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The importance of being sorry.

How do we forgive ourselves and others? Take a page from the fourth-century desert monks and start with compunction--true sorrow for sin.

For those of us old enough to remember, the phrase "love means never having to say you're sorry" produces a wry smile. For it takes but a moment of reflection to realize the profound untruth of this statement. Life without "I'm sorry" would be hell indeed.

And yet in many ways compunction--sorrow for sin--seems alien to modern sensibilities. The word sin has all but vanished from our vocabulary. And legal, social, and business etiquette work against admitting one is wrong. Fear of a lawsuit makes most people wary of ever admitting that they are in the wrong, either through direct intention or negligence. Socially, many people think that admitting wrong or asking for forgiveness makes them look weak. A friend, a vice president at a bank, once told me that in their training sessions they are told never to admit a mistake to a customer but always to talk around it, even as they work to rectify what they know is their fault or the bank's fault.

But where there is no admission of wrongdoing, there is no sorrow and no need for forgiving or being forgiven. It is knowledge of one's own sinfulness that leads to forgiving others. And the more genuine the sorrow, the more unlikely that we will be paralyzed at the world's offenses or consumed with self-loathing at our own.

Compunction junction

In significant ways, our future depends on retrieving a genuine sense of compunction.

There are signs pointing to a retrieval of compunction. In liturgical settings across the United States, the ritual of ashes on Ash Wednesday is growing in many Christian denominations. In the literary world we hear unexpected talk about sin.

In her "spiritual geography," Dakota (Houghton Mifflin, 1994), poet Kathleen Norris writes, "Comprehensible, sensible sin is one of the unexpected gifts I've found in the monastic tradition. The fourth-century monks began to answer a question for me that the human-potential movement of the late 20th century never seemed to address: If I'm OK and you're OK and our friends are OK, why is the world definitely not OK?"

In the religious sphere, one wonders whether Christians find compunction a morbid theme or--at best--a curiosity of a remote past.

For those of us who grew up with a lot of hell, fire, and brimstone, we have a built-in alarm that goes off whenever anyone starts to talk about sin. "Oh no, not that again!" In addition, we live in an age that needs a lot of psychological affirmation. We put posters on our refrigerators that say, "I am lovable and capable." We buy millions of volumes that teach us the power of positive thinking. All of this is important and good--as long as it does not block our ability to deal with sin.

When you read the mystics, you quickly discover that all talk about sin is seen as simply the truth--and therefore important. It is not meant to demean or belittle us. It is not meant to encourage self-hate. It is not meant to be used to berate each other. It is simply the truth, and it is risky business to ignore this dark side of our existence.

At the other extreme, we are not meant to spend all of our time dwelling on sin. Scrupulosity is its own kind of self-preoccupation. The English Benedictine Sebastian Moore once told me that he thought God was probably bored to tears with endless nit-picking about sin.

The ability to forgive is grounded in the experience of being forgiven. The experience of "I (or we) have been forgiven" is usually the starting point for a spirituality of forgiveness. In 1 John 4:7 and 21 we read that God first loved us. In a similar fashion we can say that God first forgives us, allowing us to forgive others in turn. All talk about forgiveness must be set in the context of God's infinite and tender love for us and our uncanny penchant to reject, betray, or otherwise turn our backs on this love.

I have found the Sayings of the fourth-century desert monks--who are referred to as abbas and ammas--to be a superb resource for learning about compunction. This group of men and women left towns and cities to live and pray in the desert as a protest against a church that had changed from being the "poor of Yahweh" to the church of the Roman Empire. Their Sayings are the written record of the advice they gave to one another about how to seek God.

For the monks of the desert, compunction was a lifelong disposition. They mourned for present and past failures, for an unwillingness to notice and respond to the totally embracing and unconditional love of God. Ultimately compunction is about the loss of what gives joy to the Christian, that is, a loving existence that leads to the final culmination of life in God.

The Greek term for this experience is penthos. It is an affective movement of the heart, pierced with sorrow, groaning, turning anew toward God. We dare to speak about compunction, hoping that such a word will somehow yield real fruit as we live our lives and exercise our ministries in a world that stands in great need of reconciliation.

The mourning after

True compunction is not self-pity nor ego-centered guilt. When our sin is "discovered" and we can no longer defend a self-image of perfection, we are likely to experience anger and despair. When ego has the upper hand over love, acknowledging sin produces not sorrow but hopelessness with its attendant loss of life and creativity. Egoism can also support scrupulosity, fastidious adherence to every jot of the law. Self-preoccupation lies at the heart of counterfeit compunction.

Compunction is not doing penance. Nor does it nurture extreme ascetic practices. A brother told Abba Poemen of his sins and said he wanted to do penance for three years. The response was that three years was too much. When the brother suggested two years of penance and then only 40 days, Abba Poemen had the same response. He said that if one repents with one's whole heart and intends to sin no more, three days is plenty.

Genuine compunction protects against the pride and self-righteousness that can accompany penitential practices.

Mourning was important in the desert above all because scripture commanded it. It was the duty of every Christian. Scripture is the source of the mourning/joy paradox: "Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted" (Matt. 5:4). The desert monks describe this feeling of sorrow, or mourning, with metaphors such as the gift of tears and the pierced heart.

A sign of compunction's earthly dimension is its orientation toward love of neighbor. Compunction nurtures dispositions of forgiveness without which community life cannot thrive. As we know well, human relationships can help us understand compunction. Many of us have been blessed with the experience of being loved in a profoundly gratuitous and freeing way. Such an experience can open a door onto the meaning of God's love. One's response to this kind of love is awe, astonishment, sometimes utter disbelief. But above all, one has the sense that one has done nothing to deserve this love. Saint Teresa of Avila speaks of this love as a drenching spring rain. In response we experience utter gratitude as well as profound sorrow and desolation when we realize how careless and indifferent we can be to this love.

And when we experience intense sorrow for sin, it is experienced not only on behalf of ourselves, but also for others--for loved ones, neighbors, and even enemies. Today more than ever, we are aware of the human connections linking us across the globe. Awareness of love's betrayal leads to acknowledgment of the myriad ways in which we participate in the sins of the world. We too bear the burden of the violent and murderous behavior that results in abuse, starvation, torture, rape of the planet, war, and degradation in our world.

Arising from this heartfelt sorrow is an awareness that we need and want to be forgiven. Genuine compunction does not leave us in despair or embarrassed about our hardness of heart, but rather turns us toward God, confident that we will receive mercy and forgiveness seventy times seven. A pierced heart leads to repentance and conversion.

In the end, compunction, like unconditional love, is a pure gift. Sometimes it comes unexpectedly with no effort; sometimes it eludes us even after lengthy entreaty. Receiving this grace can be a moment when the truth about God and ourselves strikes us and makes a new life possible. In the enthusiasm of ties reestablished, we die to pettiness, self-centeredness, and inner addictions. We regain a perspective in which we see clearly the transitory nature of life and thus its preciousness.

At the heart of a renewed sense of compunction will be trust in the paradox that sorrow and joy are indeed two faces of the same reality. We are also invited to commit ourselves again and again to the communitarian dimensions of Christianity. True compunction is a community affair that leads to forgiveness of self and others.

I suggest five areas in which we might experience a renewed sense of compunction.

1. Image of God

The ways in which we image God affect our sense of sin. We no longer appeal to an angry, vengeful God in order to evoke feelings of compunction. But shouldn't we be fearful of the consequences of arrogant, indifferent, secretive, irresponsible, and addictive behaviors? Is it possible to encourage one another to flee destructive tendencies?

We are more likely to open ourselves up to the gift of tears by reflecting on God's loving gaze at the world; on God's generous desire to offer to us God's very self; on God's justice that demands the fullness of life for all. God's love will not be impeded by our sin. The 14th-century anchoress Julian of Norwich saw the horror of sin but in the end heard God's word that "all will be well." She met a God who in the end did not judge but consoled.

2. Self-knowledge

History may name this century the "age of psychology." One of the benefits of the growth in psychological knowledge is our increased awareness of our psyches. Many Americans are conversant with the basic language and processes of self-knowledge and self-help.

The Christian spiritual tradition points consistently to the importance of self-knowledge. Those embarking on the spiritual journey are invited to get the picture straight at the beginning. In their wisdom, the saints caution us against living in illusion and self-deception about ourselves, our families, our institutions, and our countries. It is our glory that we are made in God's image, and our truth that we are both creatures and sinners. Compunction hinges on our ability and willingness to live in this truth.

A brother asked Abba Anthony, "What should I do about my sins?" He replied, "Whoever seeks deliverance from sins will find it in tears and weeping, and whoever wishes to advance in building up virtue will do so through weeping and tears." We need to find constructive ways to face our sinfulness.

3. I've got a feeling

Compunction belongs in an eminent way to the world of religious feeling, and we will become more likely candidates for compunction when we notice, respect, and develop our emotions.

There are many reasons why we allow our feelings to atrophy. For some it is a defense set up in the interest of self-image or self-preservation. For others it is the result of cultural pressures that make us fear and repress our feelings rather than accept and appreciate them. Knowing and expressing feelings in appropriate ways makes us vulnerable, but it also opens us to solidarity and friendship. One shudders at Christians who are unable or unwilling to be in touch with, and express to others, this sacred aspect of human existence. Expression of sorrow for sin is a good place to start.

This rehabilitation of feeling is related to our reappraisal of bodiliness. Feminist theology has called attention to the sacredness of the body, its sexuality, rhythms, and expressions. In our culture, the physical expression of tears is more acceptable for women, and perhaps those women who understand this gift most deeply can be our guides. Physical tears may open our eyes to the reality of spiritual mourning. Suffering and pain create physical tension and stress, making one's entire being taut, tense, strung out. Tears provide a physical release that can lead to psychic and spiritual healing and peace.

The desert monks counseled against both excessive weeping to gain relief and the suppression of tears that sometimes led to illness and even death. But there was a skepticism about the sincerity of a sense of sin that was not accompanied by tears. Some temperaments are not prone to weeping, but it is a natural process for most people. Saint Gregory of Nyssa calls tears "the blood in the wounds of the soul." As it is natural for a wound to bleed, except among the bloodless, so it is natural for Christians to weep, except among those with hearts of stone.

4. The rite stuff

Ritual is a powerful way to nurture religious feelings. Unfortunately, this may be the arena of our greatest failure. For Roman Catholics, reflection on the traditional practice of the sacrament of Penance makes one wonder whether the multiplication of Confessions did not play a part in the diminishment of compunction--and in the decline of participation in the sacrament. Frequent sacramental Confession was not the practice of the early church. The emphasis was on the virtue rather than the act of repentance. Frequency can also generate a mindless list of peccadillos. Perhaps the present decline of this sacrament is an invitation to tap into the wellsprings of genuine compunction.

A second common ritual is the confession of sin at the beginning of Eucharist. For many worshipers these words and ritual gestures have become routinized and empty, no longer capable of moving us to a profound sense of loss and mourning. Can we bring new life to this confession by connecting it with events from the local community and the world? Every week we become aware of new expressions of violence and indifference to human beings. Can we bring these stark and sinful realities to light so that the ritual arouses in the community feelings of deep sorrow that will support and make true the words "I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters"?

Third, preaching has always been an integral part of eucharistic celebration. In the early church, Origen is recognized as the first great preacher of compunction. In his 19th homily On Jeremiah, Origen said that a preacher should use his eloquence to bring his hearers "to mourning, to weeping, and to tears ... for only weeping leads to laughter." As preachers of the word both in and beyond the pulpit, do we allow the Word of God to pierce our hearts? And do our pierced hearts influence the ways in which we relate to others? In our daily lives do we permit the veil to be drawn back so that others may see the truth of a heart filled with compunction, and so be drawn to receive the gift themselves?

5. Love of the world

As we look at ourselves and at our hungry, poor, abused, and war-torn world, do we weep? Are we appalled at the evil around us and at the evil lodged securely in our own hearts?

Those with pierced hearts do not face the world nor judge it with a superior, unfeeling, holier-than-thou countenance. Their tears are commensurate with our love. And a loving, compassionate gaze at the world presumes a sense of equality with, and respect for, all creation. For we stand in and of the world, both image of God and sinner.

Forgiveness is not something we can magically summon. It is a complex reality that each one of us experiences differently.

Forgiveness: Pro and con

Robert Enright is a developmental psychologist at the University of Wisconsin who has formed the International Forgiveness Institute to explore issues of mercy and forgiveness and the emotional and physical healing that can result from forgiving those who hurt us.

In a National Catholic Reporter article, he defines forgiveness as "giving up the resentment to which you are entitled and offering to the persons who hurt you friendlier attitudes to which they are not entitled."

One can think about forgiveness from the perspective of personal well-being. Enright says that forgiveness reduces psychological depression. Recent research has shown that people who are deeply and unjustly hurt by others can heal emotionally and, in some cases, physically by forgiving their offender.

A second approach is that of moral humanism. It is very difficult to create and maintain a healthy society if there is no forgiveness. Thus, it behooves all of us to figure out how to give and receive forgiveness if we want a modicum of harmony in our social relationships.

Another approach is theological and religious. The foundation and motivation for forgiveness is embedded in the myths of various religions. For Christians, Jesus Christ is the paradigm for forgiveness in his prayer on the cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

In all three of these approaches one needs to discern good from bad motives. Do we forgive simply out of self-interest? Because we love humanity? Or because we want to imitate God? There is probably a bit of all three in most decisions to forgive, but not always. The meaning changes depending on whether I forgive to get rid of an ulcer or because I find myself in love with humanity and with God.

There have been, however, a number of arguments mounted against the value of forgiveness. In some cases, forgiveness can be used as a weapon of power. For example, children can be forced to offer forgiveness in a way that enhances parental control, but that does not lead the child to understand and, at some level, choose the gesture. In other cases, overeager forgiveness reflects a lack of respect for oneself and one's worth.

Moreover, from a pragmatic stance, some would say that forgiveness has no meaning since it cannot change the bad deed. A murderer does not become a nonmurderer once forgiven. What has been done cannot be undone. Finally, the sacrament of forgiveness can be used as a license to sin. The pattern runs as follows: one sins, goes to Confession, receives absolution, does penance, guilt is relieved, one returns to sin. In other words, forgiveness can be misunderstood as "cheap grace." The martyred German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it "grace without price; grace without cost!"

Don't get me wrong

There are also a number of ways to misunderstand forgiveness. First, one might think erroneously that forgiving implies condoning the sin. If we forgive too easily, we are implying that the transgression is OK.

Second, one can wrongly equate forgiveness with excusing or overlooking the sin. It is as if we were saying, "Well, this evil isn't really that bad, because it is so easily forgiven."

Third, many people think that forgiving requires forgetting, and there are situations in which forgetting would be a betrayal of those who suffered the offense. In contrast, many members of the Jewish community have forgiven their Nazi persecutors, and many members of the African American community have forgiven those who enslaved their ancestors. But they keep the memory of the offense alive--by telling the stories in the family, by writing about it, by speaking to groups for whom the offense is but a distant memory.

Fourth, forgiveness is not the same as reconciling. It does not follow that after forgiving someone I will want to have dinner with that person.

A fifth misunderstanding: that forgiveness is for weaklings and sissies. If you don't have enough power to confront the one who offends, then you are weak. This viewpoint may feed into the gender stereotype that women--who are seen as not having power in relationships--forgive often, whereas men, who may be seen to be motivated by maintaining a macho image, will fight to the death.

On the contrary, forgiving is a sign of strength, not weakness, and in many situations around the globe forgiving reflects heroic virtue. Without forgiveness we remain in the control of the one who injured us. Our anger holds us prisoner.

Forgiveness is important in every age, but are there some aspects specific to our own time? Some cultural analysts point to the pervasive anger in society, and they see anger as the flip side of forgiveness. Anger erupts on our highways, kids kill for a pair of sneakers, children in school and adults at home choose physical violence as the first option when they are angry. One can respond to anger by denying it, expressing it in indirect and underhand ways, or forgiving and dealing with in it in a constructive manner.

The four Fs

Another analysis of the dimensions of forgiveness is from Clarissa Pinkola Estes' Women Who Run with the Wolves (Ballantine, 1992). Estes encourages us to make use of the creative dimensions that can be released in anger, but she also warns against getting stuck in it. The energy that rage demands can surely be put to better use. She invites anger to take a seat and have tea with us and talk a while so we can find out what summoned this visitor. One has to recognize, bless, contain, and release anger. Estes assumes the vantage point of the future and asks readers to decide what behaviors make them feel proud of themselves and encourages them to act on this information.

Estes offers four steps in the process of forgiveness--the "four Fs."

The first is to forego, to leave forgiveness alone. The idea here is not to overlook but to become agile and strong and detach oneself from the issue. To take up weaving, writing, that project in the house or at work; go to the beach or the woods; learn something you want to learn in order to create space between you and the hurt.

Forbear: abstain from punishing. Don't think about it or act on it--even in small ways. Don't let it flow everywhere and infect your whole life. To forbear means to have patience, to bear up against, to channel emotion. You don't need to do it all, but do something, practice some small gesture of generosity.

Forget: avert from memory, refuse to dwell on it. Conscious forgetting means letting go of the event. Don't allow it to stay in the foreground. Imagine your various feelings as actors in a play. Don't give feelings of anger and revenge the main part in the play. If you can invite them to leave the stage, all the better. But at least limit them to a walk-on role, so you do not spend the whole day attending to them. This kind of forgetting is an active choice, refusing to spend the day reliving the offense over and over again.

The final stage is to forgive, to abandon the debt. Forgiving is not surrender, but a conscious decision to cease to harbor resentment. One of the most profound forms of forgiveness is to give compassionate aid to the offending person in one form or another. One responds from a stance of mercy, security, and preparedness. When one forgives, one does not give up one's protection of self but one's coldness, one's desire to exclude the offender. Forgiveness is truly an act of creation, and there are as many ways to do it as there are people. Sorrow replaces anger, so that one is not waiting for anything or wanting anything. T. S. Eliot reminds us: "Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still."

I have found that time and, where appropriate, physical distance are crucial elements in this process of forgiveness. If we allow it, time can dull the vividness of the memory of the hurt. Gradually we get some distance, some perspective that allows us to see the event on the wider canvas of our lives and of history. We get involved in other projects. Life makes other demands that call for our time, energy, and attention. One advantage of age is that you know that time heals and you can count on it to do its work, even when we feel quite powerless to effect anything on our own.

Impossible forgiveness

As we all know, anger that we refuse to address has dangerous consequences. Persons who feel as though they spend their lives giving and giving and that no one gives much back can end up with deeply embedded feelings of resentment. Culturally, this pitfall affects women more than men. Estes suggests that at some time in our lives, usually in midlife, we have to make a decision about whether to be bitter or not. She thinks that for some, this might be the most important psychic decision they will make--one that will affect not only the second half of life, but also how one dies.

For some people forgiveness comes quite naturally. For others it seems almost impossible. Some experience the ability to forgive as a gift. On their own they feel powerless and unable to forgive, but then grace comes and they are led to offer forgiveness in spite of its difficulty. For most of us, learning to forgive comes at a high cost. It's a skill we struggle with.

But we need to remember that we are not bad people if we do not forgive easily, and that we are not necessarily saints if we do. Plain and simple, forgiveness for serious hurts is difficult. And there are some circumstances in which human forgiveness is simply not possible and one must leave it to God. Author Alice Walker describes the refusal to forgive racism as "a stone; a knot in my psychic system." Some forgiveness will have to wait for eternity or at least until there is readiness and genuine repentance of the one sinning. At the least, we can commit to forgiveness over the long haul, with prayer and patience.

The fruits of forgiveness

Forgiveness can be experienced not only as a gift given, but as a gift received. The very term forgiveness is built on the root word give. Forgiveness is a symbol, a sacrament of one's conviction of the givenness of life. In spite of all the evil in the world, to forgive is to proclaim a basic trust in the goodness of reality and of human persons.

Ultimately, forgiveness is a form of love within the context of a crisis. To forgive is, in a sense, to love one's enemy. When forgiveness is motivated primarily by utilitarian motives, it is no longer forgiveness but an act of self-interest. As Christians we are challenged to forgive, not only explicitly in many admonitions in the Bible and throughout the tradition, but also implicitly in the behavior of God in Jesus and in the Holy Spirit. We are supposed to meet our assailants with compassion the way Jesus did. The ability to forgive is first and foremost a consequence of God's love for us and, secondarily, a condition for it.

In the act of forgiving, believers imitate God. And the positive outcomes of human forgiveness can result in true reconciliation with the offending parties. We can even be reconciled with people who are dead, by holding in memory the positive goodness of the relationship and letting the hurts go. The words "I forgive you" can be performative--just as the death of Jesus was a gesture of compassionate love, reconciling all of creation with God.

Forgiveness is a creative act that changes us from prisoners of the past to liberated people at peace with our memories. We have noted that forgiveness is not forgetfulness, but it involves accepting a wager that the future can be more than dwelling on memories of past injury.

Forgiveness is an act of the imagination. It dares one to imagine a better future, one that is based on the blessed possibility that injury will not be the final word that forecloses the future but belief and trust that something truly new can happen. It is a sign that we have thrown in our lot with the Spirit's power to renew the face of the earth by breaking the destructive cycle of injury and revenge.

Forgiveness also opens one to relationships that are ever more authentic and free. Forgiveness transforms human relationships and possesses a capacity to reveal the compassionate face of God. Each of us has the opportunity and the responsibility to mediate to others the kindness and generosity of God. Forgiveness opens the door to continuing goodwill and to cooperation with others. It also builds confidence that one can survive injury and even grow from it. Forgiveness always implies relationship and community.

Being able to forgive can bring a sense of peace and well-being. It can lift anxiety and depression. It can enhance self-esteem and give us hope. For many, it is a clear and at times surprising experience of grace. It breaks the cycle of hatred and pain that is often passed on in families, nations, and religions from generation to generation. In some cases, it is the only thing that will allow something truly new to be born.

By Elizabeth A. Dreyer, the author of several books, including Manifestations of Grace (Liturgical Press, 1990) and Earth Crammed with Heaven: A Spirituality of Everyday Life (Paulist, 1994). She lives in Hamden, Connecticut.
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Title Annotation:forgiveness of self and others
Author:Dreyer, Elizabeth A.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Aug 1, 1998
Words:4970
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