Friday, March 22, 2013

F for forgiveness

"My chains fell off, my heart was free...."
sang the huge congregation gathered at Canterbury Cathedral yesterday.
So,too, sang the significantly smaller congregation at St Matthew's last Sunday. 
"And Can it Be?" is my absolutely favourite hymn, part of all my significant services - 1st Mass, farewell, Induction...
I'm relying on all of you to ensure it's sung with verve at my funeral one day.
"Amazing love  - how can it be....?"
is pretty much my on-going response to God - but this week it's the liberating power of forgiveness, both human and divine, that is pre-occupying me.

It all began on Wednesday, when together with a friend from church I finally visited the F word exhibition...something I'd hoped to do since failing to get to it at Greenbelt some years ago. 
The Forgiveness Project is extraordinary - sharing stories of reconciliation that build bridges across chasms of hurt that common-sense would surely declare too deep, too wide to span at all.
There was the mother who became friends - truly FRIENDS - with the mother of her son's killer...the Holocaust survivor who signed a letter of forgiveness in the ruins of the Auschwitz gas chambers with a former Nazi doctor...and so many other stories of transforming power.

It was very clear that the act of forgiving was revolutionary in its power - both to shape the lives of those involved and in its impact on the wider community.
Eva, the Holocaust survivor wrote 

Forgiveness is really nothing more than an act of self-healing and self-empowerment. I call it a miracle medicine. It is free, it works and has no side effects.I believe with every fibre of my being that every human being has the right to live without the pain of the past. For most people there is a big obstacle to forgiveness because society expects revenge. It seems we need to honour our victims but I always wonder if my dead loved ones would want me to live with pain and anger until the end of my life. 
I've never had anything even moderately serious to forgive - so it seems presumptuous of me to argue with her - but it seems to me that she is underestimating herself - and so many others - when she describes forgiveness as "free". Surely, if it is more than a form of words, forgiveness must surely be almost unimaginably costly. Nothing that I read made me feel otherwise, though it was striking how for the majority forgiveness was the obvious "solution", however hard won. It was the route by which they moved on from victim-hood, by which they escaped being defined by their hurt forever. It's power to reshape history shone through every account. A good friend, a survivor, once said that for him "Forgiveness means depriving the power of the perpetrator to keep on harming, day after day..." while one of my truly amazing Y6 children wrote, during our "Experience Eucharist" week                           "Forgiveness means letting go of your hurt and offering the hand of friendship to the one who has hurt you".                                                                                                                                               Powerful stuff!
So much for forgiving...BEING forgiven, of course, is equally challenging. Again, the stories of the Forgiveness Project confirmed this. To accept forgiveness means accepting, too, that we are culpable.It means being honest about our selves, our actions and motivations, even those which seem to have been successfully buried out of sight.
That's where the Sacrament of Reconciliation comes in, for me - and this was the second lens through which I've been exploring forgiveness this week.
I love this Sacrament dearly - though the process of looking into my own soul with all the clarity of vision I can muster is always, and I think quite rightly, painful. Motivations I've managed to gloss over, habits of mind that I'd pretended to ignore, just have to be confronted full on...and that's never an encouraging process. So often I seem to have picked up the same loads of rubbish that I gratefully shed before...have fallen flat on my face in the self-same patch of mud from which I've been helped again and again. Why do I keep on going there? Examination of conscience isn't supposed to be fun...Allowing God's light to shine in my darkest corners is, frankly, painful. But nonetheless, as I say, this Sacrament is one of the great gifts of the Church - something that makes all the difference because it has the power to change my view of myself - to liberate me in the same way that the participants in the Forgiveness Project have been liberated.
You see, within the context of the Sacrament we are reminded again and again that we are more than the sum of our negligence, weakness and deliberate fault...and that however overwhelming our sense of personal inadequacy and failure may be, this is NOT what God sees when God looks at us. That can be hard to hear, harder to believe - for somehow it's always easier to be generous about other people than to accept God's staggering generosity for ourselves...but when the words of Absolution come, there's no getting away from them. 
They are offered to ME -personally, by name! - in the face of all those mean, grubby things I struggle to articulate - and they embrace, too, "All those sins I cannot now remember" - for the longing to be free of them means that they, too, are covered by that amazing love.
"My chains fell off........"
Although it's Lent, there might just have been a few "A*******s" resounding round my car as I drove home.

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