By all appearances, Charles and Patricia had a good marriage. Two kids, two cars and they consistently made their mortgage payments. Then one day it all fell apart. Charles began a torrid affair with another woman. Soon, he moved out and the marriage was gone.
Affairs being what they are, it didn't last. After a few months, his new flame tossed him out on the street like yesterday's newspaper.
The weight of his betrayal of Patricia now hung heavily on Charles. He longed to be with his wife but he knew no one could forgive his infidelity. What would he do? He pondered holding his head up high and trying to make the best of what was left of his life. But his guilt wouldn't let him. Nor would his stomach.
Charles decided he had to make amends. He would keep his own apartment, but offer to work as Patricia's servant -- her mechanic, gardener, housekeeper and Mr. Fix It. He could never overcome the weight of his guilt and maybe she wouldn't want him around. But he would try.
When Patricia saw Charles coming, his head downcast, she rushed from the house, gave him a big hug and welcomed him home. Not as a servant, but as her husband. She threw a big party and invited all their neighbors and friends.
* * *
How would we react in such a situation? For Charles, the prodigal husband, the temptation was to cling to his sin -- to not believe he was forgiven. Despite Patricia's totally gratuitous act of forgiveness, he would hang on to that sin and spend the rest of his life doing penance in a futile bid to make things better.
Patricia's temptation would be to be less than totally free with her forgiveness -- to use Charles' sin to establish her superiority over him. As well, because her dignity has been publicly defiled by his sin, Patricia may be tempted to hold back some of her forgiveness to save face with the friends and relatives who witnessed her humiliation.
In Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son, there is no holding back. The disgraced father throws his dignity to the wind when, seeing his son in the distance, he runs off to welcome him back. He extracts nothing from the son and does not even try to make him relive his guilt.
Spiritual writer John Shea points out that, in God's eyes, we are not sinful people, but rather good people whose lives have been encrusted with sin. We have been created in God's image and likeness. God is drawn to love us and will joyfully welcome us into his home if we but shake off our attachment to sin. Forgiveness, writes Shea, "is not magnanimously forgetting faults but the uncovering of self-worth when it is crusted over with self-hatred" (The Challenge of Jesus, p. 146).
It is difficult for us to accept God's forgiveness. Struck by the horror of our sin, we may do more than accept responsibility for it. We can also let it own us and define who we are.
Father Albert Haase tells of an elderly woman in one of his parishes who attended Mass daily and who was always there to open the church, take part in various ministries, set up for funerals and count the collection. Eventually, he learned that Marie was trying to do penance for the "unforgivable sin" of having an abortion when she was a teenager.
"The obsession we sometimes have with our past sins is one of the worst afflictions of the soul," writes Haase. "It turns us into victims of our own abuse. This obsession with the past condemns us to forced labor in a cemetery where we are repeatedly exhuming skeletons only to bury them and exhume them again" (Swimming in the Sun, p. 146).
But not only must we allow ourselves to be forgiven, we must also pass on that forgiveness to others. Here, there can be great difficulty. Forgiveness can be more than a person can manage. One can usually forgive a person who has done one isolated injustice. But, so often, broken relationships are the result of a fabric of tension and wrongdoing which may stretch back months and years. It is one thing to forgive the neighbor whose dog just defecated on your lawn and quite another to forgive the brother with whom you've been squabbling for decades.
The Lord's Prayer continues the little word "as" -- Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is unequivocal about what this means. God's mercy "cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us," it says. "In refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters, our hearts are closed and their hardness makes them impervious to the Father's merciful love" (no. 2840).
So, how can we open our hearts and forgive?
In her book The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom tells how her family sheltered Jews in their home in Amsterdam during the Second World War. They were found out and sent to a Nazi concentration camp. Corrie was the only one to survive the war and, after it, she committed herself to working for forgiveness.
Following one of her talks, a man came forward to thank her. It was a former guard from the camp. Corrie froze as he reached out his hand. She couldn't bring herself to return the gesture. Anger and resentment raged within her as memories from the camp flooded her mind. Then, she silently prayed, "Jesus, I cannot forgive this man. Give me your forgiveness." Through that prayer, she was given the grace to forgive.
Sometimes in our lives, this may be all we can do. Forgiveness may not be humanly possible. But with God, all things are possible. The Catechism puts it more eloquently: "It is impossible to keep the Lord's commandment (to forgive) by imitating the divine model from the outside; there has to be a vital participation, coming from the depths of the heart, in the holiness and the mercy and the love of our God" (no. 2842). Forgiveness is a grace and a power which outstrips human understanding. It is a sign, perhaps the clearest sign, of divine love.
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