Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

O Almighty God, who alone makest the minds of the faithful to be of one will: grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through 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.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Technique of Pardon, Part II

Forgiveness can be considered as applicable in three ways: (i) to things which need not be forgiven; (ii) to things which can be forgiven; (iii) to things which cannot be forgiven. The first and third, put so, are contradictory; nevertheless, the phrases may for the present stand. … It may be objected that such operations, in many and many a relationship of love, are purely ‘natural’; they neither invoke, nor think of invoking, the supernatural world of which St Paul was thinking. So; but then the great goods do operate naturally. Where there is love, there is Christ; where there is human reconciliation, there is the Church. To say so is not in any way to weaken the supernatural: where the consciousness of that exists, the power of the operation ought in every way to pierce deeper, to last longer, to live stronger, than in the natural. … He who professes a supernatural validity for his acts must follow them out into that whole validity. 
—Charles Williams, The Forgiveness of Sins

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II. Compassion

When we approach the sacrament of penance, or indeed when we make any sincere act of repentance and seek reconciliation with someone we’ve wronged, we go through the three steps of confession, [1] contrition, and absolution. Confession means admitting that we’ve done wrong; contrition means being sorry for it and apologizing; and absolution means being forgiven by the person we wronged (done by God in the confessional, and by whomever we apologized to in the rest of life).

The technique of pardon (grieving, compassion, reconciliation) is similar in some ways. The first step, grieving, parallels confession: both involve recognizing and admitting a truth about the act that needs forgiving, and both are prerequisites to the rest of the process. The emotional process of healing that’s involved in grieving doesn’t have an obvious parallel in the steps of repentance, since God doesn’t need to process emotions—although it could be argued that the Passion itself is the parallel.

The second step, which is the counterpart to contrition, is compassion. Once we are healed and balanced (or even before that, depending on the wound), the next step toward forgiveness is to see the person who wronged us with the eyes of love and mercy. And this is the step which often meets with indignant refusal.

It’s hard to look with kindness, patience, or pity on somebody who’s taken advantage of us. More than that, it’s an act of generosity. Compassion cannot be extracted; it is a gift.

And that, that movement from an economy of debt and payment to an economy of free giving and receiving, is what makes the difference between forgiveness and the refusal to forgive. To accept God’s forgiveness is to enter the economy of gift. That is why gold is used to pave the streets of the New Jerusalem: purchase and wages have become as irrelevant to its coinherent, relational life as concrete is to our relationships.
‘I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.’
‘Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything here is for the asking and nothing can be bought.’
—C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

The catch (so to call it) is the same catch that’s present in all being. Everything is double-edged: what makes it work, when we try to oppose it, will make it work against us. If we enter the economy of gift, we must enter it entirely. I believe that is why we are given the terrible warning that if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses: not because the Lord will withhold it, but because we cannot pick and choose how our relationships will work; we must work on one basis or the other, law or grace, debt or gift. And if we insist on the former, we shall have it—though we probably won’t like it when we get it.

How, then, are we to practice compassion when we don’t want to? Well, like every good action, it is rooted in two things: the grace of God and the assent of man. Even if we, I, find it difficult to believe, God loves to give, and he will not withhold the grace of the desire to forgive if we ask him for it. For that, we can only pray and, if need be, wait.

And the assent? that is, if not easy, at least not complicated. We choose to act toward what is best for the person that hurt us. We can’t control our passions, though we can pray for them to become better, and, if we find ourselves having a twinge of pity for the misery of the person that sinned against us, we can encourage that feeling. We can’t always want to forgive, but we can intend to forgive despite what we want, and pray for the ability to do it, if and when the time comes. The gift of righteousness that we receive in Christ is, among other things, the power to really do—however haltingly—at least a little of what he asks of us. And as dizzyingly high and steep as Mount Purgatory is, in both this life and (I imagine) the next, it does in fact get easier the higher you go.

The third step, reconciliation, carries certain complications with it. To begin with, the offender may never apologize (and that for a number of different reasons), thus leaving compassion itself yearning for a consummation it has not received. Again, reconciliation itself can require multiple efforts of will on our part, as the memory and the pain recur to our minds and hearts. And the question of penance or indulgence has to be treated intelligently, too. So I will leave those considerations for my next.

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[1] Unfortunately this has a rather confusing name—it is informally used for the sacrament as a whole, for non-sacramental and even non-liturgical admissions of guilt, and even for statements of belief; and yet its use as a theological term is so entrenched that intruding a synonym (could one be found) would risk even more confusion.

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