“Human forgiveness is not having something but discovering something—
that I am more like those who have hurt me than different from them.
I am able to forgive when I discover that I am in no position to forgive.” —John Patton
Letting go of “reasonable” or “justified” resentments may be the most difficult and most freeing of all acts of forgiveness. This story is retold by Anthony De Mello in Heart of the Enlightened.
A former inmate of a Nazi concentration camp was visiting a friend who had shared the ordeal with him.
"Have you forgiven the Nazis?" he asked his friend.
"Well, I haven't. I'm still consumed with hatred for them."
"In that case," said his friend gently, "they still have you in prison."
On initial reflection I thought this question- answer-explanation was not really a story but with more thought I realized that it is a double-whammy story — a story within a story (within a story?).
In his book Is Human Forgiveness Possible?, theologian John Patton examines the New Testament story in which Peter asks Jesus of Nazareth, "Lord, when my brother wrongs me, how often must I forgive him? Seven times?" And Jesus answers: "No, not seven times; I say seventy times seven times" (Matt. 18:21-22). Patton comments:
Peter's question seems to say, "Please give me a rule so I don't have to keep dealing with this. How can I know when enough is enough? I want to know what to do instead of having to come to terms with the whole history of our relationship." Jesus's response to the question says in effect, "I am unwilling to give you a way out of a continuing relationship to your brother.”
The Desert Mothers and Fathers were early Christian hermits and monks who lived mainly in the deserts of Egypt around the 3rd century. Their stories, many of which appear in Benedicta Ward’s book The Wisdom of the Desert, are always delightful and deeply wise. If I could go back in time, I’d like to live for a time (not forever) with these Abbas and Ammas and learn how early Christianity was practiced and taught with an unerring emphasis on compassion and forgiveness.
Abbot Anastasius had a book of very fine parchment, which was worth twenty drachmas. It contained both the Old and the New Testaments in full. Once a certain monk came to visit him and, seeing the book, made off with it. So that day when Anastasius went to his Scripture reading he found that it had gone and knew at once that the monk had taken it. But he did not send after him, for fear that he might add the sin of perjury to that of theft.
Now the monk went into the city to sell the book. He wanted eighteen drachmas for it. The buyer said, “Give me the book so that I may find out if it is worth that much money.” With that, he took the book to the holy Anastasius and said, “Father, take a look at this and tell me if you think it is worth as much as eighteen drachmas.” Anastasius said, “Yes, it is a fine book. And at eighteen drachmas it is a bargain.”
So the buyer went back to the monk and said, “Here is your money. I showed the book to Father Anastasius and he said it was worth eighteen drachmas.”
The monk was stunned. “Was that all he said? Did he say nothing else?”
“No, he did not say a word more than that.”
“Well, I have changed my mind and don’t want to sell the book after all.”
Then he went back to Anastasius and begged him with many tears to take the book back, but Anastasius said gently, “No, brother, keep it. It is my present to you.”
But the monk said, “If you do not take it back, I shall have no peace.”
After that the monk dwelt with Anastasius for the rest of his life.
Forgiveness is not approval. To forgive another’s actions is not to condone the act.
There was an old Sufi who earned his living by selling all sorts of odds and ends. It seemed as if the man had no judgment because people would frequently pay him in bad coins and he would accept them without a word of protest; or people would claim they had paid him when they hadn’t and he accepted their word for it.
When it was time for him to die, he raised his eyes to heaven and said, “Oh Allah! I have accepted many bad coins from people, but never once did I judge them in my heart. I just assumed that they were not aware of what they did. I am a bad coin too. Please do not judge me.”
And a Voice was heard that said, “How is it possible to judge someone who has not judged others?”
For devout Muslims, the first of the divine names is the All-Merciful -- the All-Compassionate. This story is adapted from Anthony De Mello’s Taking Flight.
A Sufi saint, on pilgrimage to Mecca, having completed the prescribed religious practices, knelt down and touched his forehead to the ground and prayed: "Allah! I have only one desire in life. Give me the grace of never offending you again."
When the All-Merciful heard this he laughed aloud and said, "That's what they all ask for. But if I granted everyone this grace, tell me, whom would I forgive?"[i]
Bartering for forgiveness?
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak said to G-d: "I want to propose a deal. We have many sins and misdeeds, and you an abundance of forgiveness and atonement. Let us exchange! Perhaps you will say: 'Like for like!' My answer is: ‘Had we no sins, what would you do with your forgiveness?’”