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.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Technique of Pardon, Part III

Night descended until there was nothing but a thin streak of red between it and the black line of earth but still he stood there. He felt his hunger no longer as a pain but as a tide. … There, rising and spreading in the night, a red-gold tree of fire ascended as if it would consume the darkness in one tremendous burst of flame. The boy’s breath went out to meet it. He knew that this was the fire that had encircled Daniel, that had raised Elijah from the earth, that had spoken to Moses and would in the instant speak to him. He threw himself against the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. Go warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy. The words were as silent as seeds opening one at a time in his blood. … His singed eyes, black in their deep sockets, seemed already to envision the fate that awaited him but he moved steadily on, his face set toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping. 
—Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away
✠ ✠ ✠

III. Reconciliation

Though truthfully, ‘reconciliation and its complications’ would be at least as good a header here. Anyhow.

The ‘classical’ form that reconciliation takes is for the offender to apologize and the victim to forgive, thus healing the wounded relationship. For the victim, the movements of grieving and compassion precede and prepare, as we’ve seen, while for the offender, the steps of repentance are confession (recognition of the wrongdoing) and contrition (apologizing). It’s rare that any act of forgiveness is so simple, but it does happen, and this simplicity is the center from which the deviations are understood.

There are several principal deviations. The first is that, because the victim is fallen too, it may be necessary to make an interior act of forgiveness many times for a single offense. Long-term consequences that an offense caused, the habit of rumination, a defensive ego—all can renew the wound, picking at the sutures of grief. And this is properly the victim’s burden, not the forgiven offender’s; for forgiveness, being a gift, can’t be snatched back any more than a Christmas present. It is part of our training in pardon. To be perfected, we have to forgive with our whole soul, and it is the parts of the soul that haven’t gone through grieving, compassion, and reconciliation that are rearing up at these moments. The call to renew our forgiveness is the call to extend our being more fully into it.

Another is the question of prudence. God can read hearts, but we, except by a miracle that he is rarely pleased to bestow, cannot. Which means that we are necessarily at risk of pardoning, and thus enabling, the unrepentant. To a mind properly formed by compassion, this is an upsetting prospect, because encouraging a person in sin is by definition harmful to them—yet, on the other hand, to refuse forgiveness to a sincere penitent is hurtful, too.

The general rule, I think, is to reconcile unless we have complete moral confidence that the offender’s request for forgiveness is insincere. This strong inclination to one pole rather than the other obviously doesn’t accord with the notion of the Golden Mean; and that’s fine. As noted before, gold is only pavement in the heavenly Jerusalem. Genuine repentance can come in some very mixed, very halting, very unattractive forms; it is not our role as Christians (that is, as those who have consented to live in an economy of gift) to reject it. The only basis for doing so is the authentic concern that doing so would almost certainly encourage a person in wrongdoing, and that will rarely occur, because near certainty is a rare thing.

The third, and in some ways the saddest, difficulty lies in wanting to forgive someone who won’t apologize. A person might not apologize because they’re not sorry, whether through ignorance and thoughtlessness or through hardness of heart. Or they might not apologize due to a despairing recognition of the evil they’ve done: when an injury is so horrible that it may seem unforgivable to the victim or to onlookers, it’s likely to seem unforgivable to the perpetrator too—so much so that even to ask for forgiveness feels like a fresh outrage.

The former problem, that of the offender not realizing that they’ve done something wrong, requires great delicacy to handle. It is possible to rebuke someone compassionately, but the times when we are most ready to rebuke aren’t typically our most compassionate times. I speak hesitatingly on this subject, because I am the sort of person who holds a grudge, prods and pokes at wounds. The art of rebuking someone without rancor does not come easily to most people, and certainly not to me.

I think—again I emphasize that I am not at all sure—that the rule to keep in mind here is that, to the extent that the idea of rebuking someone is attractive, to that extent we are probably approaching it in the wrong spirit. Not because we need to be terrified or disgusted by rebuke as such (we don’t), but because delighting in rebuke nearly always has a self-righteous and vindictive element. If what brings us joy is the prospect of the person repenting, rather than of their being ashamed or humiliated, then we may have a moderated confidence in our motives. If we don’t have that—well, we rarely, perhaps never, have totally unmixed motives. We can only pray for our motives to be made purer, and that the pure elements in them would be the uppermost.

Of course, we might, if we are honest with ourselves, be concerned that any rebuke we issue would be an exercise in self-righteousness. If that seems like a reasonable concern, it isn’t wrong to wait for our hearts to heal or mature further. The whole burden of pardon does not rest on ourselves.

Turning to the lattermost problem, that of an offender being too ashamed of what he has done to even ask for forgiveness, there is only so much we can do. If we suspect that someone is under this curse, we can tell them that we’re willing to forgive, as God Incarnate told us that he was willing to forgive and made the sacraments of the Church available accordingly. But, until and unless the offender approaches the means of pardon, we can only wait and pray. Pardon, being a gift, can’t be forced on anybody.

And of the middle problem, the person who has done wrong and will not submit to either confession or contrition? The offender who, on whatever basis, perseveres in injury?
Both must wish, and will, to be a part of an act. But if one of us does not wish to be? if we refuse coïnherence? ‘Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone.’ If a man will be separate from the love which is man’s substance, he can; the ancient promise holds: ‘I will choose their delusions.’ Whoever refuses … it is difficult to see what else can be done except to leave him alone. If he shuts himself out of the mortal coïnherence, or we; if he shuts himself out of the act in which, more than any other, the mortal coïnheres with the divine or we; then that solitude is the answer. If it is he who refuses, and we have been sincere in our goodwill, then at least we are innocent there—if we have not supposed ourselves to be innocent in anything else. … It is a lame conclusion? a very lame conclusion. Mortal ones are apt to be; only divine conclusions conclude. Christian publicists indeed are apt to sound as if they thought they performed their moral duty merely by teaching it; it is easier to write a book repeating that God is love than to think it; it is easier, that is, to say it publicly than to think it privately. Unfortunately, to be of any use, it has to be thought very privately, and thought very hard. [1]
✠ ✠ ✠

[1] From Charles Williams’ magnificent little book The Forgiveness of Sins, which I recommend to anybody who will stand still long enough.


  1. Hi Gabriel. This series has been another installment of really wise pastoral advice, and I thank you for it.

    It seems to me that even more complications arise when the wrongdoer goes through the form of confession and contrition, but there is good reason to believe either that s/he is not sincere and/or is not engaging with the full range of wrong that was done. I wonder if you care to comment on that.

    1. If we have serious reason to believe that a person is enacting the forms of repentance hypocritically, then "retaining" sins is not in my view out of the question: not in the sense of waiving our own obligation to forgive, but in the sense of waiting to reconcile until the ingredients of reconciliation are really present. In Catholic (and I believe in Orthodox) practice, priests and bishops do have the power to refuse absolution (cf. John 20.21-23), if they think that absolving would really just be enabling the sinner. But this is a very terrible thing to resort to, whether in the confessional or in intra-human exchanges. We must examine ourselves thoroughly for ongoing resentment, and be willing to catch the least hint of sincerity in the offender; put better, we must have justified confidence that our refusal to (immediately) forgive is an act of mercy and not of revenge.

      For the person who is in some degree sorry, but doesn't fully understand how bad the wrong they've done is, the case is simpler. All repentance is imperfect, except by a special grace of God, because we are imperfect creatures, even after Baptism. Hence, even an inadequate penitence should be joyfully accepted. This doesn't mean that we should let them run along, breezily supposing that what they did wasn't a big deal, but clarifying this to them may or may not be our responsibility. If it is, we should discharge it, as prayerfully and humbly as possible. But it may be something that we can, or even should, let be: as my mother told me (kindly) once, "You are not the Holy Spirit," and he can convict sinners without our generous assistance.

      Both of these, particularly the second, illustrate why the traditional list of the Spiritual Works of Mercy include rebuking the sinner and instructing the ignorant. These are very dangerous works of mercy to the person who does them, because both expose us to grave forms of pride. But that does not mean we can omit them; sometimes it's our duty to do dangerous things. And anyway, the path of holiness is defined by pursuing God rather than by avoiding sin. When these two works of mercy seem to be called for, we can only pray for the grace to do them as well -- that is, with as much intelligent love -- as possible.