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.