Spiritual Reflections by IHM Sisters and Friends

 

Forgiveness - The Road Less Traveled

Sr. Amy Zychal, IHM
IHM Center, Scranton, PA
September 19, 2007

Forgiveness - The Road Less Traveled: Evening Prayer

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.

- Robert Frost The Road Not Taken

We have a choice. We can go through life in one of two ways:

We can go through life BOOTED: Boots are constructed with thick soles and reinforced materials that prevent us from feeling the earth beneath our feet. So in our boots, we mindlessly uproot and destroy, stomp, kick, and squash anything or anyone that gets in our way. ("These boots are made for walking . . .")

Boots put us in a combat mentality where we might even distort tonight's Gospel reading and "do unto to others before they do unto to us"! This choice is a path of violence, physical might, and revenge all too often promoted in our popular culture of politics, economics and international relations. It is found in our legal system that sees the death penalty as a solution to violence. It creeps into our day-to-day interactions with family, friends and colleagues. We can die with our boots on, literally!

OR

We can go through life MOCCASINED: Moccasins are constructed so that we feel the earth beneath our feet. They are made of materials that give and forgive. . . they put us in touch with the rhythm of life that pulsates throughout all of creation. So, in our moccasins, we move mindfully, gently reverencing all life and all others. In moccasined feet we move with one another, not over one another.

Moccasins put us in a compassionate mentality where we are open to hear Jesus' exhortation in tonight's Gospel to love our enemies and treat others as we would like to be treated. We base our lives not on the prevailing popular sentiment, but on the concrete life of Jesus who forgave his enemies from the cross. . .the Jesus who forgave his apostles for abandoning him in his hour of greatest need, not because they had good reasons, but because his love was greater than their offense. With moccasined feet, we can model that love today.

Forgiveness, the most radical expression of that love, is, in our contemporary culture, the road less traveled. . . .

Why is forgiveness the road less traveled?

I. One answer is that we are often blinded by anger.

We have all said or done things that hurt others, and we have been hurt by the words and actions of others. At times, the anger we feel blocks our ability to forgive. . .we seek vengeance , we want to even the score, and we want to call it justice. Anger, in itself, is morally neutral. It allows us to react to threats of harm or destruction. It moves us to be indignant when we witness unjust and cruel behavior. But anger, if left uncontrolled, is dangerous – left unredeemed according to the example of Jesus, turns into malice.

STORY: "An Eye for an Eye" from Stories for Telling: A Treasury of Christian Storytellers by William R. White.

In a large town there were two merchants who were fierce competitors. Their stores were across the street from each other. Daily they would determine their success, not by profit, but by how many more customers one had than the other. The rivalry grew with each succeeding year.

One day God sent an angel to one of the merchants with an offer. "The Lord God has chosen to give you a gift," the angel said. "Whatever you desire, you will receive. Ask for riches, long life, healthy children, and the wish is yours. There is one stipulation," the angel cautioned, "Whatever you receive, your competitor will get twice as much. If you ask for 1000 gold coins, he will receive 2000 gold coins. If you become famous, he will become twice as famous." The angel smiled. "This is God's way of teaching you a lesson."

The merchant thought for a moment. "You will give me anything I request?" The angel nodded. The man's face darkened. "I ask that you strike me blind in one eye."

Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh in the Feb. issue of Sojourners, tells us that compassion is the antidote for anger. When we try to step inside the skin of those who have hurt us, "we see that they are victims of their own confusion, their own worldview, their own grieving, their own discrimination, their own lack of understanding and compassion." Without forgiveness, injury breeds injury and escalates the cycle of violence. In the process, violence destroys both the one injured and the one who injures.

II. Secondly, offering and accepting forgiveness is often viewed as weakness.

John Paul II in his World Day of Peace talk in Jan. 2002 wrote: "Forgiveness is not a proposal than can be immediately understood or easily accepted. . . Forgiveness involves an apparent short term loss for a real long term gain. Violence is the exact opposite; opting as it does for an apparent short term gain, it involves real and permanent loss. Forgiveness may seem like weakness, but it demands great spiritual strength and moral courage, both in granting it and accepting it." (No Peace Without Justice; No Justice Without Forgiveness, Jan. 2002)

We live in a world where the myth of "redemptive violence" rules: brutal force and preemptive attacks are the only way to overcome evil. . . A myth promulgated by many who are Dead Certain that their way is the only way. We live in a world where little boys (and little girls) still have to prove themselves with fists or be taunted as a sissy, a wuss, or something worse.

By itself, forgiveness will not solve all personal and social problems, but these problems cannot be solved without it. The spirit of forgiveness is essential for the long term preservation of the human community in the home, the neighborhood, the nation, or the world.

III. Thirdly, we are often unaware of our own great need for forgiveness. Augustinian Father Ray Dlugos reminded us this past weekend that we are not as good as we think we are; we are not as evil as we think we are. The reality is that we will never be able to forgive if we are not convinced of our own great need for forgiveness.

"Forgive us, O Lord, for the things we have done and for the things we have failed to do."

Joan Chittister in her book, Called to Question, notes that we live in a moment of history that calls for a holy struggle. We need people of spiritual strength to resist the chaos in our world. It is so easy to be complicit and accept things as they are. It takes unprecedented moral courage to question . . . and to dare to do things differently.

One of the most startling examples of complicity, I have found, comes from the book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, written by Hannah Arendt, a Jewish German political theorist who fled Nazi Germany for the US during WWII. As a reporter for the New Yorker, Hannah was sent to interview Adolf Eichmann. What she discovered was what she least expected. This convicted Nazi war criminal was not an anti-Semitic maniac. He was a man who simply wanted to get ahead in life, to please those in authority, to be respected by his peers, to do his job well, to be patriotic.

. . . Forgive us, O Lord, for the times we have remained silent or did not act or simply failed to look beyond our own needs and desires.

Is forgiveness possible in the face of heinous actions of cruelty and violence?

I offer you the example of Elie Wiesel, just a teenager in 1944 when he and his family were taken from their home to the concentration camp of Auschwitz and later Buchenwald. Night is the terrifying record of Elie Wiesel's memories of the death of his family, the death of his innocence, and his own despair in the face of evil. In the final pages of this text he writes,

"At 6 o'clock that afternoon, the first American tank stood at the gates of Buchenwald. Our first act as free men was to throw ourselves onto the provisions. That's all we thought about. No thoughts of revenge or of our parents. Only of bread. And even when we were no longer hungry, not one of us thought of revenge."

For Elie Wiesel and countless other Holocaust survivors, the response was never revenge but a fierce determination to tell the world that such horror must never be allowed to happen again.

I offer you the example of Bud Welch, father of Julie Welch, who was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. Bud joined the frenzied crowds outside the trials of Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols wanting the two to be "fried". Then one night as he was thinking about his daughter, he remembered that she had been adamantly opposed to the death penalty. Searching his soul, Bud realized that his anger was not allowing him to heal. Bud did an "about face" and became an advocate against the death penalty, giving lectures across the country.

On a speaking trip to Buffalo, NY, Bud did the unthinkable. He decided to visit Bill and Jennifer McVeigh, Tim's father and sister. Bud cried with the family and promised that he would do everything he could to prevent Timothy's execution. Ultimately, Tim McVeigh was given the death penalty.

Later Bud noted in his journal: "A huge burden has been lifted off my shoulders. I don't think I have ever felt closer to God."

Finally, I offer you the example of a Pennsylvania Amish community that would astonish our nation and the world with a swift and sincere act of forgiveness toward Charles Roberts who shot 10 of their young Amish girls, killing 5 of them and then killing himself just one year ago. The compassion and concern that the Amish community showed to the widow and family of the murderer shocked and moved us all to examine our own response to injury.

These are examples of ordinary people who, through the grace of God, were open to the extraordinary power and possibility of forgiveness.

"Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future." Paul Boese

Elie Wiesel, Bud Welch, and the Amish community walked with moccasined feet and compassionate hearts into a future of hope and peace. They never forgot what happened, but they were open to the redemptive mission of Jesus . . . they were gifted with the freedom to shed bitterness, anger and the urge to retaliate. In doing so, they found the inner peace to grow and to move on with life. . . they enlarged the future for themselves and all humankind by sharing in the divine power to forgive..

In circumstances great and small, individual and international, forgiveness is a personal choice, a decision of the heart to go against the natural and societal instinct to pay back evil with evil. The measure of such a decision is the love of God and the belief that we are loved by God in spite of our own frailties.

Tonight's prayer is uniquely situated between the 6th anniversary of September 11 , a day of infamy and destruction. . . and the holiest of Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur, a day of forgiveness and atonement. Within that time period Catholics celebrate the Triumph of the Cross. Our Muslim neighbors enter Ramadan, a sacred time of fasting and prayer. The world community is asked to mark the UN International Day of Peace. Jubilee USA calls on us to participate in a rolling fast to influence our legislators to cancel/forgive the debt of impoverished nations.

The month of September is for many a new beginning . . . It offers us an opportunity to walk in prayer, peace, forgiveness and concrete action with all the citizens of this place we call earth. For, today and everyday we have a choice:

Two ways diverge in our world
One is the well traveled way of revenge and violence
Another is the less traveled way of forgiveness and compassion
And I, I consciously choose to take the one less traveled by
I choose to walk with moccasined feet
And that, I pray, will make all the difference.