The hard work of forgiveness

Sister Barbara Ann Mayer | September 14, 2017

Forgiveness is hard work. It goes against every grain of pride and self-protection that we have.

I became brutally aware of this when my brother decided not to come to the celebration for my 50th anniversary of religious profession. He is all the nuclear family I have and I was crushed that he did not want to celebrate with me. After persevering through all the doubts and trials of 50 years, I felt this day was something to celebrate. It took several years for me to forgive him.

I can only imagine how hard it must be to forgive the infidelity of a spouse, the refusal of an adult child to communicate with a parent, the betrayal of a trusted friend. These are so much heavier burdens that require a magnanimity that many people do not have. No matter how many times we say the “Our Father” and say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” it still requires all the mercy and love we can muster to actually carry it out.

I had to keep telling myself that unforgiveness is more detrimental to me than to my brother. It hardens my heart and harms my peace of mind. It cramps my freedom and inhibits my ability to reach out to others. I kept reading the story of the Prodigal Son and picturing the father running to embrace his wayward son even when he was a long way off and immediately throwing a party to celebrate his return. No recriminations, no punishment, just all-embracing love.

Of course, I remembered how Jesus forgave those who crucified him, saying, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” I think about ordinary people, such as Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum, who refused to hate their captors and eventually died in concentration camps during the Holocaust. Hillesum could still say, “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.”

In comparison with these examples, it seemed such a small grievance I had toward my brother. Often it is the little things that loom large in our remembrance and remind us of other hurts from the past. We lump them all together until they become a heavy weight that keeps us from being the loving persons we would like to be.

I am still working on other people I need to forgive. Most of them don’t even know that they have caused my animosity, such as white supremacists, terrorists, bullies, human traffickers, and a few others. I need to pray for their change of heart instead of hating them. As long as I see anyone as “other” I am creating barriers instead of oneness. This is the monumental challenge of loving our enemies. It goes far beyond small hurts in our relationships.

Whether injuries are large or small, they still require an outreach, an overcoming of hard feelings, a largeness of heart. We have a choice: to remain distant and full of self-pity or to reach out in compassion and love. I had a dream once that people were suffering in different ways all over the world. As soon as they asked for mercy, God relieved their misery. May we extend mercy and forgiveness as readily as God.