To give — and receive — radical forgiveness

| Elizabeth Kelly | February 11, 2016 | 0 Comments

If Lent is an invitation to contemplate the suffering Christ, then it is also a time to contemplate the forgiving Christ, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” And in this Year of Mercy, it would do us well to remember that on the list of spiritual works of mercy, “to forgive offenses willingly,” is No. 5.

Even the most egregious offenses are not beyond the reach of forgiveness rooted in eternity. This prayer, it is said, was found near the body of a dead child in the Ravensbrück death camp during World War II:

“O Lord, remember not only men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us. Remember the fruits we have born thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of this; and when they come to judgment let all the fruits that we have born be their forgiveness.”

How breathtaking, we think, how extraordinary. But we may be tempted to imagine this kind of radical forgiveness is simply out of our reach.

Yet, the Church in modern times has been blessed with numerous, highly public expressions of radical forgiveness. Pope St. John Paul II sat with the man who attempted to murder him. Or consider the renowned story of Immaculée Ilibagiza, whose family was murdered during the Rwandan genocide, and her brother in particular by someone they both knew. She has stood in the company of this man — this man who stood in the company of her brother and murdered him eye-to-eye with a machete — on more than one occasion offering forgiveness.

These moments were not detached, intellectual operations worked out in abstraction. Instead, these moments of radical forgiveness entered into the very intimacy that was so violently betrayed and destroyed and redeemed it in the name of love.

The struggle to receive

I wonder at the possible connection between our inability to conceive of such acts of radical forgiveness in ourselves and our willingness to receive the fullness of forgiveness we are offered and so desperately need. Receiving forgiveness requires a kind of death on my part. It is a thorough acceptance of my sin and the damage it has wrought. It is the flattening of my pride, my vanity. It brings that sin I probably hate the most in myself into the light, where, the delusion that says, “At least I’m not as bad as so and so” is smashed. It is Peter, the rock, denying Christ and then fleeing the scene.

We must go through this gauntlet, acknowledging the fullness of our failing and the damage we have wrought before we can stand again and say, like the apostle Jesus loved, “It is the Lord!”

This week, spend time with Christ’s phrase uttered from the cross, “Father, forgive them,” and “No. 5.” Pray not only about offering forgiveness, but ask the Lord to show you where you need to more fully receive his perfect, sweeping, breathtaking mercy.

Next time, “Woman, there is your son.”

Kelly is an award-winning speaker and the author of five books, including “Reasons I Love Being Catholic.” She is trained as a spiritual director in the Ignatian exercises and leads retreats with a particular focus on helping women to flourish in their faith.

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Category: Lent