By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
What does it mean to forgive? Is forgiveness essentially a negative and cancelling force, that is, something that ignores an injury? Or is it a positive and creative force, that is, something that adds to life? I think it’s probably both, but my sense is that we typically think only of the negative side. For example, it is popular to use the phrase “forgive and forget” as a summary for what our attitude should be when forgiving. And sometimes we feel as if we have succeeded in forgiving if we reach the point at which we do not wish ill to the ones who injured us, but we nevertheless do not want to see them again.
I think this last experience, which I suspect is familiar to us all, should make us realize that the negative or cancelling aspect of forgiveness is not enough. Jesus wants us to forgive “from the heart” (Mt 18:35), and therefore our emotions and sympathies need to come around, such that we can desire reconciliation and communion — and not just the absence of external conflict, which can, indeed, be achieved merely by staying away from someone. We should long for the positive and creative aspect of forgiveness: to enjoy deeper relationships, and to be reconciled in love and not merely cooled by separation.
Moreover, without the positive aspect of forgiveness, we are pretty unsuccessful with the negative aspect. Perhaps you know what it is like to try to “forgive and forget” but then to find, with great frustration, that thoughts about the injury keep resurfacing in your mind.
This happens, I think, when we neglect to pursue the positive aspects of forgiveness and try to content ourselves with just staying away from the other person. Forgiveness inherently aims at reconciliation, at a restoration of communion; and if we refuse to desire reconciliation, it’s no wonder that our forgiveness is disrupted and our emotions are caught in bitterness.
If we want to forgive truly, or “from the heart” (Mt 18:35), and therefore to feel deep peace, rather than tortured resentment, then we’ve got to take concrete, positive steps toward reconciliation: for example, eye contact, handshakes, invitations to speak again, compliments, and above all praying for the other person.
The way to grow in desire for the presence of other people is first to acknowledge them through eye contact and sincere greetings.
The way to stop “seeing red” every time we see someone difficult, or to stop seeing only their faults, is to choose to see what is good— to compliment what is worthy.
And above all, the way to learn to love someone is to see him or her in the light of God — to pray for the other person as a fellow pilgrim, as a beloved son or daughter of God.
Sometimes, at least for the moment, all we can do is pray for the other person. We may not be strong enough for more than this most fundamental step of seeing the other person in the light of God. Moreover, reconciliation presumes a desire for it on both sides, and so sometimes we have to wait patiently for the other person to grow in his or her own desire for forgiveness. In such a situation, all we can do is pray for the other person and ask God to arrange things already in this life such that reconciliation is possible.
When writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul emphatically preaches a message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:17-21). He saw our reconciliation with God in connection with our reconciliation with each other. Being reconciled with God in Christ involves participating in his own ministry of reconciliation. In Christ, God was “not counting” our trespasses against us (that is, he was practicing the negative aspect of forgiveness); but he did this by taking very positive, creative steps toward deepening our communion with him — he dwelt among us, ate with us sinners, taught us, and sacrificed for us. And he invites us now to be his “ambassadors,” St. Paul says, and to invite the world to reconciliation in God.
Let’s get busy this Lent discerning positive, creative steps toward reconciliation in our lives. Like Christ we ought to preach the forgiveness of God: that God will cancel our sins, if only we would join him in his ministry of reconciling others and extending his communion.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.