douce joie de penser que le Bon Dieu est Juste, c’est-à-dire qu’Il tient compte de nos faiblesses, qu’Il connaît parfaitement la fragilité de notre nature. De quoi donc aurais-je peur ? Ah ! le Dieu infiniment juste qui daigna pardonner avec tant de bonté toutes les fautes de l’enfant prodigue, ne doit-Il pas être Juste aussi envers moi qui «suis toujours avec Lui» ?…

  4. Please forgive this, if it’s too much, but that Doctor of the Church, Ste Thérèse, and you seem to me so much in tune when it comes to these fundamentals :
    ‘J’avais alors de grandes épreuves intérieures de toutes sortes (jusqu’à me demander parfois s’il y avait un Ciel). Je me sentais disposée à ne rien dire de mes dispositions intimes, ne sachant comment les exprimer, mais à peine entrée dans le confessionnal je sentis mon âme se dilater. […] Oh ! que je fus heureuse en écoutant ces consolantes paroles!… Jamais je n’avais entendu dire que les fautes pouvaient ne pas faire de peine au bon Dieu, cette assurance me combla de joie, elle me fit supporter patiemment l’exil de la vie… Je sentais bien au fond de mon coeur que c’était vrai car le Bon Dieu est plus tendre qu’une Mère […] Je suis d’une nature telle que la crainte me fait reculer ; avec l’amour non seulement j’avance mais je vole…’

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