In this essay, I will mainly analyze forgiveness to others, not forgiveness by God, in the lives of the Saints with a capital “S” as well as the saints with a small “s”, us common folks trying to follow the Lord. So I will not explore, for instance St. Augustine or St. Ignatius of Loyola, who like the prodigal son came home to their Father. Of course, one cannot explore the forgiveness of others unless one is first forgiven by God. This I will explore toward the conclusion of the essay.
We have many examples of Saints forgiving others. For instance, in the life of Catherine of Siena, she must have had to forgive ungrateful Tecca daily, since Tecca constantly berated and belittled her even though she took care of her with the care of Christ. Catherine also needed to help Niccolo di Toldo forgive the person who unjustly condemned him to death after he publicly berated the ruling regime of Siena.
First, let us see how Scripture treats forgiveness.
I will explore first the example of Joseph from the Old Testament, where he totally and completely forgave his brothers, even though they sold him as a slave to a bunch of Bedouin travelers. Then I will also explore the teaching of Jesus on forgiveness as well as His own example on the cross. This is followed by how St. Stephen forgave the people that stoned him.
Joseph is the best example of forgiveness in the Old Testament in direct contrast to Cain.
Joseph is Jacob’s eleventh son followed by his last son, Benjamin. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite because he was the firstborn from his favorite wife, Rachel. To show his love, Jacob gave Joseph a coat of many colors. His brothers, out of jealousy, first tried to kill Joseph but then decided to sell him as a slave instead. He eventually was taken to Egypt and was bought by Potiphar, a very high official in Egypt and he quickly became the top servant. But then he was falsely accused of rape by Potiphar’s wife, who in actuality wanted to seduce him.. Joseph didn’t want to go against God’s law, which was written very deeply in his heart. So Potiphar threw him in jail. Joseph remained faithful to God even though everything seemed hopeless at first. Because of his gift of interpreting dreams, he was asked directly by the Pharaoh to interpret a dream that no one else in the kingdom could, including the highest priests. He told Pharaoh that there would be seven years of feast followed by seven years of famine. To survive the famine, he told Pharaoh to build storehouses everywhere and store excess grain and wheat. Pharaoh appointed Joseph to be second in command of the kingdom, only Pharaoh was higher than Joseph. After seven years the dreaded famine arrived and, because of the good policy of Joseph, Egypt was spared starvation. Because of the famine Jacob and his brothers who lived in Canaan, went to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph immediately recognized them but the brothers didn’t recognize him. In addition Benjamin was left behind. To make sure that they would all come back and this time with Benjamin he simply kept Simeon though he was treated very well by Joseph.. The brothers went home to see Jacob and told Jacob that next they must bring Benjamin. So the brothers came back to Joseph, with Benjamin, in the hope also to take Simeon back. After a test by Joseph, Joseph was convinced that they are all very good people now. Joseph then revealed to the brothers who he really was, not an Egyptian lord, but their brother that was sold to slavery. It was a very joyful reunion. All the brothers went home to Canaan to fetch Jacob who was overjoyed to see his favorite son again. After a few years Jacob died and suddenly Joseph’s brothers became very fearful that now they will receive their just due. They even offered to be Joseph’s slaves because of what they did in the past Compare this to the prodigal son who offered to be a plain servant in his Father’s household. Instead Joseph said: “Have no fear. Can I take the place of God? Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good, to achieve the present end, the survival of many people.”
Compare what Joseph said with what St. Paul said in
Romans 12:19 “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. What is interesting that the word forgiveness is never used with reference to Joseph, but the implication is very clear.
On the other hand in the New Testament, Jesus spoke about forgiveness of others in very explicit terms.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others their trespasses” is in the Our Father.
This is the only request that is given conditionally, i.e., if we do not forgive others even God himself will not forgive us.
When Peter asked the Lord how many time does he need to forgive another person, he suggested seven. Of course Our Lord came back with the famous 70 times 7, which means unlimited. One commentator explained the numbers thus:
The rabbis taught that you need to forgive others up to three times. So Peter thought that he was extra generous, since two times 3 plus 1, is seven times. But of course Jesus said not just seven but an unlimited number of times. Lastly, in the parable of the Unforgiving Servant, the servant owed his master 10,000 talents and was still forgiven, but then he refused to forgive another servant who owed much less. One commentator made 10,000 talents the equivalent of 4 billion dollars in today’s currency, debt normally owed only by a country instead of a person. Even with such a huge number, God was still willing to erase the debt, since his generosity is truly unlimited. The first servant was then given to his tormentors. God puts a very high premium on forgiving others. In fact this parable makes it very clear why we need to forgive others; simply because He has forgiven us to whom we owe so much more. C.S.Lewis says, “to be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
The first person to put forgiving others into practice is none other than Our Lord when He was on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” It is very important to note here that forgiveness is not just the outward spoken words but must be also from the heart, internally. In fact, one must still forgive from the heart even though one is physically incapable of regular speech anymore. On the other hand words alone, without coming from the heart, are totally meaningless.
Still from the New Testament, we have St. Stephen, who was stoned to death in front of Saul and yet he also forgave his executioners. Another example is Saint Cristobal from Mexico, played by Peter O’Toole in “For the Greater Glory” “I am innocent and I die innocent. I forgive with all my heart those responsible for my death, and I ask God that the shedding of my blood serves toward the peace of our divided Mexico.”
I think one can safely say that all the martyrs forgave their executioners either from their heart or out loud in imitation of Our Lord himself. This includes Fr. Kapaun, only a Servant of God, but who just received a Medal of Honor posthumously from President Obama. He was heard by his fellow soldiers to loudly forgive his tormentors two days before he died But forgiveness by saints is not restricted by martyrs as they were dying. See, for example ,St. Josephine Bakhita from Sudan, who was sold into slavery when she was nine, was savagely mutilated, and yet many years later as a member of an Italian religious order was asked by a reporter: “What would you do if you met your slave owner now: “If I were to meet the slave traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me,” Josephine reflected, “I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that had not happened I would not be a Christian and Religious today.”
Again, I would refer back to the story of Tecca,. One can argue that Catherine’s virtue was so advanced that she never took offense even though Tecca showed absolutely no gratefulness and piled insult upon insult on her. But another more plausible explanation is that though Catherine may have become angry at Tecca, she immediately forgave her as commanded by Our Lord and this act of forgiveness in fact frees her to do even greater work for Tecca. This is a very important component of forgiveness, that it brings freedom to the one who forgives, not to the one who is forgiven unless, he or she also asks for forgiveness. The freedom here is a true freedom that comes from God and allows the person to love God and others even more.
Before I go to the second part of forgiveness, where one helps another person to forgive someone who has done them wrong, let’s try to understand what really happens in forgiveness. Anger resides in the amygdala of all living creatures that have a brain. It is in very deep part of the human brain as well as other vertebrates. One example that always strikes fear in me personally is the king cobra, how it suddenly seems to rise up, even with no legs, and have the area around the neck flared up. The cobra does this when it senses danger, such as a predator, or someone treading on its territory or when her offspring is threatened. Most animals would simply walk away so that confrontation is avoided, except when it is a mongoose, the cobra natural predator. In the case of a cobra, there is actual physical danger, and when that danger vanishes the anger vanishes as well. The cobra can then relax.
For us the emotion of anger also resides in the amygdala and when we are threatened with danger, a similar reaction occurred. Our adrenalin goes up, our blood pressure rises and we tense up in order to face the danger. Since we are not just animals but rational animals, our anger flares much more often not because of physical danger, but because of emotional and psychological danger. Examples includes all kind of verbal abuse, like the one experienced by Catherine of Siena. Being totally ignored in a social situation rather than being included, being treated badly by the powers that be, such as a teacher or a boss, being betrayed by a friend. The list is endless. There is a big difference between this kind of anger and the one faced by the king cobra. Because we are rational animals once the external attack goes away the anger doesn’t. It stays in our mind until something is done about it. And it also changes form, first into resentment, then perhaps a grudge or bitterness and in some cases hatred and often a desire of revenge. One would demand justice to correct the unjust treatment. One image that suggested by Robert Enright, a University of Wisconsin psychologist, is that you can compare the initial anger as a big flame and then it morphs into hot burning ember.
A rabbi once explained that resentment of another person is like giving your enemy a room in the attic of your mind free of charge. Without you realizing it, he or she is there to torment you.
When you forgive someone unconditionally, without the other person being aware of it at all, you throw cold water on the flame or burning coal of your mind and heart. As a result, one of the first consequences of forgiving another is to free yourself. This is the freedom that God promises, not a worldly freedom that is a license to do anything you want. Brother Luc in the movie “Of Gods and Men” said to Brother Christian, “I am not afraid to die, because I am free.”
When we forgive someone, we must do it from the heart, not just with words.
A friend once had to forgive someone who didn’t do his job and he had to do it instead. The normal cycle happened; he got angry and resentful, but then he decided to forgive. When he got home he couldn’t understand why the anger persisted. Then he realized that forgiveness has to come from the depth of his heart. Mere words such as “I forgive you” are not enough.
Forgiveness must be given by the person who was offended. There is no such thing as to forgive by proxy. However, a person can and in most cases should help another person forgive the guilty party. This will be covered in more detail in the next section.
Forgiveness does not require the admittance of wrongdoing by the other person. In fact in some cases the offending party may even react angrily by being forgiven, since in some cases they don’t think that any wrongdoing has been done. However, in some cases the other person may admit wrongdoing and even seek forgiveness. In that case genuine reconciliation is possible. See the story of Joseph above. It is interesting to note that in that story the actual word “forgive” is never used, but there is absolutely no doubt that this is what happened between Joseph and his brothers.
Forgiveness is sometimes expressed in Scripture as mercy or loving kindness. Though clearly not synonymous the words are very closely related. An angry person demands justice instead of mercy, forgetting that God is first and foremost a God of mercy not of justice.
Now a few remarks about what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. If what happens to us is so trivial like a minor scratch or bruise and over time you do not remember at all, then of course there is no need to forgive. In fact, as we become more and more slow to anger, then the flame caused by anger simply never arises.. Another thing to note that when we truly forgive, though it gain us freedom, that doesn’t mean we forget what happens. The pain associated with the event will be like a scar, it is there, but there is no hurt.
To excuse is not the same thing as to forgive.
Basically we excuse people if we find many other reasons except themselves to blame. Maybe they are just tired, or maybe they had a bad day, or maybe the devil made them do it, or they were just in a real bad mood. The numbers of excuses are simply innumerable. But excusing, though seemingly understandable, is not the same as forgiveness. The person is still in the attic of your mind tormenting you at will, perhaps not continuously, but the freedom that comes with forgiveness is not yours. To forgive we must acknowledge that there is a wrongdoing, that the excuse is in fact irrelevant, and then simply forgives freely and completely from the heart. Excuses do create empathy and compassion in us, which is very good, and this can lead to action that is helpful to the other person, but forgiveness is still necessary.
Accepting is not the same as forgiving.
Although seemingly similar they are quite different. As Lewis Smedes said, “We accept people for the good they are, we forgive people for the bad they did”
I work part-time as a companion with an adult with Down Syndrome, let’s call him Dan. Once, after having lunch together, I left a tip for the waitress. Suddenly he grabbed the tip for himself. I almost had to pry it out of his hand and told him that it was not his money. He got really angry at me and said that his Mom would fire me. Of course, I explained what happened to his Mom. Although I accepted him from the beginning for what he is, I still needed to forgive him for the whole incident. His Mom not only didn’t fire me, but instead she thanked me and, to my biggest surprise and joy, the next time we met Dan very sincerely apologized to me. There was not only forgiveness but genuine reconciliation.
Next I will discuss how forgiveness is not just a very personal thing that one does on his own but in some cases one maybe called to help other people forgive an offender.
Let’s go back to Niccolo di Toldo and Catherine of Siena. Niccolo was guilty of a minor offense, at least when judged objectively. He was drunk and derided the powers that be of Siena outside the tavern so that all could hear. For this he was summarily arrested and condemned to death by beheading, clearly a very unjust punishment. He was very angry at the magistrate and the prince of Siena, and possibly at God as well, for putting him in such a dire situation. Providentially Catherine happened to be there when it happened and went straight to prison. In the account it explains that Catherine consoled him. I disagree. You don’t console a very angry man, maybe a grieving person. Instead, what I think happened is that Catherine helped Niccolo forgive the judge and all the powers that be of Siena. Catherine stayed with Niccolo until the next morning when the beheading took place. Niccolo smiled at Catherine as his last conscious act as well as his way of thanking her. Catherine was there all the way, including even catching the head of Niccolo. A good hagiographer ought to fully understand what takes place, in order not just to extol Catherine, but also to help laypeople imitate her better. In this case his lack of understanding of how forgiveness works, hamper our appreciation of Catherine’s wonderful and generous act.
Another example of this occurred, in the life of Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutt. as recorded by Navin Chawla..
“Mother Teresa found a woman lying in a garbage dump delirious with fever. It was not her fever, nor that she was dying that was breaking her heart. It was the fact that her own son had abandoned her there. Mother Teresa, after taking her to her place and washing her, asked the woman to forgive her son. It took a long while, but in the end, she did forgive him. As she lay in Mother Teresa’s arms, finally at peace with herself, in other words free, she smiled for the first time, and then she died. Her last words to Mother Teresa were, ‘Thank you”. Mother Teresa remembers it to be one of the most beautiful smiles that she has ever received.”
My aunt, Tante Erna as I called her, lived with our family in the mid 1980s. In December 1986 she was diagnosed with cancer with only three weeks to live. Amazingly, because of her incredible upbeat spirit and her acceptance of an inevitable death, the two weeks were one of the most amazing two weeks of all our lives. Unfortunately, there was one very big thing that needed to be taken care of before she died. Her very own sister in Michigan basically had stole just about all her money and that’s actually why she was living with us. Understandably she was very angry at her, but we also knew that she needed to forgive her before she died. Three nights before her passing, Peggy and I explained the process to her. We said that the most important thing for her to knowwas that forgiving her sister did not excuse or even free her sister from all responsibility, but instead it freed Tante Erna . Her feeling towards her sister did not need to change, and her sister need not even know, but it was very important because it is God’s desire that we forgive the other no matter how badly the person has treated us. She fully agreed and three days later she died very peacefully.
One must also note that forgiveness is now explored by psychologists such as Dr. Robert Enright from the University of Wisconsin and Dr, Fred Luskin, Director and Cofounder of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project. It is interesting to note that Enright’ book is subtitled “A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope” and Luskin’s subtitle to his book is “A PROVEN prescription for Health and Happiness” Neither scientist is explicitly associated with Christianity, although of course they are familiar with it. The reason that it is important for psychology is again the same thing, when you forgive even a person that does not deserve it, you free your self, not the other person. You can see how very important this is to our mental well-being Other religions such as Islam, Buddhism and Islam also teach forgiveness, though I think only Christianity teachest that you need to forgive the enemy as well as C. S. Lewis’ words the inexcusable in the other.
Christ speaks on forgiveness from the beginning of his ministry till his own death on the cross. In fact John the Baptist said in Luke 3:3 “He went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. This ranges from the forgiveness of sin to the paralytic and the woman caught in adultery to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The Saints are the first to admit their need for forgiveness not only at first but throughout their whole lives. This is also emphasized at Mass when the first thing we do is to ask for forgiveness before we proceed with the rest of the liturgy. The reason the saints are so ready to forgive others, including their enemy, for instance in the case of the martyrs, as well as to help others forgive their adversary, is because of their supreme realization of being a forgiven person. Like Eve, we too are sometimes tempted to want to be like God, to be fully in control of our lives, but instead of trying to be equal to Him in knowledge or power we must be equal to Him in our readiness to be merciful and forgiving. That is who God is, always merciful and always ready to forgive.
In conclusion, unlike the doctrines of the Trinity, Redemption and Incarnation which is very difficult to understand well, forgiveness is a teaching that even very young children can grasp.
My wife Peggy and I were in Dallas for spring break two months ago while my daughter, her husband and two other couples went to Las Vegas. One Saturday two other friends join our grandchildren at our daughter’s house. Suddenly I observed my 5 year old granddaughter looking very angry She went to see Peggy. She was pouting and refused to play with her sister and friends. Instead of trying to figure out what really happened, which in fact would have been very difficult. Peggy taught Leah to forgive the others. If you forgive them, you can play and be happy again. Amazingly Leah forgives them and rejoins them for the rest of the afternoon happily playing.
In my mind Hagiography is the perfect place to illustrate forgiveness, just as the life of Joseph is one very beautiful hagiography. This is because forgiveness is best illustrated by real stories of genuine people trying to forgive and help others to forgive. When we die we will not be tested on our knowledge of Christian Doctrine but whether we forgive.