How do you keep relationships open in your family? In this way, for Monbourquette, we take the ninth of twelve steps in forgiveness.
We are stuck
|‘I don’t think I’ll be coming to the growth group in forgiveness anymore,’ says Jeanine ( ° ). She struggles to keep her voice quiet.|
‘I have taken all the steps. I have decided not to take revenge. I’ve tried to stop the injustice. I took care of the wound and marked it out. I have understood my brother. But every time I see him, it hurts again. I cannot forgive him. I just can not.’
After we are hurt, our hearts are like a battlefield. A small or larger part of ourselves has been churned up, lies fallow, still full of remnants of the battle waged. The thistles and usury plants are everywhere. We wonder if this wasteland can ever turn into the beautiful, blooming garden we long for.
We start by protecting the terrain so that no new damage can be done ( step 1 ). Then we start clearing debris and weeding (steps 2, 3, 4 and 5). We forgive ourselves for allowing what happened (step 6).
So the road to forgiveness begins with making decisions, working on ourselves. When the time is right, we can look at the other person and try to adjust our image of him or her a bit (step 7). We look for the meaning of what happened (step 8).
All this inner work was necessary and demanded the time it took. It was a lot. And then we understand, more and more, that it is not enough.
No matter how hard we work, no matter how much we weed and sow, our garden will remain a wasteland unless it rains and the sun gives its light. Our garden needs water and light, and we cannot conjure them up with hard work.
Therefore, the next step is not about doing something, but about learning to receive. We can only pass on what we have received ourselves.
Have we ever been forgiven ourselves? And… did we receive them?
Obstacles to Receiving Forgiveness
In every person, there is also a ‘perpetrator’.
Cain, the fratricide, and Abel, his victim, are in each of us. If we dare to go back to the past with an honest look, we see how we have hurt others ourselves. Perhaps this was rarely with the intent to hurt, but was it to defend ourselves, teach someone a lesson, or give someone a taste of their medicine.
Or maybe it was just because we were so focused on our own goals, values, dreams, and aspirations that we didn’t even realize we were hurting other people.
It can be about recent events or things that happened a long time ago in our family, our circle of friends, the sports club, the school, in our neighborhood, at work.
It can be about small things or more serious things: a misguided act, a thoughtless word, an insult, a gossip, etc.
Whatever it was, during our lives we have hurt others and there have always been those who have generously forgiven us for these injuries. These relatives, friends, and colleagues have continued to treat us with the same kindness. They have given us new opportunities. They have not charged us for the past.
It is liberating to think back on these experiences. Every time we think about it, we receive anew the healing gift of forgiveness.
Yet there are many obstacles in receiving this gift of forgiveness.
We may think that what we did is unforgivable.
Then we see our mistakes as so great that we will never be forgiven.
Or we are suspicious of the gift of unconditional forgiveness because we don’t believe it exists. We do not believe in ‘love for nothing’. Many experiences confirm us in this – how often do we meet people who give unconditional love?
We can refuse forgiveness because we deny that we have hurt someone ourselves. That doesn’t fit with our self-image. Perhaps we are moral perfectionists and try really hard to always do the right thing. So if someone does feel hurt by us, it must be the fault of the other. Or maybe we like to think of ourselves as victims of a harsh outside world, deeply hurt but never hurting. We deny our guilt because it doesn’t fit with our self-image.
|Karen and Tim ( ° ) are a classic example of opposites attracting. She would do anything for her relatives and friends. Her energy flows into caring for her husband and children.|
Tim is a task-oriented person who is completely absorbed in new projects. His family is certainly not in the first place in these projects, it is rather the beloved home port where he comes to refuel.
During the first ten years of their marriage, there is a lot of conflict because of this difference. Over and over, Karen accuses Tim that “he doesn’t really love her.” One day, a turning point will come.
Karen recalls: ‘I had cornered him once again with my flood of words. I thought I had told the truth for once. I had only given an accurate account of the facts, I had not exaggerated. But Tim didn’t answer. He looked very pale and went outside. I went after him angrily and asked if he would at least give me an answer. He sat on the sidewalk and looked up at me. I had never seen someone look so sad, it went straight through my heart.
“I don’t understand how you can see me like that,” he said then, “I couldn’t even think such things about you.”
I stood dad. All my well-crafted arguments about how he’d failed me and the kids evaporated. There sat the man I liked. I had promised, ten years ago, to be good to that man, to love and appreciate him – and I had made him as unhappy as I had never seen him before, I had razed him to the ground. I was so full of my hurt that I didn’t even see how deeply I hurt him.
I also sat down. We sat there in silence for a long time.
‘We have to approach this differently’, I said. ‘I want to avoid hurting you.’
“Me neither,” he said.
It took us years to find a better balance, but that moment was the beginning, the moment I realized I had hurt him too.’
Or maybe, as children of our time, we hate feelings of guilt.
Certain positions in modern psychology have convinced us that any feeling of guilt is psychologically sickening. As soon as a feeling of guilt arises, we suppress it, and thus never come to whether there is real guilt.
Experiencing that you are worthy of forgiveness
Only the experience of unconditional love can remove these obstacles. Only the experience of a forgiveness that does not make us feel inferior or humiliated, but rather loved, can open our hands to receive forgiveness. In this way we experience that we are ‘worth’ forgiveness.
We are not worthy of merit, we are worthy of who we are according to the person who forgives us.
At that point, forgiveness becomes a declaration of love.
It touches us in our deepest being. We feel deeply human. You can compare the feeling with the warm feeling of security and trust of a child that is desired by its parents and is liked for itself.
And how such an experience invites us to pass on this forgiveness!
|I had deeply hurt my wife with my sharp words. In my anger, I had said so many ugly things. I had gone way too far. My attack was even unjustified. My dear wife wept. Then suddenly I felt lost. My anger stopped. I began to blame myself in silence. ‘What a dumbass I am, an asshole. This will never work out again.’ I couldn’t hold back my tears anymore. I was in so much pain and sorrow for what I had done to her. Both weeping, we sat there in silence for a long time.|
Finally, searching and groping for my words, I asked her to forgive me. I was afraid of her answer, for were my sharply misplaced words to be forgiven? Then the miracle happened.
My wife took both my hands. She said, “You hurt me a lot. I hope you never do that again. I’m going to try to forgive you, but it will take a long time before I feel closer to you again.”
The answer came straight from her heart. Her answer touched my deepest fibers. It is an experience that touched me deeply. I couldn’t forgive myself for such stupidity, and my wife did. I felt guilty and a tiny person. I didn’t deserve this, but my wife could forgive me. What my wife did then was great. I don’t even know how she could do it. It is a precious moment that will live on in my memory forever. The way she has forgiven me has increased my love for my wife.
From: T. Fiereman, I, my neighbor and my God , Abbey Bethlehem, Bonheiden, 2003, p. 33.
However, when we look around us, we see that there is a big difference between the chances of such healing experiences .
Those born into a warm, loving nest have better chances of forgiving and loving relationships than those who lack this solid foundation. Without that basic trust, the barriers to receiving love and forgiveness are higher, from negative experiences in the past.
Is it then with forgiveness, as with the other things in life? Does the person who is born in the best circumstances have the best chance of a good job, satisfying relationships and a life full of love and forgiveness? Does the person who is ‘good’ in relationships also have the best chances of good relationships? And are those who are damaged hurt even more by broken relationships? Is the healing power of forgiveness another example of ‘the winner takes it all’?
Or are there ways for everyone to receive forgiveness? Is there a forgiveness that is accessible to all people? What’s more, with this forgiveness, is it just the other way around, with the most hurt and the most hurting people in the front row?
When Love Speaks
We increasingly leave the field of our own work and enter the mysterious field of what is beyond us.
It is difficult to describe this, often we can only testify about it, such as the testimony below from Corrie Ten Boom, a religious woman who had given shelter to Jews with her family during the Second World War. She was imprisoned in a concentration camp with her sister. To her surprise, she discovered in these horrific circumstances that God’s love was stronger than all the hatred around her. Her sister died, she herself was released. She decided to testify about that love all over the world, even in Germany. One evening she was speaking in Munich. After the meeting, a man approaches her.
|Corrie suddenly recognized one of her executioners from the concentration camp in that man. She remembered how he had humiliated her and her fellow inmates by forcing them to shower naked while he, the bermensch, looked on in disdain. She was paralyzed and couldn’t speak. She stood there with a cold heart. But she also knew that forgiveness is not an emotion. Forgiveness is an act of will and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.|
“Jesus, I feel unable to forgive this man,” I prayed silently. ‘I’ll get my hand up, I can still do that. You take care of the love.’
Thus, woodenly, mechanically, she placed her hand in the outstretched hand. And while she did, something incredible happened. She felt a healing warmth fill her whole body, right down to the clasped hands.
“I forgive you,” she said, “with all my heart!”
They shook hands for a long time, the former guard and the former prisoner. She had never felt God’s love so intensely as she does now. And at the same time she realized that this was not her love, it had been given to her.
Free after: Corrie Ten Boom, Wanderer for God , Gideon, 1995, pp. 46-49.
How can such a sudden turnaround be explained?
First there was the experience of Jesus forgiving her that she could not forgive. By receiving that unconditional love, she could do the impossible: she could pass on this forgiveness to her executioner.
Forgiveness plays an important role in all religious traditions.
Forgiveness is central to Christianity. Already in the first chapter of the first Gospel it is stated that Jesus came ‘to set his people free from their sins’ (Mt 1,21). The theme of forgiveness is repeated over and over again by every evangelist and letter writer.
All too often, this divine forgiveness has been distorted and mutilated over the centuries. She was abused to keep people small. Far from being a declaration of love, this forgiveness was presented as something to be earned. In the distant past, people were incited to obtain this forgiveness by buying indulgences, scourging themselves, going on crusades. More recently, forgiveness could be earned by meeting the demands of an oppressive morality of duty. The penetrating “God sees you” eye was not a loving look, but a judgmental look that left people weighed down with a deep sense of guilt. Needless to say, whoever determined the debt burden and handed out the ‘rewards’ and ‘punishments’ put themselves in a position of power.
The aversion to these negative experiences with an imposed guilt and sense of sin can be so great that the words ‘divine forgiveness’ can no longer even be used. If so, feel free to search for words that aren’t a barrier.
Far from being humiliating and abusive, true divine forgiveness is a love letter that can be received anytime, anywhere, by anyone. It is the declaration of love of the God who became small to be close to people.
Or as the Benedictine John Main puts it, “What people call forgiveness is the realization that God has always loved them.” (see step 11)
Everyone has noticed that forgiveness is easier when you are happy. This applies to minor issues: annoying behavior of the children is playfully laughed off on holiday, while in a busy week it can lead to a serious argument. The same goes for more serious injuries. Things are easier to make up after a pleasant evening than at a time when everything seems to be going wrong.
Receiving the gift of divine forgiveness, like happiness, gives people more power to forgive themselves. This is the ‘sun’ and the ‘rain’ discussed in the introduction. This is the piece that we cannot make ourselves, we can only receive it.
|A mother tells of her drug-addicted son: ‘He lied to me. He robbed me. He humiliated me. He destroyed my family. He has exhausted me. I don’t know where he is. I don’t sleep anymore. But when he knocks, I’ll stand behind the door and open it.’|
Her friend asks her where she gets such power.
Her answer is: ‘I have spontaneously rediscovered the prayer of my childhood. “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors. I have kept a childlike faith, not an adult, I know that. But this sentence is my strength.’
What this anonymous woman, Corrie Ten Boom and countless others have experienced is also a signpost in forgiveness for us.
As we open up to the unconditional forgiveness, the grace of God’s forgiveness, we become freer people. Freer to love, freer to experience joy, freer to forgive.
We can open ourselves to this experience in prayer, in silent meditation, or while reading the Bible. In the sacrament of reconciliation, the priest ‘interprets’ the role of Jesus. It is a liberating experience to hear the words ‘Your sins are forgiven in Jesus’ name’. This gives comfort and new vitality.
|STEP 9 IN A NUTSHELL|
It is difficult to receive forgiveness when we do not believe in forgiveness as a gift of love, or when we do not believe that we have already wronged people. Receiving true forgiveness is not humiliating, it increases your self-esteem. You are worthy of being forgiven because someone loves you. God’s forgiveness is for everyone. By receiving that forgiveness, we gain the power to forgive ourselves.
STEP 9 AT YOUR HOME
The thank-you note : Being receptive in life is something we can practice. Stop reading for a moment and look around you. Become aware of all the pleasant impressions from your surroundings: a tree you see from the window, the firmness of the chair you are wearing, the calmness of your breathing, the warmth of your clothes, familiar voices in the distance, the smell of coffee… Take your time to receive them all. They are just there for free. Try to repeat the exercise regularly. Recognize the gift moments, that will go faster and faster. You can make this experience even more intense by numbering the gifts and writing them down in a kind of diary, a thank-you notebook. You may even want to make drawings or add photo prints to it. Are you at 1000? Just start over. You can also do this with your kids.
It is a contemporary and creative way to shape Psalm 103.2. “Praise the Lord, my soul, please keep in mind one of his mercies.”
You can turn your home into an open ‘thank you note’. Tastes differ, but everyone recognizes beauty. Everyone who comes into your house can then enjoy beautiful fabrics, quiet and well-kept spaces, artistic objects, the smells from your kitchen, the sound of nice music, the presence of green, growing plants and flowers, a beautiful poem on the wall … Thus your house, without words, is an invitation to everyone who enters it to be receptive in life.
Silence helps us to become more receptive. How can we become aware of God’s gifts when our lives and minds are already filled with thoughts, activities, opinions and judgments? Christian meditation helps people learn to make it quiet, much like silent days or silent retreats.
Children can also enter this soothing silence with us.
That is already the case for the little ones. A young mother writes: ‘I keep a precious memory of Maarten’s breastfeeding in the early hours, when the whole world seemed to be asleep. I enjoyed being close to God and my baby, they were intense moments of prayer for me. I’m sure this had an influence on Maarten.’
(Source: Madeleine Simon, Born Contemplative, Introducing Children To Christian Meditation , Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, London, 1993)
With larger, overly agile children, you can do exercises to discover the stillness within themselves: the space where they do things can receive.
Tell your child that you are going to do an exercise that will help them use their imagination. Then say, “Stand up straight and close your eyes. Imagine you are a tree. Your branches are spread out, your roots are deep in the ground, very, very deep. You are strong and tall. Your branches blow gently in the wind. Suddenly, a giant storm comes. Your branches sway and sway, BUT you remain firmly rooted – so your feet stay in place. The storm passes, calm returns. You’re back in the sun and enjoying it.’ Optionally, you can accompany this with a dash of classical music (for example the last 2 minutes of Mendelssohn’s ‘Fingal Cave’ before the storm, and quiet piano music by Liszt or Chopin at the end). You can find
more ideas for home at ‘Colorful year: Silence ‘.
Good to know
- This twelve-part series on Monbourquette’s path to forgiveness is a project of the Interdiocesan Service for Family Pastoral (IDGP).
- ° : All names in the testimonials are fictitious, the stories are not.