Collect for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are unworthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Technique of Pardon, Part I

Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, “O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldest thou not also have had compassion on thy fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee?” And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. 
—The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 18.32-35

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Yesterday I got back from Revoice’s first conference in St Louis. It was phenomenal. The mere sensation of being in a room full of four hundred people who all either understood from within what it’s like to be queer and a Christian, or had come because they wanted to understand, was so overwhelming that I had to step out and do some deep breathing, several times.

One thing that caught my attention was how often a measured and (I believe) godly anger was expressed towards the homophobic words, actions, and policies that have damaged so many of us, coming from fellow believers. I’ve encountered anger with Christianity before, but it’s generally been the clear result of an injury or string of injuries—which, sadly, is no mystery—and has had the haphazard, defensive, and unscrupulous quality of an immediate response to pain. I can’t blame that sort of anger, but I can’t trust it, either. The anger at Revoice, what there was of it, was different. Not primarily by being gentler or quieter; Matthew 23 is one of the angriest passages in Scripture, and came from a sinless mouth. It was different because it was reasoned, temperate, even calm—equity is passion acting in lucidity, as Charles Williams might repeat. And, startling though it may be to say so, I believe that an anger of this kind is very often an important element in forgiveness.

This is because forgiveness is so generally mixed up with indulgence in our culture, both secular and Christian. Forgiveness means reconciling with somebody who’s done wrong; indulgence means letting them off the consequences. And it is perfectly possible to forgive without indulging, in the knowledge that what’s best for the other person is, exactly, that they should be effectually and memorably corrected. A sex offender might experience remorse over his horrible actions and resolve to reform, but it might or might not follow from that that he should be paroled; indeed, if his remorse and his resolve are sincere, he might want to serve his full sentence.

How, then, are we to approach forgiveness, if it isn’t just letting things slide? The sacrament of Penance shows us the process from the penitent’s side—confession (recognition of our wrongdoing), contrition (being sorry for it and saying so), and absolution (being forgiven). But of course, when we are on the other side of the equation, these steps are not necessary [1]; and God, unlike ourselves, never has difficulty or hesitates to forgive. The technique of penitence, however little we practice it, is tolerably clear in outline. But what is the technique of pardoning?

I believe that this technique does exist, and that it has these three parts: (i) grieving, or recovery; (ii) compassion; and (iii) reconciliation. The first is concerned with ourselves, and the second and third with the person who wronged us.

These three things need not occur in distinguishable, conscious sequence in every act of forgiveness. There are offenses light enough that hardly any recovery is necessary; and conversely, there are offenses heavy enough that we may be able to forgive them long before we’ve finished repairing the damage they’ve done to us. But I take these three steps to be the basic framework on which quite different acts of pardon may be built, the center of the derivations.

I. Grieving

I’ve chosen this name for all of the psychological processing we have to do to recover from a wound. I prefer grieving over healing or some similar adjective for two reasons: first, because grieving a wrong that’s been done to us is very like grieving a death or some other tragic loss; and second, because Americans at least are extremely bad at this—we have a strange aversion to, even an embarrassment about, sadness—so that the idea could use some emphasis.

To be injured changes our universe, at least a little. Any change can require a kind of grieving, and injuries nearly always do. The essential parts of grieving, as I understand the process, are: acknowledging what happened; recognizing that it was wrong; experiencing the pain (along with the anger, sadness, etc. that that may involve); and returning to a place of psychological stability in the new, changed universe.

The trope of the ‘Five Stages of Grief,’ or the K├╝bler-Ross model, is not universally accepted, but it does touch on some of the experiences that many people go through in grief: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, numbness, exhaustion. These emotions have to be allowed their say. Wallowing isn’t a good thing, but repression does (if possible) even more damage, because when you simply tell an emotion No and force it down, it doesn’t go away—it’s like compressing a bag of water, the excess will just bulge out in another place; and when the bag of water is a person, it’s virtually bound to bulge out somewhere unhealthy. So that then you have to deal with the unhealthy consequences, and still go back and do the original emotional work you had refused: patiently and simply letting your feelings be felt. Not obeying every impulse you have, but acknowledging every emotion that this loss or wound has aroused in you. Emotions are messengers, and until their message is delivered they will not let you be.

It is very hard work to just sit with your feelings and let them speak. When you’ve been injured, it hurts to let your heart have its say. But one of two things will happen first: you letting your heart speak, or you dying. Not letting your heart speak isn’t on the table. It’s a part of you.

How do you get past this stage wisely? How do you tell the difference between listening and wallowing? Well, a tell-tale sign of wallowing is when you find yourself going, even slightly, out of your way to provoke the feelings of anger or sadness. That is emotional masturbation, and it’s just as sterile as the regular kind. (I suspect that part of the reason Americans are so skittish about grief is an authentic recognition that sadness and anger have their pleasures, and that these pleasures are extraordinarily dangerous, if not necessarily illicit.) I think a lot of it is just going to be waiting, though; waiting for your emotions to finish talking. All else being equal, they’ll quiet down when they’re done.

All else may not be equal, and the support of good friends, good pastors, and (depending on the nature of the wound) a qualified therapist, should not be dismissed. Even minor wounds often heal better when they heal in a communal context. But everybody has to find the solutions that work best for their own person, their own wound, their own context. A framework of pardon can be made of wood, but it shouldn’t be made of diamond: every person’s needs and graces are different; it’s why God made lots of people instead of, like, six.

Grieving is necessary not as part of forgiving per se, but because without grieving, we aren’t in a position to forgive. [2] There are exceedingly few people whose command over their passions is so complete that they can sincerely forgive while they’re in the throes of anguish; and of the ones that do exist, most of them got that way by hard, excruciating practice. God, being infinite, is always ready to forgive—yet Scripture implies that even our grief is an analogue to something in God, a wrathful or anguished love for his creatures when they sin and would (if it were possible) wound the boundless fullness and goodness of their Creator. Contrariwise, we are finite beings who have to call upon emotional resources in order to act, and are moreover trained from childhood in the half-unconscious techniques of ego-defensiveness against sins and virtues alike. It isn’t shocking that we have difficulty forgiving.

But this difficulty comes in two forms. One, the (for lack of a better word) obvious form, is the proud refusal of forgiveness, Milton’s Sense of injur’d Merit, the festering resentment, the unappeasable egocentrism, that will not pardon one who has blasphemed our great god Self.

The other form is less straightforward, more subversive, and, I believe, more responsible for the evil reputation of forgiveness has in our society today. It is to indulge—that is, to release from consequences—without the offender’s repentance. This is the parody rather than the rejection of forgiveness: indulging everything, allowing everything, pretending that sins don’t matter. In small social gaffes, it can be appropriate merely to indulge, but when you try the same technique with real injuries and injustices, the result is disastrous. It destroys the human dignity from which forgiveness has to operate, by implying that the offense wasn’t really an offense at all; in the name of being civil or kind or respectful, it voluntarily reduces itself to a subhuman status. Authentic forgiveness is a weapon against evil, overcoming it with love; indulgence without forgiveness enables evil, encourages it to consider itself normal or even positively good.

It is because this parody is so often represented as ‘forgiveness’ that I specially accent grieving as a necessary preliminary to the other steps of the technique of pardon. Naked indulgence reckons without the human dignity of the victim-pardoner, and to grieve is (among other things) to assert one’s dignity and humanity. Christians, who ought in theory to understand forgiveness better than other people, are as subject to these misconceptions as anybody else; the only culturally prominent exponent of genuine forgiveness I can think of is an apostate, Joss Whedon, whose depictions of the complexities of forgiveness in Buffy the Vampire Slayer [3] and Firefly are remarkable for their truth to the process and their intuitive comprehensibility.

I’ll leave compassion and reconciliation for a later post.

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[1] Not necessary, that is, in the exercise of forgiving the specific offense. We are virtually always sinners as well as sinned against, absolvers of our victims and suppliants of those who have wronged us.
[2] Ordinarily, anyway. I don’t rule out the possibility of graces that exceed normal human capacities; I mean, that’s kind of the point of Catholic Christianity. But our normal duty is to follow the normal way of things, because it’s what we encounter the most, and the miraculous is by definition exceptional.
[3] I’m pedantic enough that I feel the need to point out the Buffy clip here entirely misconstrues the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory: it is not a realm of directionless punishment (that would be Hell), but of cleansing and completion—a little bit like the Buddhist idea of bardo, where the dead sort out their issues that remain unresolved from life, though even bardo is less decidedly positive than Purgatory. But obviously that isn’t the main idea of the Buffy scene.

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