The third spiritual work of mercy seems perhaps so obvious and fundamental to Christian service that it should be placed in a category of its own: forgive others. The forgiveness of sins is at the core of the Gospel, and the imperative for Christians and the Church to forgive sins is clearly derived from the words of Christ Himself. Much ink on forgiveness has already been engraved onto the pages of reflection, book, letter, and speech during this Year of Mercy (in fact, an international Jubilee event entitled “24 Hours for the Lord” begins this Friday, 4 March, which consists largely of non-stop Confession). This spiritual service seems naturally incorporated into the more specific works of mercy that make up the Christian life.
Yet, forgiving others is distinct and tangible. Forgiveness is so often discussed and dealt that it can seem common or even anticipated. Far from natural, true forgiveness derives from grace, and the presumption of the forgiveness of the divine is in itself a great sin. Forgiveness is always a miracle; love is always a gift. Openly and fully forgiving another without reservations comes about only through great trial of the will and long habituation of the heart.
“Forgive me!” asks Pippin of Gandalf after looking into the seeing stone. “Forgive you?” asks Gandalf. “Tell me first what you have done!” One cannot offer forgiveness without understanding the offense. To desire to comprehend a crime or a trespass is not judgment. It is too easy to forgive generally or without knowledge; the true exercise of forgiveness demands stepping into the mire of sin to stand in solidarity with the sinner, to recognize the context and the stakes. At times, stubbornness of heart or shame of soul might styme such openness, and then the unconditional and undeserved forgiveness of God becomes the model for our own forgiveness. Nevertheless, whether in this life or on the Day of Judgment, all shall be revealed, so that justice can be fulfilled and human forgiveness transformed into divine.
“There is no lie in your eyes, as I feared.” We forgive because we need forgiveness; we understand the inclination to sin. Pippin’s wrestling with his desire to look into the ball resonates with anyone who has struggle with temptation and the allure of evil, and as Gandalf notes, “You knew you were behaving wrongly and foolishly; and you told yourself so, though you did not listen.” Succumbing to the lie opens oneself up to the darkness, and only grace and forgiveness can make headway against it. Yet at times it is impossible to forgive as fully as one desires, because the soul of the other cannot accept it: “forgive, but not forget,” as the saying goes. Then comes the true challenge of this spiritual work of mercy, the radical message of the Prodigal Son: forgiveness is futile without faith, hope and love. The forgiveness of humans is always incomplete, and both offender and forgiver withhold hardness in their hearts. Nevertheless, the imperative remains: forgive others, for you have been undeservedly forgiven.
“I forgive you. Be comforted!” To forgive others is an invitation to comfort and peace, as both the offender and the forgiver are tormented. When relationships are set asunder both parties feel the pain. As the sages note, man’s sin brings God no joy. Lingering bitterness or unease reveals the incomplete act of reconciliation. Reconciliation unfulfilled encourages greater sacrifice towards its resolution; without forgiveness any other work of mercy is a shadow of its potential. Complete forgiveness in this life is perhaps an impossibility; the striving for that impossibility is the remarkable drive behind this work of mercy.
Knowledge of offense; sympathetic understanding; comfort through forgiveness. The Sacrament of Confession ever recalls the art of forgiving others, and as God does for us so we should do for our neighbor. The challenge of offering forgiveness to others is real, and as with all the spiritual works of mercy is less tangibly measurable. Nevertheless, no matter how incomplete or futile, still we must offer that forgiveness, and so open our neighbor’s and our own hearts to the overflowing mercy of God.
2015’s Reflection: “On the Lost Seeing Stones”