Turning Forgiveness Outside Out

Whether purposely or not, we mortals have the nasty habit of introducing the mud of error into the pristine springs of truth and the stain of evil onto the luminous landscape of goodness. This tendency is often there to be seen in many matters religious, philosophical, and moral, including in our approach to virtue. Like soiled socks carelessly lobbed into the laundry, our virtues are often inside-out versions of what they ought to be. There is something of virtue there — some resemblance, anyway, however remote — but things are so much in the wrong place that the ersatz virtue is a mere simulacrum of the real thing.

Forgiveness is one virtue that is terribly abused, both by excess and by defect. By excess, forgiveness is often abused by being made a free pass for evil. For instance, because certain prelates are “forgiving,” impenitent adulterers are admitted to sacrilegious Communions. By a similar sort of “forgiveness,” predatory homosexual priests have been shamefully granted further access to young and vulnerable victims. Especially in these days of orchestrated BLM and Antifa mayhem, examples can be multiplied of false forgiveness indulging fashionable vices. Forgiveness is an act of the virtue of mercy; and, as that virtue is very much misunderstood to the detriment of other virtues, so, too, is forgiveness abused. Ironically, by removing the incentives to contrition and amendment of life, this false sort of forgiveness actually puts genuine forgiveness further away from the sinner. The caricature of mercy is profoundly unmerciful.

But we also abuse forgiveness by defect, and we who object to the opposite abuse must be attentive to defective forgiveness in ourselves. When we fail to forgive, we harm not only the person to whom we refuse forgiveness; we also harm ourselves.

While I sometimes find points in the works of Father Jacques Philippe that I disagree with, he is very worth reading. His treatment of forgiveness in The Eights Doors of the Kingdom has some of the most sublime thoughts I’ve ever encountered on the subject. The book is a series of meditations on the Beatitudes in eight chapters. Forgiveness is treated in chapter five, which concerns the Beatitude of the merciful. This Beatitude is unique, the author points out, inasmuch as its “merit” and its “reward” are identical: mercy.

Having recently read and reread that chapter, I would like to borrow from Father Philippe’s thoughts in the rest of these lines. Why? Because I see a certain urgency during these days when hate, anger, and hard-heartedness are multiplied. Moreover, I am “preaching to the choir” inasmuch as those who are called to witness to the Church’s authentic traditions, including certain “difficult truths,” are also called to suffer for these things. Those who cause the faithful to suffer are among the proper subjects of forgiveness. If we are working to defend the Catholic cause, we must practice the Christian virtue such work demands of us. The saints are, after all, the best Catholic witnesses; we are called to be nothing less.

Here is a little florilegium of passages from the book, including biblical passages the author cites:

  • “And be ye kind one to another; merciful, forgiving one another, even as God hath forgiven you in Christ” (Eph. 4:32).

  • “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you shall be forgiven. Give, and it shall be given to you: good measure and pressed down and shaken together and running over shall they give into your bosom. For with the same measure that you shall mete withal, it shall be measured to you again” (Luke 6:36-38).

  • “The good I do to another will return to be as a blessing; the bad — acted out, spoken, or even merely thought — will sooner or later come back to me. This is absolutely certain. To curse someone is to curse one’s self. To detest or hate someone is to destroy one’s self. We shall always be the victims of the bad we do to others” (pg. 143).

  • “But before all things have a constant mutual charity among yourselves: for charity covereth a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8).

  • Concerning the above, Father Philippe cites Saint Thérèse disclosing in the Story of a Soul how she implemented this Apostolic admonition her “Little Way”: “Remembering that ‘charity covers a multitude of sins,’ I draw from this rich mine that Jesus has opened up before me” (pg. 144).

  • “Forgiveness is one of the highest forms of mercy and also one of the hardest” (pg. 145).

  • “Then came Peter unto him and said: Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith to him: I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times” (Matt. 18:21-22).

  • “Without forgiveness, evil multiplies ceaselessly. Only the courage to forgive puts and end to evil’s growth” (pg. 146).

Father Philippe counsels that those who have trouble forgiving (saying “I forgive”) should instead repeat the petition of Jesus on the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34a). Concerning this, he reminds us that only God can truly forgive because only God can actually heal the evil. He goes on: “Jesus’ words invite us to turn to the Father first of all. They also help us to realize that human beings truly do not know what they are doing, [and thereby] fail to comprehend the evil of which they are the authors. It is deeply moving to hear Jesus pardon those who made him suffer rather than condemning them. Repeating his words helps us enter into the interior disposition, his openness to the Father and his benevolence toward humankind, and this helps our human hearts embrace the grace of pardon” (pg. 147).

Perhaps Father Philippe is at his best when he brings the theological virtues to bear on the subject of forgiveness. He holds that forgiveness is not only an act of mercy, but also (if more remotely) an act of faith, hope, and charity. We believe in the forgiveness of sins as an article of faith, saying in the Apostle’s Creed, “Credo in… remissionem peccatorum.” We know that grace is necessary for our sins to be forgiven and that, “where sin abounded, grace did more abound” (Rom. 5:20). Faith teaches us that the sinner who has wronged us can be forgiven his sin. While present impenitence or callousness in our offender may make that seem unlikely to us, we are not God; and we do not know whether or when God’s grace will put that potency into act. Faith is, indeed, “the evidence of things that appear not” (Heb. 11:1).

Concerning the second theological virtue, “To forgive one’s enemy is to make an act of hope that the enemy will undergo conversion. There’s no denying this person made me suffer, and may have committed a very serious sin, but I can’t condemn him… inasmuch as I hope for [his] conversion…” (pg. 151).

But, on the other hand, “To refuse to forgive is, in a way, to despair of the conversion of someone who has made us suffer. But God never gives up on anyone and always looks for the conversion of the criminal. Should we not imitate him?” (pg. 150).

Regarding charity — “the greatest of these” (1 Cor. 13:13) — Father Philippe cites Saint Paul: “But if thy enemy be hungry, give him to eat; if he thirst, give him to drink. For, doing this, thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head. Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good” (Rom 12:20-21). The reverend author exegetes the “coals of fire” with reference to a metallurgical practice used in biblical times; to wit, the smith places the metal to be refined on a layer of hot coals, then piles another layer of hot coals on top. By heaping the fire of charity upon our enemy’s head, we may very well “melt” his heart. Again, there is a question of potency and act here — one that cannot interfere with the free will of the enemy in question, who can choose to resist grace — but by practicing charity towards him, we can be what we are called to be: an instrument of the divine activity. Minus the particulars of the metallurgical metaphor, this is the reading that Saint Catherine of Siena gives the passage: “When you return good for evil you not only prove your own virtue, but often you send out coals ablaze with charity that will melt hatred and bitterness from the heart and mind of the wrathful, even turning their hatred to benevolence” (from The Dialogue, cited by Philippe, pg. 152).

The effect of forgiveness upon the practitioner is wonderful: forgiveness makes us free. When we forgive, we are released from the emotional addiction that accompanies holding a grudge against another. Whether we retain this grudge in order to keep our perceived superiority over the unforgiven person or because doing so grants us a certain power over him, it is best to be free of that addiction to disordered passion and practice the necessary meekness and humility we need to overcome pride and self-love. Such addictions make us cramped, niggardly, pusillanimous, small — all traits that are the very opposite of the big-hearted generosity (magnanimity) we see in the saints.

Sin and offense are spoken of biblically as “debts.” “As the parable of the Unforgiving Servant [or the “Unmerciful Servant”] in Matthew’s Gospel teaches, God is ready to forgive our greatest debts, on the condition that we be ready to forgive the debts, often so tiny, of our brothers and sisters who wrong us” (pgs. 144-145). There is a disadvantage to being everyone’s spiritual “creditors,” keeping track of all the debts we are owed. “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors,” Our Lord has us pray (Matt. 6:12). Meditating on that, and on such passages as Matthew 5:38-41 (from the Sermon on the Mount) are radical remedies to this debt-driven way of dealing with others. Just as our usurious, debt-driven national economy is very unhealthy, so, too, is the debt-driven spirituality we practice when we fail to forgive others.

We might also ask ourselves if such hard-heartedness towards those who have wronged us is itself contraceptive of our own forgiveness. Are we confessing the same habitual sins over and over? Maybe we are wanting in grace to overcome these precisely because we have failed to forgive others.

Towards the end of the chapter, Father Philippe cites Romans 13:8: “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another. For he that loveth his neighbour, hath fulfilled the law,” from which he reasons to this counsel: “Do not ground your relationships in debts and demands, rights and duties, but in the generosity of love. This is how the Kingdom will become present among you” (pg. 164).

Naturally, there are times when the demands of justice must be met. There are genuine legal disputes. Oftentimes there is some compelling need, even for the common good, to have recourse to civil or canonical courts so that we will be fully invested with our rights (think, e.g., of traditional priests who are abused by their progressivist bishops: such are legion!). Civil and ecclesiastical legal systems do exist for good reason, and they should be run well. But the person who wants always to exact strict justice on others without mercy will himself be dealt with in that same manner. Meditating on the universal need we all have of divine mercy should help to remedy such an anti-evangelical mindset.

One last point, and it does not come from Father Philippe. It comes from an account I read years ago in a credible source involving a competent priest-exorcist. He was struggling to free a woman from demonic possession. In conversation with her, he discovered that the lady failed to forgive her parents of serious wrongdoing, and he directed her to forgive them. This she did with his help, and the exorcism succeeded. “The rest of the story” is that her parents were satanists who had exposed her, as a child, to horrible diabolic rituals in which she was “offered up” and victimized in a shocking and traumatic way. As horrible as this was for her, she still had to forgive her parents who had victimized her so that she could be freed from the devil.

If we would be rid of our own devils, literal and figurative, we had best learn the Christian art of forgiveness — all the more so if we desire to flourish in the life of grace and apostolic effectiveness.