Saturday, December 30, 2017

Patron Saints of Forgiveness...

St. Philomena statue in process from Chris Hart Studio. 
My New Year's resolution for 2017 had been to learn how to forgive.  Actually, forgiving has made it onto my list for many years since I had never really understood what it meant no matter how hard I thought I was trying.  I've struggled with forgiveness for a long time, to understand it and to feel it both.  I have asked friends and family how it is they were able to forgive others and make it look so easy. At every mass, I have prayed to the Divine to open my heart, helping me to let go of the resentments, anger and fear I hold on to so tightly.  On my knees after communion, I ask "What is taking you so long, God?  Just kick my butt in the direction I most need, please."  At times, I have fooled myself into believing that forgetting is just as good as forgiving.  Other times, I've told myself I can't forgive because it feels like saying what the other person did was OK after all. There have been times that I didn't want to even explore the possibility of forgiveness because to do so meant I would have to acknowledge the part I played in being wronged, the part of wronging someone else. It's complex and something that has puzzled me much of my life.  Of course, I can ask for forgiveness and receive it through confession or other means but how do I find the path to forgive those I feel have hurt me unjustly?  The act of forgiveness seems to be a hallmark of martyrdom and sainthood, neither of which I aspire to at this stage of my life.  I didn't need a book called Forgiveness for Dummies.  Instead, I did it the hard way.   

Many years ago I had read a news story about a snake who mistakenly ate a heating pad thinking it was a rodent.  After all, it was soft and furry with an infrastructure resembling the feel of a skeleton.  It was warm with a nice long tail which provided the appropriate resistance because it was plugged into the wall.  Even if the snake had a momentary doubt about eating the prey, it's teeth curve backward toward it's body, making it nearly impossible to pull out. I had become that snake, choking on the heating pad.  For years I was absolutely certain that I was tightly holding onto a rat, with my teeth curved inwards, unable to let go.  I clung to my indignation like a sheriff's badge and righteously flashed it whenever the criminal got too close.  Every single word, every silence, look, turning, breath, sigh, sneeze or blink was filtered through my anger, fear and feelings of rejection all the while missing the truth.  I was so sure I was right that I couldn't even begin to think there could be any other way to be.  Then in a flash, my heart cracked open and I saw the infinitesimal possibility that my reality wasn't the reality.  The heating pad was just a heating pad and not a rat after all.  In that moment, like splitting the atom, I was turned inside out, unable to see things the same again.  That's when I understood forgiveness.

It didn't matter how many times I prayed to be able to forgive others or how many stories I read about how martyred saints had forgiven their persecutor even at the moment of death, I still couldn't apply it when it came to my own life. It amazed me that St. Maria Goretti could forgive her murderer as she lay dying from her stab wounds.  St. Philomena, Daughter of Light, could steadfastly stay true to her beliefs while being tortured and finally beheaded, miraculously able to forgive her persecutors.  What about St. Sebastian, martyred twice and still able to forgive.  I am grateful to have not been beheaded, stabbed or shot through with arrows in order to let go of my iron grip on being right about being wronged.          

Detail of the serpent on base Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Statue
I am humbled by the long circuitous route I took to learn about forgiveness. I'm not sure I will do any better the next time I believe I am wronged by someone but now I am open to the possibility that something I was so sure of in one moment can, in the blink of an eye, be seen in a totally different light. It didn't happen like I thought it would when I prayed at mass for God to open my heart.  It didn't happen like the example martyred saints set for us, embracing their abuser on their deathbed.  Nope, not for me.  It was as simple as the snake.  My reptilian brain was sure I had a rat when in fact I was choking on a heating pad.  I was so blinded by my need to be right that I couldn't see my heart. Let go of the rat. It's not what you think it is. Happy New Year!

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