Lent, Love and Forgiveness

Ironic, but one of the most intimate acts

of our body is

death.

So beautiful appeared my death – knowing who then I would kiss,

I died a thousand times before I died.

Die before you die,” said the Prophet

Muhammad.

Have wings that feared ever

touched the Sun?

I was born when all I once

feared – I could

love.

Rabia al-Basri

Lent, Love and Forgiveness

Lent, we are told, is a time of penance and forgiveness. It is a time, both as individuals and as a corporate body, when we turn inward and effect a pose of quiet self reflection and introspection. Looking inward allows us a chance to understand the true nature of forgiveness, and what it means. In our ordinary understanding, it goes something like this: in a relationship, the one with whom we are in relationship has done something or said something that has hurt or aggrieved us, and our normal reaction is to hold on to that hurt in order to find a way to defend ourselves against further hurt, because that hurt feeling removes us by a degree from the total open vulnerability that is present in that relationship. What Lent reminds us to do flies directly in the face of what we normally do, and that is discovered in the process of looking within ourselves.

Forgiving, letting go of that hurt, is what we are always called to do. But in many ways, we misunderstand the calling to forgive. When we say the Lord's prayer every Sunday before Eucharist, we repeat the words, "forgive us our wrongs, as we forgive those who have wronged us." These are the words of Jesus himself, from the Sermon on the Mount. And in those words is an implicit understanding that forgiving others and being forgiven by God is a causal relationship. That is to say, we cannot be forgiven by God if we are not willing to forgive others.

But that implicit understanding, I believe, is in error. There is no sense in which Jesus meant that if we did not forgive others, we would not be forgiven. It isn't a causal relationship, but rather one of simply understanding that by holding onto our hurts, and not forgiving others, we remain in a world of condemnation from which we cannot escape. That condemnation is not from God-- it is self-induced. Think about it this way: which is heavier-- holding onto a hurt that ultimately damages the ability of a relationship to flourish, or letting go of the hurt and beginning again?

Another explanation (author unattributed) could be made in this way: A psychologist walked around a room while teaching stress management to an audience. As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they’d be asked the “half empty or half full” question. Instead, with a smile on her face, she inquired: “How heavy is this glass of water?”

Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz.

She replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.” She continued, “The stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt. And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything.”

Not forgiving-- holding on to that glass of hurt until our souls ache-- eventually cause us to feel paralyzed and incapable of doing anything else.

Stephen Mitchell, in The Gospel According to Jesus, calls this spiritual unforgiveness, "a spiritual fact: when we condemn, we create a world of condemnation for ourselves, and we attract the condemnation of others; when we cling to an offense we are clinging to precisely what separates us from our own fulfillment. Letting go means not only releasing the person who has wronged us, but releasing ourselves. A place opens up inside us where that person is always welcome, and where we can always meet her again, face-to-face." (p. 55).

I was born when all I once

feared – I could

love.

It's important, too, to understand that forgiveness is not an event, or even a response to a particular hurt. Rather, it is an attitude, related to loving our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus asked us to love others as he loves us, and one of the ways in which we experience and participate in that lovingkindness toward our neighbors is to understand that Jesus in our hearts is a mirror that constantly reflects back to us our own state of being. We always receive what we give-- not from God, but from ourselves. And so it is that if we are generous, we experience generosity toward us. If we are graceful towards others, the more we are aware of grace bestowed on us. "The more openhearted we are, the more we can experience the whole universe as God's grace. Forgiveness is essentially openness of heart." (Mitchell, p.55).

In every day of the year, we are called to love others as ourselves. We are also called to forgive freely, and in this particularly penitential time of Lent, we are focused on what it means to let go of our grievances and hurts against each other, so that we may have life, and have it more abundantly.