‘It is our most cherished belief that there is no one who is irredeemable, no situation that is without hope, and no crime that cannot be forgiven.’
The Book of Forgiving, Desmond and Mpho Tutu, 6
The idea of forgiveness has been with me ever since I learned the Our Father, those evenings that I knelt by my bed as a small child. ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.’ A very demanding prayer.
Hurts have usually found a way of making a home in my heart. They sniff their way around, like a dog before he lies down. Once settled, they can remain there forever, or so it seems.
The idea of forgiving entered the living-room of my soul in the early RCIA sessions I attended more than twenty years ago. Forgiveness is a choice. Hm…
Breast cancer came along and thanks to Stephen Levine’s book, A Year to Live, I started to work systematically on gratitude and forgiveness. I made lists, if nothing else. I became aware of my grudges.
While working on a degree in Pastoral Studies, I wrote a timeline of those times when I had felt close to and far from Godde, when I was happy or miserable. This is when I realized how unhappy I had felt in the very early years of my marriage, while living in Paul’s hometown. The idea of returning to visit filled me with dread. The mere idea of going there made me want to bolt. I did not find hard to meet my in-laws individually, but family gatherings felt overwhelming. Usually, by the end of our stay, shortly before leaving, some random event would take place and leave me flat out.
From 2005 on came our Camino years. I can think of many reasons to walk the Camino. One of them is to work on forgiving those people whose memory fills me with bile. I would pick up a stone or two, each for a different person. My fingers would play with them as I walked along, till the moment when the anger seemed gone and I would leave the stone by the side of the road or on a cross along the way.
Grudges really smell like stale cookies or vegetables passed their prime, but I had learned to live with their smells.
This year, after a decade or so, came the time to return to the Pacific Northwest to show it to our grandsons and visit Paul’s relatives. The same old angst filled my heart. Two books, however, came to my rescue: Kathleen Dowling Singh’s The Grace in Aging and Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s The Book of Forgiveness (mentioned above). (Note:I have only started these two books and still have quite a ways to go before I finish them.)
From KDS’s book, I realized that I did not want to take my fear of relatives with me in death. I would rather leave them all behind; this meant coming to some sort of understanding and resolution. I also came to see that in view of our respective ages (60s and 70s), this might be the last time I see some of these people (or all of them if I happen to die first). This thought put a distance between what was to come and my feelings somehow. I found safety in distance.
The Book of Forgiveness, where Desmond Tutu and his daughter address the need for reconciliation in South Africa — and the rest of the world –, revealed to me that Paul’s relatives had not harmed me in any way. They all are good people who come from a culture quite different from mine (not all Westerners are alike). I just met them in my 20s and simply did not know how to cope with my culture shock. My angst had sprung from who I was, not from who they were. Truly, I had nothing to forgive them. This turned out to be quite a revelation. An odd and amused peace spread through my heart and soul. Had it been this easy all along and I had not noticed it until now?
As we were preparing to leave for our family visit, I mentioned my experience to our younger daughter. ‘My fear is gone,’ I told her. She looked at me and said, ‘Maman, it only took you forty-five years.’
And so it did.
Photo: Ruby Beach, Washington State, August 2015