Monday, March 27, 2017

Lent Calls Us to Holiness and Holiness Calls Us to Forgive

“Forgiveness is the answer to a child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean.”
Lent is a special time of year, a gift that the Church gives us. It is a reminder that each of us, without exception, is called to holiness. And what is ‘holiness’, really, but ‘wholeness’: being all-together in body, mind and spirit; being totally connected with God. No fractures, no splinters, no divisions.

Over the last three weekends we have been reminded that Lent calls us to Holiness. And we’ve heard that holiness calls us to Listen to what Jesus tells us in the gospel and to Repent for the times when we have failed to embrace and share God's love. But there is still one more thing that holiness calls us to do - it calls us to Forgive.

In 1956, Dag Hammarskjold, who was then Secretary General of the U.N., commenting on the meaning of forgiveness said, “Forgiveness is the answer to a child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean.” This is the kind of forgiveness that holiness calls us to embrace. It is the act of letting go of the past and accepting someone back into our heart.

But it’s not so easy to do. To genuinely forgive someone in the way that Jesus calls us to, we must be willing to accept the reality that a person’s faults and personality quirks will probably not disappear overnight. Jesus asks us to forgive even when the person who hurt us is not sorry; and even when we know that despite someone’s sincere apology, they are likely to hurt us again. He asks us to look into the eyes of someone who has hurt us deeply and to show that someone love and acceptance rather than anger and rejection.

To forgive like this is a choice that God gives us. When we forgive, we are choosing life, and love and a relationship for ourselves and for others. We are relieving ourselves of the burden of carrying around anger and bitterness. And we are giving someone else the freedom to live out his or her life - or maybe to rest in peace - with the knowledge that they are loved without strings.

By so doing, we are opening the door for true healing to occur: healing within ourselves, healing within another, and healing within a relationship. We are opening the door for holiness.

I minister as a hospital chaplain for our sisters and brothers who suffer with emotional and psychiatric illness. Some have been institutionalized for a very long time and we have formed friendships over many years. Others have had a temporary breakdown as a reaction to a deep personal loss or some severe stress. 

As people share their stories, I have seen that many who suffer like this are carrying a heavy burden - they are unable to forgive.  Sometimes it’s another person: someone who has hurt, betrayed or abandoned them. Sometimes it’s God who is blamed for taking a loved one away in death. Sometimes it’s even oneself.

The latter case, the inability to forgive oneself, is one of the most insidious causes of depression. It stops us from finding peace and from trusting in God’s love for us; and it keeps us focused on ourselves. But how do we forgive ourselves when we are carrying around guilt and shame?

There’s a wonderful short story by the Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo that speaks to this kind of forgiveness. The story is entitled The Final Martyrs* and it is set in 17th Century Japan during the persecution of Japanese Christians. I’d like to read a brief summary of this powerful story.

In those days, the Emperor had declared it a capital offense for a Japanese to practice Christianity. At first hundreds of people were crucified, burned at the stake, broiled on wooden gridirons or thrown alive into sulfur pits. As the persecution wore on and countless Japanese martyrs held to their faith, the government became more and more enraged and sadistic. It tried to make Christians deny their faith by the cruelest of tortures, and those who renounced Jesus publicly were allowed to go free.

Endo’s story is about a group of young adult Christian men who have known each other since childhood. They belong to a village that has secretly practiced Christianity for more than 100 years. One member of the group is named Kisuke. As a child he was big, awkward and accident-prone. Being ridiculed often, Kisuke reached adulthood with no self-esteem. As they grew up secretly practicing their faith, the other young men often predicted that if they were ever to be caught by the government and tortured, Kisuke would quickly renounce his faith and betray Jesus.

The government learns about the village from an informer and it is raided and burnt to the ground. Kisuke and his friends are arrested and confined to a tiny cell to await torture. His friends remain steadfast in their faith and urge Kisuke to pray to Jesus and Mary for strength.

But listening to the screams of those being tortured becomes too much for Kisuke. Before his turn comes, he cries to the guards that he is ready to renounce his faith. He leaves his cell in shame never able to look back upon his friends. The other young men are tortured brutally but no one renounces his faith.

For the next two years they are moved around Japan from prison to prison. One by one they begin to die until only two remain. After witnessing so much suffering, their faith has weakened and they are close to despair. And then one day they see a tall awkward figure being led to their cell — it is Kisuke.

After he is shoved into their cell by the guards, his friends ask him how he ended up being brought back for torture after having renounced his faith. Kisuke tells them how he wandered around Japan for two years filled with shame for betraying Jesus. Until one night he could no longer bear it.

He stood alone weeping on a desolate beach preparing to end his life. He cried out to the ocean: “Oh, if only I had been born a different person. If only I could have been strong and brave like my friends instead of the worthless coward that I am.”

From behind him, Kisuke heard a whispering voice. It was the voice of Jesus: “It’s alright, Kisuke. I understand. Just go back to be with the others. Even if the fear and the torture are too much for you to bear and you have to betray me again, it’s alright. Just go back to be with the others.”

And Kisuke did go back.

His friends’ faith was renewed by Kisuke’s story along with their love for him. As his turn comes to be led to torture, his friends tell him, “It’s alright, Kisuke. Even if you have to betray him again, the Lord Jesus is happy. He is happy that you just came back.”

There have been moments in my life when I felt like Kisuke standing on that beach; when I looked at my life and reflected on the times I had betrayed Jesus by failing to love and be present to others. But it is in those painful moments of self-reflection that I can hear Jesus whispering to me.

He asks that I just come back and try again; that I let the process of transformation unfold over time - his time not mine; that I understand that the miracle of Jesus is not immediate perfection but rather a lifelong process of falling on the floor and getting right back up again.

Like Kisuke was filled with shame and self-doubt, we sometimes hear a little voice in our mind that keeps putting us down; a voice that tries to make us stop following Jesus by telling us that we are not good enough, that we are filled with blemishes, that we are worthless. But we know that voice is lying. You see, we’ve been to the beach; we’ve heard Jesus whispering to us - and we will never be the same again.    

This Tuesday evening we will have a communal Penance service. The sacrament of Penance is a gift that Jesus gave us. It brings about healing and wholeness in our soul. Let us give ourselves the gift of this sacrament. And as we ask for God’s forgiveness, let us open our up hearts and forgive those who have hurt us. Let us make amends, where possible, and forgive ourselves for any thing we’ve done or failed to do that may have caused hurt and pain to others. Let us place any guilt and shame we’ve been carrying into the loving hands of God and trust that we are truly forgiven.

Lent calls us to holiness and holiness calls us to forgive - to forgive others and to forgive ourselves. “Forgiveness is the answer to a child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean.”

* Endo, Shusaku. The Final Martyrs. New York: New Directions. 1959.

Readers of this blog might enjoy these books by Deacon Lex. Both are available on

Just to Follow My Friend: Experiencing God’s Presence in Everyday Life

The Gospel of You, The Gospel of Me: Making Christ Present in Everyday Life

Synchronicity as the Work of the Holy Spirit: Jungian Insights for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Ministry

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