Gathered in the theater of the Sheen Center, we watched as survivors of the Rwanda genocide told their stories of living through unspeakable atrocities. How they hid from former friends and neighbors, who hunted them down in order to exterminate them. How they watched family members assaulted and killed before their eyes. How they hid in the bush, in the ceilings; how they begged for food, for simple kindness, for their lives to be spared. In just a few months, over one million people were murdered in Rwanda by their fellow countrymen.
The survivors sat in pairs as they told their stories. One man described his parent’s killing. One woman witnessed her father, and later her brothers, being taken away and executed. One woman recounted how she was personally attacked, and showed us the scars on her body, including a long scar across her neck, formed by the attack of a machete intended to decapitate her. The man sitting next to her began to tell his story also. “I remember her…there were so many that day…but I remember her especially. Because I thought I killed her.”
There was a collective intake of breath, as the theater sat hushed and still, suddenly aware that we were seeing something different. That the pairs were not of fellow survivors, but of survivors and perpetrators. That each person recounting their story of horror, was sitting next to someone responsible for that horror—a living icon of the healing power of forgiveness.
Father Ubald, maker of the film and presider over recent Frassati healing services, lost his parents to the genocide and only narrowly survived himself. He believed that God spared him, and later used him, to bring the message of forgiveness to a country torn asunder by hate. For him, the only path to recovery from the trauma, both for the individual and the country as a whole, was in the choice to forgive. Forgiveness was the key to freedom for both survivors and perpetrators. It was also the only way to arrest the power of hatred, and to break the cycle of violence.
Father Ubald had the opportunity to put this into practice when he met the man responsible for his mother’s murder. He chose to forgive. And because he knew it would be easy to dismiss such forgiveness as merely theoretical, he made it practical and concrete. As a gesture of love, he committed to paying the schooling of the man’s son, and later his daughter as well. This year, the daughter of a killer will finish medical school, financed by the mercy of one of his victims.
One cannot help but be inspired by these stories. And yet, we struggle to put into practice even a fraction of what we witness. Within ourselves, we hold hostage others guilty of much lesser crimes, refusing to forgive others of even small slights against us. Those closest to us in particular can have an ability to injure us—and to be injured by us in turn, and by our unwillingness to forgive.
G.K. Chesterton quipped that “the Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.” For some of us, the challenge is even closer. “All of our family was under one roof for the holidays…and nobody was murdered. That’s the real Christmas miracle!” joked our retreat leader Colleen Kelly-Rayner.
Today’s Gospel tells the story of the unforgiving servant. He is himself released from an unpayable debt at the mercy of his master. But when he encounters one who owes a much smaller debt, he seizes him and starts to choke him, demanding that the debt be repaid.
Jesus has harsh words for him: “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”
Furthermore, Jesus tells us to forgive “not seven times but seventy-seven times”—that is, without limit. He is inviting us to be like God.
We cannot become like God on our own; we need grace. In order to forgive, we need God’s help. The first step of forgiveness is to ask for the grace to forgive. And sometimes, for the grace to want to forgive. (Sometimes, to want to want to want to forgive…)
To forgive does not mean to erase what happened, to pretend that the was no real injury, no sin, no harm. Rather, to forgive completely we must be honest about the evil that we are forgiving. We are not pretending that evil away, but rather relinquishing revenge, relinquishing our right to exact payment, releasing our choke-hold on the one who owes us.
To forgive does not mean to forget. According to the Catechism, it is “not within our power not to feel or to forget.” We may continue to feel the pain of injury for some time. In fact, notes Simcha Fisher, it may be that the “seventy-seven times” is for the same offense. Even as our heart or emotions remind us of the injury, we can choose again to surrender our feelings to the Holy Spirit, and to offer forgiveness as an act of our will.
Thus the Lord’s words on forgiveness, the love that loves to the end, become a living reality. The parable of the merciless servant, which crowns the Lord’s teaching on ecclesial communion, ends with these words: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” It is there, in fact, “in the depths of the heart,” that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession. CCC 2843
How do we surrender our heart to God in the midst of pain? Father Solanus Benfatti, CFR, composed a Prayer Against Bitterness which I have found particularly helpful. In it we are invited to come to God with the truth of what was done to us, but the greater truth about who we are and who God is. We invite God to transform our pain, that it not become a prison for us.
Prayer Against Bitterness
Oh God, Heavenly Father. Thank you for my life. Thank you for wanting me. And for making me in the image and likeness of your Most Beloved Son in whom you are well-pleased. And for consecrating me into his Passion, Death, and glorious Resurrection at my baptism.
Father, right now, I feel hurt (sorrowful / angry /other), because _______. As a creature made wonderfully by you, and saved by the blood of the Lamb, and meant to be with you forever, I don’t deserve ______. And in the name of Jesus I reject and renounce the lie _________.
But I also do not want my natural anger and hurt to plant bitter roots in me and turn in to hatred and resentment. I renounce that and ask you, Father, in your merciful love, to send your Holy Spirit to block that from happening, even while I try to process properly the emotions I have and work to make reasonable and loving decisions to forgive, out of love for you, and following your example.
Also, I beg you to uproot bitterness and resentment that has taken residence in me in the course of my life. Give me memory of what I need to proceed humanly and forgive divinely. Send the Mother of your Son, Mary, to guide me, hand-in-hand all along the way.
I pray to you through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Image Credit: scem.info [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D