Jesus said to his disciples:”Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”
Luke 6: 36-8
How central to the call and teachings of Jesus is mercy and forgiveness. In the Sermon on the Mount according to Matthew, Jesus tells us that were we able to live in mercy and forgiveness we would be perfect as Our Father is perfect. If we examine ourselves honestly, however, we are aware that there is nothing more difficult than forgiveness, of ourselves, of others, and of God. In light of our resistance to forgiveness, we might even be able to state that it is truly as we grow in our capacity to “let go” in forgiveness that we become “perfected” as God is perfect.
In Missing Out, Adam Phillips, commenting on King Lear, writes: “Stanley Cavell writes in his great essay on King Lear, ‘The Avoidance of Love’, ‘is that we would rather murder the world than permit it to expose us to change”’(Disowning Knowledge). We would rather destroy everything than let other people change us, so strong is our memory of how changed we were at the very beginning of our lives by certain other people; people who could change our misery into bliss, as if by magic, and which we were unable to do for ourselves (all we could do was signal our distress and hope someone got the point).” (p. 10)
Repentance and forgiveness are so difficult because they require our “letting go” of the past and exposing ourselves to deep and potentially transformative change. We spend much of our lives trying to “balance the scales” of life. We live with a deep and abiding sense of what is fair in life. We want to hold onto and increase the good we experience, and we want to get even somehow with those who have done us harm. We want to build a life that makes sense in light of the past, a sense that emerges from gaining retribution from those who have diminished us and preserving and solidifying what we judge to have been “right and just.” The problem with this is that living our lives out of the past in this way allows no space in life for change and for the new life that is the life of the spirit. We are busy “readjusting” when we could be, were we free and unencumbered, open to the possibility of rebirth.
We speak much of detachment and abandonment in the spiritual life. “For-giving” is, perhaps, our most difficult act of abandonment to God, for it is the releasing of all we hold onto and obsess about in our past to God’s providence and a “standing ready” with an open mind and heart to whatever the present brings. At the heart of our humanity as spirit is our “transcendence-ability,” that is, our capacity to be called and to respond to the new life that is continually being offered us from God. Yet, this capacity is in tension with our self-understanding that we develop based on our past history and experience.
We see this tension in both our personal and communal lives. It is no secret that active religious communities are suffering a great diminishment in numbers and influence, at least in Europe and the United States. In the mid twentieth century, a period in the history of religious life known as the age of the teaching (or we could say nursing or other services) communities, religious congregations grew rapidly in numbers and in impact in the Church and in society. Today, as we know however, is a very different story. Much of the infrastructure of the communities remains, for example in school systems and hospitals, but these institutions are directed and staffed for the most part by persons who are not members of religious communities. As an aging member of a diminished congregation, I am struck by how much of our current identity is constituted by the past. The ministries themselves are vibrant and alive, but the remaining members of the founding congregations are often much more pointed to with respect as symbols of the great work of past members. At many a school celebration, as the brothers present are asked to stand and be recognized, I find myself feeling a bit of an artifact or museum piece, an emblem of a “past glory.”
At what point did our congregations cease to be openness to change and to the present and future? How is it that our heart and life became a victim of our past experience and institutional success? When did our historical experience and sense of self-identity become our obsession, rather than our sense of mission orientation and openness to the new and unknown call of the world to our unique charismatic identity? At what point did we mistakenly take our past for our destiny?
All of us, as individuals and as groups, are always threatened by our tendency to attach to our past in such a way that we become blind to the possibility of our future. We can repeat the patterns of our childhoods and families of origin in an attempt to make what was wrong or hurtful right? We can confuse the fidelity of a moment of our own lives or the fidelity of others in the group to which we belong with our present and future call. We can hold so tightly to what has been good or to what has been bad that our lives are no longer “for the giving” but only for possessing, resenting or getting even. Or, we can recognize with Cardinal Newman that “to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
The measure with which we measure, that is with which we give up and over, is the measure that will be measured to us. As long as we hold back and hold on, we have no space to receive what God would give us. The love of God is a constant outpouring and self-emptying love. It is constantly moving and in flux. If we fail to forgive, we shall be too full of ourselves and of our past lives to receive the newness of life that is offered to us. To forgive requires that we let go of everything that we take to be our life and our story. We are grateful for what has been, for what we have experienced in our limited understanding as both good and bad, but we now stand ready and open in forgiveness, empty of ourselves that God may bring newness of life to us and to our world through us.
“And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.”
At the moment of saying these words we must have already remitted everything that is owing to us. This not only includes reparation for any wrongs we think we have suffered, but also gratitude for the good we think we have done, and it applies in a quite general way to all we expect from people and things, to all we consider as our due and without which we should feel ourselves to have been frustrated. All these are the rights that we think the past has given us over the future. . . . Every time that we put forth some effort and the equivalent of this effort does not come back to us in the form of some visible fruit, we have a sense of false balance and emptiness which makes us think that we have been cheated. The effort of suffering from some offense causes us to expect the punishment or apologies of the offender, the effort of doing good makes us expect the gratitude of the person we have helped, but these are only particular cases of universal law of the soul. Every time we give out we have an absolute need that at least the equivalents should come into us, and because we need this we think we have a right to it. Our debtors comprise all beings and all things; they are the entire universe. We think we have claims everywhere. In every claim we think we possess there is always the idea of an imaginary claim of the past on the future. That is the claim we have to renounce.
Simone Weil, Concerning the Our Father