Brian Cavanaugh, TOR
Forgiveness begins with grace, yet it comes to fruition only through a lot of hard, and often painful, work.
As a member of the Franciscan Friars, Third Order Regular (TOR), which has "on-going conversion" as one of its core values, this topic has generated a lot of reading and reflection for me over the years. This article intends to coalesce those readings and reflections, hopefully, from an interesting perspective. It is the result of a number of years of using this topic as the second in a series of programs for parish mission retreats.
In the late 1980s, I was invited to speak at the annual conference of the Mid-East Honors Association (MEHA), comprised of university honors students from a number of states. The conference theme for that year focused on "wellness" issues. Initially, I was asked to address the topic of "spiritual wellness," and I wanted to focused on biblical-based concepts of personal self-worth — being created in the image and likeness of God who refers to each of us as very good. From this genesis developed the program titled "Your Created Goodness," a personal destiny for each person to discover and embrace.
About two weeks prior to the conference, I received a frantic phone call from the student organizer. They couldn’t find anyone to cover "emotional wellness." Would I consider taking on a second topic? I didn’t have a clue what to say, but for some reason, I agreed; a blessed decision in hind-sight.
This second request occurred during the lenten season, and the topic of forgiveness clearly was on my mind. As I thought about what to say concerning emotional wellness, I fixed my attention on the word wellness for insight. Hoping for a brainstorm, I thought about the obverse of wellness, and wrote down on a legal pad — disease. As I focused on the pad, I noticed disease was actually made up of two words: dis+ease. What makes us dis-eased in light of wellness? The fruits of my lenten reflections identified several "dis-eases," namely, anger, bitterness, self-pity, revenge, envy, pride and guilt. This is not an exhaustive list of dis-eases but, rather, representative examples. And, it is forgiveness that brings forth wellness!
My brain cells now started working on the theme, until I realized that most of the conference attendees would be non-Catholic and, in fact, a significant number would probably be non-Christian. Now, I wondered, how can anyone address the topic of "forgiveness" without mentioning Jesus Christ or the Bible? I thought I was back at square-one all over again.
Keystone of Human Values
This conundrum led me to my journals of quotations and stories that I’ve been collecting since 1977, fifty-six volumes to date. Browsing through the volumes seeking an idea, I had an epiphany that clarified my preparations. The insight was that forgiveness is the "keystone of human values," not just Christian values. It would seem that most of the sacraments have their counterpoints in the general human society. We celebrate a child’s entry into a family, and rites of passage into adulthood; we celebrate marriage, and death; we celebrate around a table with thanksgiving. But I wondered, how many societies celebrate "forgiveness" as a significant moment?
This turned out to be just the "hook" needed to connect emotional wellness with the theme of forgiveness; it resonated well with those students. I realized, then, I was onto a topic that also would strike a chord with other audiences.
Have you ever received one of those ubiquitous Christmas family letters detailing events from the past year? Consider this email I received with an anonymous attribution:
Now that’s a profound thought to mull over: "Everything seems to boil down either to being unable on one’s own to forgive others, or to feeling guilty and unforgiven yourself." Forgiveness, however, will bring about wellness for others, and for yourself, as well.
Some time ago, I remember reading about a survey questionnaire, I cannot recall the source, that inquired of health care professionals, "What is the percentage of your weekly patients who have needs you are not capable of treating with medical skills?"
What would you think that percentage would be?
The answers to the survey revealed that only 10% of weekly patients were able to be treated by medical means, but that the remaining 90% suffered real pain, but not with physical roots. They suffer from psychological pain caused by anger, bitterness, envy, pride and self-pity. These, likewise, produce emotional cancers of stress, depression and ulcers which can kill, not only the spirit, but the body as well.
At the beginning of the 21st millennium, The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) published an insightful study on the nature of forgiveness entitled "Forgiveness: Theory, Research and Practice." In it the authors foresee that forgiveness will be the key area of psychotherapy in the 21st century — "…perhaps the 21st century will find its way out of the 20th century’s crimson shadow. In achieving these latter goals, perhaps forgiveness will play a role." Further, they point out that forgiveness can be "one way to reduce conflict and hostility, as well as to promote understanding and respect…to diminish unresolved hurt and pain that burdens many…"
Forgiveness Begins the Process
Already in this first decade of this new century, we realize that there is an even greater need to "reduce conflict and hostility," and "to promote understanding and respect" within and among individual persons, communities, as well as, nations. In so many parts of the world there are generations of family bitterness that fester from one generation to the next, producing endless strife, conflicts and wars. Forgiveness begins the process to initiate healing, not just of the mind, heart and soul, but of the body, as well.
I remember reading about a woman in the early 1900s who went to her doctor with a catalog of complaints about her health.
Yes, the choice is yours, and that is also the problem.
Prevent Hardening of the Attitudes
Long ago, I listened to a tape of Zig Ziglar, a well-known motivational speaker, who understands the concept of "dis-eases." In this tape Ziglar talks about a variant dis-ease from which we all suffer, once past the age of eighteen. The dis-ease Ziglar refers to he calls PSYCHOSCLEROSIS — that is psyche, "of the mind, soul or spirit" + sclerosis, "as in hardening of," or a "hardening of the attitudes."
Ziglar exhorts us frequently to get a "check up from the neck up…to prevent stinking thinking!" Such a frequent check up will help prevent "hardening of the attitudes," which produce "cataracts of the spirit" and "arthritis of the mind."
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had more opportunities to consider the implications of arthritis than I really would prefer. I’ve discovered that there isn’t a cure for arthritis, at least not yet, but there is an effective remedy — stretch and flex. As we must do for the body, so we must do for the mind and the spirit — stretch and flex. Otherwise the heart, mind and spirit begin to stiffen, and then harden, until they become rigid, more like a shell. And it is just a short distance to becoming a tomb for your heart, your mind and your spirit. Remember, a frequent "check up from the neck up…" can "prevent stinking thinking" and "hardening of the attitudes." So, stretch and flex, even when it hurts. It’s supposed to!
For some, this may be considered a too humorous or lighthearted way of addressing such a sensitive topic, but as the Rev. Billy Graham mentioned, "Humor opens the door of the heart so I can slip something in before it shuts again." Likewise, I think humor is necessary to address a topic of such importance. Humor often pins mental images to our memories that last long after the words dim from our thoughts.
Shed Our Shells
Maybe it’s the Franciscan influence, but I find that the world of Creation abounds with noteworthy lessons for life, if we only learn to pay attention to them. Did you know that shrimp are considered ectoskeletons? That is, they wear their skeletons on the outside of their bodies, and some have been known to discard their shells as many as 26 times during a lifetime. They need to shed their shells to accommodate their growing bodies.
At this point of my parish mission program, I refer back to the kickoff program I mentioned in the beginning, "Your Created Goodness." When men and women recognize they are created in God’s image and likeness, as we read in the Book of Genesis (Gn. 1:26-31), they begin to delight in a new dignity of life. They also begin to recognize the need for self-forgiveness for past failures and deficiencies, thus leading them to be able to forgive the failures and deficiencies of others.
"Prophetic religion throughout the ages has stressed the need for forgiveness and tolerance," reflects Rabbi Joshua Liebman. "Dynamic psychology now supplements this insight by teaching us that we can achieve inner health only through forgiveness — forgiveness not only of others but also of ourselves. We must cease tormenting ourselves when we do not achieve the absolute in life."
The Smallness of Our Vision
A major part of the problem in forgiving is that we are just too self-centered. We think the universe revolves around the little sphere called ME.
Fr. James Schall, S.J., helps to focus our perspective: "What mainly prevents us from being more complete humans is the smallness of our vision."
Think about it, "the smallness of our vision." Now, that’s a perspective with which to stretch and flex. How small is your vision? How narrow your mind, your heart, your spirit? Ask yourself, what is it that is preventing you from becoming a more complete person?
I’ve noticed another deadly dis-ease in a number of people. Maybe you wake up next to this person, or find him or her looking back at you from the mirror when brushing your teeth. These people suffer from VICTIMITIS — carrying their grudges and nursing their hurts, actual or illusionary ones. For lack of a better image, I refer to these as "Huff-n-Puff" people. You know them — eyes wide open, straining to pop out, and anger that seems to be steaming out from their ears. They suffer from perpetual anger, real or imagined. Can you imagine them driving cars? Yikes!
They are "Velcro® People," or "Guilt Accumulators." It’s as if these persons desperately want to hold on to their grudges and bitter thoughts, and want to accumulate more of them, rather than letting them go. Such actions only bring forth vengeance and needless guilt. "Velcro® People" also produce excessive dis-eases of the body, mind and spirit, in the form of ulcers, stress, and depression. Remember, these will kill both the body and the soul.
This reminds me of an adage I once heard long ago, "He was so angry that it’s like he was stung by his own poison." This is a good mental image to work with, like a scorpion stinging itself. It also makes me think of some people I know whose own anger and vengeance seems to stings them like a toxic poison.
Watching from a distance, I recall a heated argument between a young man and woman. It appeared as if she was attempting to break off the relationship, and he just wasn’t getting the picture. She turned and stormed off, when, suddenly, he whirled around and punched a telephone pole with his fist. Guess who won that battle between fist and pole? Sound familiar? Can you "Name that Tune" about someone you know, maybe you who got stung by his own poison?
One of the 20th century’s great "philosophers," humorist Buddy Hackett, said: "While I’m so busy nursing and guarding all my grudges against other people, they’re out there dancing."
Consider that image — you, festering with resentment towards another person, and that person is on the dance floor having a good time. Maybe that person wronged you with full intent; maybe he or she knew how to push your buttons. But now you are doing it to yourself, purposefully. You have given that person power over you, controlling how you react to situations. Treat yourself with greater dignity and respect!
Resentment is like Drinking Poison
A saying, often attributed to Buddha, offers a similar sentiment, "A man will not be punished for his anger; a man will be punished by his anger."
Have you realized yet that your resentment and bitterness only hurt you?
"Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die," writes Cindy Clabough.
Simply put, anger is an acid that affects only the container which holds it. That’s a good thought to pin to your memory. What’s eating away at you right now? What past hurt festers beneath the surface of your conscious thoughts?
In his book The Medusa and the Snail, Lewis Thomas, M.D., writes about the interaction in the Bay of Naples between the jellyfish called medusa and a snail of the nudibranch variety.
It was the Rev. George MacDonald who said, "…It may be an infinitely less evil to murder a person than to refuse to forgive a person. The former may be an act of a moment of passion; the latter is a heart’s choice. It is spiritual murder, the worst, to hate, to brood over the feeling that excludes, that kills the image, the idea of the hated."
What a statement to consider carefully: "…It may be an infinitely less evil to murder a person than to refuse to forgive a person." It is one’s "heart’s choice…spiritual murder…" Give this thought a moment to sink in after the initial, irritating jolt. Does it shock you to your senses? It should.
Forgiveness is "derived from the Old English forgiefan, to forgive is to ‘give up resentment; to cease to feel resentment’ for ‘wrong committed.’ To say ‘I forgive you’ frees mind and soul from the burdens of a grudge. Forgiveness neither condones the wrong nor shows weakness. One must be strong to forgive.…"(The Christopher News Notes, # 471, Jan. 2005).
Forgiveness brings about healing which brings forth wellness in one’s body, mind and soul. Forgiveness, however, cannot be hurried or forced; it takes time. Sometimes the work of forgiveness can feel like peeling an onion: there are so many fine layers that keep going on and on. One wonders, "Will I ever get to the end and be healed once and for all?"
Virtue of the Brave
Mahatma Gandhi provided sage advice: "Forgiveness is the virtue of the brave. The person alone is strong enough to avenge a wrong who knows how to love and forgive."
So what are you waiting for? What are you holding onto? Forgiveness requires an act of bravery, an act of courage and strength. Forgiveness brings healing to others, and to yourself. Not forgiving destroys more than just a life, but your very soul as well.
This reminds me of a story about a woman stung by her own poison:
"I’ll never forgive him. I told him I would never forgive him."
How about you? Are there any "berry spoons" in your life festering hurt feelings toward another?
To Forgive is to Grow
At this point, we might contemplate a brilliant thought penned by an unknown author: "To forgive is to be strong enough to excuse another, and to give the benefit of the doubt, and to really believe that the person is bigger than his [or her] actions. To forgive is to grow and to allow oneself to be forgiven is to grow too, into maturity of love and the reality that we share in God’s love when we can forgive and be forgiven."
Let’s mull over that again: "To forgive is to be strong enough to excuse another, and to give the benefit of the doubt… To forgive is to grow and to allow oneself to be forgiven is to grow too…"
Are you strong enough to give the benefit of the doubt to that person you are thinking about? You will begin to grow and to heal when you are willing to let go of your grudges, when you no longer seek to make the other pay for what he did, or didn’t do, and, instead, forgive him.
We’ve all heard the adage, "forgive and forget." That might be possible for God, but we are not God. We find it so difficult to forget, or we just do not want to. How about trying to forgive and accept instead. That is, accept the other person as broken and incomplete as you are, just in different places and different ways.
You are quick to give yourself the "benefit of the doubt," and to cut yourself some slack. So, why not give the other person the benefit of the doubt, and cut him some slack, as well. Give that person a break. He or she deserves the benefit of the doubt — to "believe that the person is bigger than his or her actions." Isn’t that how you would want to be treated in a similar situation?
Sometimes, it’s true; we can act like a jerk. It may not be intentional, but each of us easily can stick the proverbial foot in the mouth, or act without forethought of the consequences. I’m sure you want the benefit of the doubt — to be thought of as a bigger person than your actions. So treat that other person likewise. Stop nursing those hurts and holding onto those grudges; stop stinging yourself with your own poison.
"Gates of Forgiveness"
On the eve of Yom Kippur, the high holy Day of Atonement, Jews hold a service called "Gates of Forgiveness" in which there is the "Prayer for Selichot." Each individual must first pass through the "gates of forgiveness" to enter into at-one-ment with God, as well as, with one’s neighbors. The words of the prayer are as follows:
Is it not time for you to pass through the "gates of forgiveness" and enter your at-one-ment?
There is a Spanish tale of a father and son who had become estranged after years of bitter strife. The son finally ran away. Finding that his son was missing, the father became heartbroken and set off to find him. He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort, the father placed an ad in the city newspaper. The ad read:
It is unquestionable that many men and women have an intense need for forgiveness — to receive it or to give it. And from my experiences, it seems especially crucial between fathers and sons.
Examine Your Obstacles
So once again, what are the obstacles preventing you from passing through the "gates of forgiveness?" Have you ever taken the time to examine closely whatever the "it" is that prevents you from being able to forgive? At first these obstacles can appear to be so large, too big to get past, to get over or to get through.
This thought reminds me of a time when I lived in a farming community around Santa Barbara, California.
When we take a close look at the obstacles in our life, those we keep banging into, we just might come to realize that they are not as big and impassible as first imagined. They can be broken down into smaller issues with which we can separately deal until the entire problem is resolved.
Make Your Heart Bigger
A while back, a friend sent me a recording of ZaChoeje Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist master, in which he said:
Here again we re-cap the on-going theme throughout this article, "make a conscious effort every day to make your heart bigger and move on."
Forgiveness is a Choice
An issue of "Christophers News Notes," a free newsletter by The Christophers, provides valuable insights into the topic — "Forgiveness–Seventy Times Seven." This issue highlights details that help to summarize what has already been discussed:
Fourth Level of Conversion
Traditionally, there are three levels of conversion — conversion of mind, heart and will. Forgiveness necessitates a need for a fourth level of conversion essential to bring about wellness. This fourth level is conversion to courage, to action, to do something. Forgiveness, in my opinion, also involves beginning the process of healing in yourself and the other person.
Finally, I’m reminded of two brothers living on adjoining farms who became involved in a bitter conflict. It was the first serious rift in forty years of farming side-by-side, sharing machinery, and trading labor and goods as needed without ever a quarrel — that is until now.
It is time, now, to stop building fences; to start building more bridges in your life. Which is the first bridge you need to start building?
As the title of this article conveys, "Forgiveness is the keystone of human values." Did you notice that I was able to avoid mentioning Jesus Christ to get this message across? For Christian readers, this is why Jesus raised "Forgiveness" to the level of a sacrament. He understood that forgiveness is the keystone which holds the entire community together, otherwise it would fall apart.
So I will bring this article to a close with a verse from the gospel of Saint Matthew (6:14-15): "If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions" (NAB).
 McCullough, xiv.
 Cavanaugh, TOR, Brian. "Life is an Empty Bottle" Sower’s Seeds Aplenty: 100 Stories of Wit, Whimsy & Wisdom for Life’s Travelers. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1996, 30.
 Cavanaugh, "Live More Abundantly," 28.
 WorldofQuotes.com - Quotes and Proverb Archive. Cindy Claybough. September 7, 2008 <http://www.worldofquotes.com/author/Cindy-Clabough/1/index.html>.
 Cavanaugh, "What’s Eating You?," 35.
 Cavanaugh, "The Berry Spoon," 6.
 Central Conference of American Rabbis. "The Union Selichot Service." Gates of Forgiveness: A Service of Preparation for the Days of Awe. New York, 1980, 45.
 Cavanaugh, TOR, Brian. "Looking for Forgiveness," Sower’s Seeds That Nurture Family Values: 100 Stories to Restore Your Faith, Renew Your Hope & Refresh Your Spirit. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000, 96.
 Cavanaugh, TOR, Brian. "Obstacles?…Deal with Them Now," The Sower’s Seeds: Revised and Expanded — 120 Stories Inspiring Stories for Preaching, Teaching and Public Speaking. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004) 26.
 ZaChoeje Rinpoche. lecture. Phoenix, AZ. January 18, 2002.
 The Christophers. "Forgiveness–Seventy Times Seven," 242. Christophers News Notes. New York.
 Cavanaugh, TOR, Brian. "Build More Bridges." The Sower’s Seeds: Revised and Expanded. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004, 75.