On Forgiveness, When No Forgiveness Is Possible


Reflections on the Stations of the Cross

Jesus is Nailed To the Cross

Jesus being nailed to the cross, by Michael Willmann, via Wiki Commons

I began this series with a story about a really bad roommate situation. The last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about that situation, and realizing what a grudge I still hold. It’s a little ridiculous, truth be told. That all went down fifteen years ago. What am I accomplishing by clinging to bad feelings? At the same time, it’s not as if I haven’t tried. I have tried to forgive. I once heard it said that the action of forgiveness is accomplished through the speaking of the words–that you forgive by saying “I forgive.” So I quieted my mind and imposed that act of will. I said, “I forgive (name).”

I did that a bunch of times, actually. Clearly there’s more to it than that.

I spent my second spiritual direction meeting chewing on this issue. She asked me to draw out an experience in which forgiveness was very difficult, but I accomplished it. How? What I realized was that for me, forgiveness and resolution are tied together. Resolution implies reconciliation. Reconciliation implies interaction. What made it possible for me to forgive in other situations is resolution, which ends with a relationship that moves forward. So the fact that I’ve never seen these roommates again stands as an obstacle to reconciliation and forgiveness.

What is the solution, then? Am I supposed to scour social media and find these women so I can say, “Hey, remember me? I want to have it out with you about what happened that semester in Iowa.” Uh, no. That’s just picking a fight.

I took a few moments in the middle of that meeting to be still and ask the Spirit for a direction. And the whisper I heard said, “Be reconciled to the emptiness.” In other words, stop fighting the lack of resolution, and make peace with it. Maybe then a way forward will reveal itself.

It’s a bit of a stretch to use the eleventh station–Jesus being nailed to the cross–as a focus on forgiveness. That was something that came after he was already hanging on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And yet that’s what seems most pertinent to me right now. It’s hard to imagine any situation harder to forgive than an entire system and all its minions conspiring to kill you, systematically, slowly and tortuously. There is no potential for resolution here. What is being done to Jesus is a violation so thorough that there is no way back. How could he even spare the emotional energy to consider forgiveness, let alone “make it so” (to insert a bit of Trekkiness into a serious subject)?

I don’t have an answer to this conundrum. As I write, it occurs to me that many people face situations that are, or at least seem, to preclude forgiveness. How do you forgive one who murders a loved one? How do you forgive an abuser? Truly, aren’t some things beyond human capacity?

Spiritual direction took place first thing Friday morning. That evening, as Christian and I lay in bed chatting, he shared with me a story he’d heard. A man chose three people to send good vibes or well wishes to every day. One of them was someone he cared about. One of them he had completely neutral feelings toward–you know, somebody that rides the bus with you every day but you’ve never talked to. The third was someone he did not get along with at all.

As I listened to this story, I realized I was hearing my way forward. I didn’t have to live with that emptiness for very long. It is my heart that needs softening, mine that needs change. So I chose three people to pray for–someone I love dearly, someone I don’t know well enough to have feelings toward, and one of those roommates. Perhaps–I can hope, at least–that prayer eventually will be my resolution, as it was for Jesus.

6 thoughts on “On Forgiveness, When No Forgiveness Is Possible

  1. Powerful article.
    Forgiveness is possible but sometimes reconciliation is not. It takes 2 to reconcile.
    I have forgiven my father for sexually abusing me for years. I have forgiven him many times as with huge hurts, there always seems to be many hidden layers.
    But reconciliation has not been possible. Every time I have attempted, he has emotionally abused me. He is not willing to change. So I have had to protect myself by not contacting him. He has remained silent as well. In fact he is the one who initially cut off all contact. So there it stands.
    So while we are expected to forgive, we can not always reconcile.
    I think your prayer is perfect. I pray for my father every day.

    • Colleen, I was thinking of you as I wrote this, actually. Knowing that you had found a way to forgive, but that forgiveness doesn’t always lead to reconciliation. I think that is, at a much, much lower level, the lesson I am learning as I wrestle with all this. God willing, this is the biggest forgiveness challenge I ever encounter…if so I have much to be thankful for.

      • It is a struggle isnt it? Someone wrote, I think it was Fr Thomas Keating, that our spiritual journey is like a spiral staircase. We keep coming back to the same old thing but at a different level.I can relate to that image. God bless you, Kathleen!

  2. Tamara

    Kate, the meditation you describe that Christian told you about is also called loving kindness meditation. Here’s a version of it:
    Although there are several versions of it, they have in common wishing kindness for yourself, then your loved ones, then to those who may not have any contact with you, and then those who hurt you. (or, self, family, community, enemies).

    • Yes, I didn’t share all the details about where Christian heard it, out of consideration for it being someone else’s story, but I did know something about that origin. Thanks for sharing the link.

      On Mon, Apr 7, 2014 at 6:57 PM, So much to say, so little time wrote:


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