While in Lourdes some years ago, the priest at a Mass we attended criticized some pamphlets he had seen, that were designed to help people prepare for Confession. In the pamphlet it asked: have you forgiven yourself? The priest said that that was flawed theology: you can't forgive yourself and that only God can forgive sins. He seemed like a very intelligent, holy man and certainly convinced me. Having said that, I suspect the offending brochure might have been intended to encourage people to accept God's forgiveness and do their best to start fresh. Recently his homily came to mind as I was thinking about the nature of forgiveness.
Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, who by the way is from the same order as the above priest, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, talks about forgiveness from the aggrieved persons perspective, as it correlates to time. In brief, he offers that we can forgive minor hurts pretty quickly. For instance, if we are cut off in traffic
while driving, outside of offering some comments on the offending driver’s heritage, we can usually move on. Other slights might sting more, such as being ignored at work by someone you thought was a friend, and may take longer to forgive. And finally for more serious or grievous issues, where someone has hurt us deeply through abuse, betrayal, dishonesty, and so forth, it can take a much longer time, perhaps in some cases, most of our lives to begin to get over them and forgive.
Rolheiser's point makes sense for when we are hurt, but what about us, the sinner, the one inflicting the pain? All of us do it you know, probably more frequently than we'd like to think. How do we move past or even just live with our (repeated) sinfulness?
At the start of the Mass, as part of the penitential prayers we say:
"You were sent to heal the contrite of heart, Lord have mercy
You came to call sinners, Christ have mercy”
These are two very important lines that I suspect many of us don't really process. Jesus says in Matthew 9, that He came for us: the sinners! Because we need healing. That through our sinning, we are damaging ourselves and are in real need of God's healing and mercy. In the moment when we do the wrong thing, or equally important, fail to do the right thing, we often don’t realize we are just hurting ourselves and moving further away from God and our sisters and brothers.
Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus performing miracles healing many physical ailments. One of the things I suspect we should be taking from these miracles, is Jesus is communicating that God can heal everything, including our most egregious and shameful behaviors. And the simplest way for Jesus to demonstrate this to the people of the time was to heal their physical ailments so that they could believe in God’s power and mercy. The prophet Isaiah said of God’s mercy: Even if our sins were scarlet, God’s love would make them white as snow. (Hard to beat that!)
So assuming that the priest I mentioned up front was correct and that we can’t forgive ourselves, what are we to do? First off, while Jesus said He came for sinners, it really means He came for all us, as we all sin. St Francis has a great line: “We must be patient with not being good and not being perceived as being good.” However, this definitely does not mean we become complacent and not pray for God’s grace to improve.
Moreover we need to realize that everyone else is dealing with the same challenges regardless of how they might appear on the surface. And that we have an important role to play by accepting them for who they are, warts and all. While perhaps we can’t forgive ourselves and may even struggle to forgive others, the writer Fr. Richard Rohr, encourages us not to let our weaknesses make us weak. It’s our job to be the face of God’s love to those whom we encounter. To show kindness and generosity so that others might believe that their sins can be made “white as snow”.