As Catholics, we all recognize Lent as a season to ask for forgiveness and go to confession, but it’s also a time to search our heart for any unforgiveness that may be there and extend the Lord’s mercy to those who have hurt or offended us. As the season draws to a close, I hope you are welcoming Lent’s entire invitation to hope and healing.
Forgiveness has factored heavily in my spiritual life. I grew up in a violent alcoholic home. My father broke my mother’s jaw so severely she had to eat her meals through a straw for six weeks. I was told she had been in a terrible car accident. A year later, at age five, I witnessed the violence first hand when my father knocked my grandmother unconscious because she dared to interfere in a fight between my parents. Though my parents weren’t religious, I was very active in my faith, thanks to my grandparents and nourishing neighbors. It became an anchor in the storm for me. Although I was very religious, I still cultivated a seething hatred for my dad. He was a horrible human being and didn’t deserve my respect or love. When I was seven, he died unexpectedly. Sadly, my mother married another alcoholic, and the pattern continued until I left home at eighteen. Still very religious, I experienced the same hatred for my step-father and felt completely justified because of the way he treated my mother and siblings.
In my early twenties, I went from “being religious” to having a real encounter with God. You see, I knew a lot about him but didn’t know him personally. So what do you imagine he immediately targeted so I could grow in this relationship? My “pain point” of unforgiveness. Every time I opened the Bible, I was pierced by passages about forgiveness (Matthew 5:48; Luke 6:36; John 13:34; Galatians 5:25; Philippians 2:1, 5; Ephesians 4:32). I remember saying to God, “I can’t forgive them!” And I was right. I couldn’t forgive in my own power, but as I gave my heart more completely to the Lord, he began to heal it. It was black, hard and nearly impenetrable, but “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). If you’ve ever struggled with unforgiveness, you know it is rarely healed overnight. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses the process so well, “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 by transforming the hurt into intercession” (CCC, 2843).
Eventually, I had a profound moment of forgiveness at my birth father’s graveside, and I decided to cultivate a relationship with my step-dad. I used to be so self-righteous around him; now I was able to see him as a broken human being like me. I learned his story (he also grew up in a violent alcoholic home) and began to appreciate his positive qualities. We ended up having a great relationship in my adulthood. At the end of his life, I was with him. I spoon fed him his meals, changed his diapers … I loved him to death. That’s only possible by the grace of God. Sharing my story has provided countless opportunities for me to help others through similar painful pasts.
Letting go of unforgiveness freed my heart to love God and others more fully and fruitfully.
Sometimes unforgiveness hides in our heart or is so subtle we don’t even recognize it as such. So as we approach the gift of Holy Week, let us make the psalmist’s prayer our own, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalms 139:23-24).
Unsplash photo by Aaron Burden.