Forgiveness and the Holy Spirit

“I just can’t forgive and forget.” How many times as a priest have I heard that line!

When I respond with “Of course you can’t!” or “You don’t have to!” it’s not uncommon to see a stunned expression of disbelief. Isn’t that what our faith teaches us we have to do?

No, it’s not.  In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches exactly the opposite! Paragraph 2843 tells us that it is not in our power to stop feeling an offense, nor to forget about it.

If we find ourselves battling with unforgiveness, we can be assured that it is not our feeling that is the problem, nor our remembering. They need healing and care, yes, but our emotions and our memory are marvelous, God-created human faculties that are actually standing witness to the reality and the gravity of the harm that happened. I have written before on how feeling anger is actually part of the path of forgiveness.

There is an untying or unbinding that needs to happen if we desire to forgive from the depth of our heart, as Jesus invites us (Matthew 18:35). This unbinding can only happen if we yield and surrender. But it is a divine work, made possible by the victory of Jesus in his dying, rising, and ascending. Slowly but surely – sometimes in cathartic moments, other times in painful and vigilant waiting – his victory becomes our victory. We truly become like Christ – which means we share in the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Remember that “Christ” means “anointed one,” and “Christian” refers to one who shares in that anointing.  It is the Holy Spirit who transforms our hearts as we walk the path of forgiveness.

The Catechism describes it this way:

It is there, in fact, “in the depths of the heart,” that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession (CCC 2843).

Every offense wounds both the perpetrator and the victim. Unhealed wounds fester in both. It is within our wounds that the evil one tends to find his playground. Ignatius of Loyola describes the devil as “the enemy of our human nature.” In his hatred and envy, he is eager to torment us. Human scenes or harm or neglect (whether emotional, physical, sexual, or spiritual) offer the devil fertile soil to sow his lies – lies about who God is and lies about who we are as God’s beloved children.

If and when we find the courage to face our deeper wounds, we can welcome the anointing of the Holy Spirit. He is the Paraclete – the one who comforts, consoles, counsels, encourages, and soothes.

Think of a little girl with a wound. Does she want mom or dad to put ointment on it? Not normally! She probably needs a good deal of reassurance that it’s going to be okay. Is it going to hurt? Actually, yes. But it will also soothe and help it get better. She may need to breathe and calm down first before she is okay with them tending to the wound.

We are invited to approach our heavenly Father as little children, and to welcome the anointing of the Holy Spirit – especially when we find ourselves feeling the wounds of past harm.

When I do this personally, I find it incredibly helpful to have visible reminders of who God is and who he has been for me. I also believe strongly that Jesus, dying on the Cross, was also speaking to me when he said “Behold, your mother!” Mary has very much been a mother to me on my own healing journey, giving me the emotional and spiritual safety to receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit with confidence.

It still hurts – sometimes a lot. There’s a reason why people avoid going to doctors – even really good ones. There’s a reason why people don’t always follow through on healthy rehab. Even when we know there is new and better life on the other side, we are afraid of the suffering and surrender that precede.

But the anointing of the Holy Spirit also comforts and consoles. If we allow him to touch us where we are wounded, healing will always happen – sometimes with a cathartic release or a dramatic unbinding, but more commonly with slow and steady doses of his healing balm. That is why healthy Christian community is so important. We often need others to point out and celebrate the progress we are making. We can count on the devil to discourage whenever he sees an opportunity. The Holy Spirit works through our companions, our mentors, our spiritual guides, and our therapists to spur us on us with encouragement by celebrating every step of progress. Like little children who are learning and growing, we need a cloud of witnesses cheering us on.

Notice in the Catechism quote that healing of past harm is not a matter of erasing, but of transforming. As the Holy Spirit anoints us, we become truly Christ-like. Jesus’ wounds are not erased – he actually shows them to the apostles after his Resurrection. But those wounds are transformed, as is he. He is now seated at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us. The more we receive true healing in the depths of our heart, the more we become like Christ. Injury is changed into empathy and compassion. Our wounds become (like Christ’s) sources of healing and transformation for others. Like him, we become powerful intercessors.

I offer a caution here! With the word “intercession” comes a risk shortcutting the process. Becoming Christ-like means willingly suffering, dying, rising, and ascending with him. We don’t like the whole powerless part, so we have a human tendency to grab onto something that gives us the illusion of control. If I can be an intercessor (praying for those who have hurt me) then I can feel in control – and I can conveniently keep all attention away from my unhealed wounds. And little or no transformation will happen. Only when I willingly and freely walk the path of Jesus, the healing path of the Paschal Mystery, can I truly experience the transformation of forgiveness.

True intercession comes from a place of already-won victory. It is the risen and ascended Jesus who is our intercessor at the right hand of the Father. As we come to share more and more in his victory, our healed wounds become a powerful place of intercession on behalf of those who have harmed us. To the extent that we resist and refuse to go into the depths of our heart – where the wounds are –we will remain bound up in unforgiveness and resentment. We can “intercede” feverishly in that case – and we will only be making an idol out of the one who has harmed us, orienting ourselves around him or her rather than worshiping the living God.

As the Letter to the Hebrews teaches us, Jesus is our great high priest who truly became one flesh and one blood with us and has now brought our human flesh and blood into the heavenly sanctuary, where he reigns victoriously with the Father. Their Holy Spirit allows all that is Christ’s to be ours. That means willingly entering into the depths of suffering and dying with him – knowing that he has gone there first. All the while we will likely find ourselves recoiling with a fear of betrayal, resisting any experience of powerlessness, and both wanting and not wanting such intense love. The Holy Spirit will comfort and encourage us. We will discover the newness of the Resurrection and power of the Ascension, and come to share more and more in the great triumph of his Mercy.

Fatherhood – Concluded

Authentic fatherhood is a sharing in God’s Fatherhood, a manifestation of it in the flesh. Loving fathers don’t seize power for themselves, but exercise their God-given authority for the sake of lifting others up, helping them to be secure and confident in their own identity as beloved children of their heavenly Father.

Whether we speak of dads or or priests or other spiritual fathers, we saw last time how damaging it is when earthly fathers are absent or severe or emotionally enmeshed with their children. All three deviant behaviors cause damage to the children’s identity. Those children become wounded in their capacity to receive and give love.

In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. He leads his sheep into a relationship with the Father. He does not abandon his sheep to the wolves, like a hireling (cf. fathers who are absent or who abdicate their authority). He does not steal like a thief or devour like a wolf (cf. a chummy father who uses the children to meet his own emotional needs). He does not beat or abuse the sheep in severity but – as we read in Luke 15 – tenderly places the lost sheep on his shoulders and brings it with joy into the feasting of the heavenly banquet.

We who are called to be fathers are called to imitate Jesus, to be loving shepherds.  To the extent we have authority, it is only for the good of the sheep, never for ourselves. It is ultimately a celebration of and with God the Father, who invites us all into the heavenly feast.

But how?

I am myself so weak and wounded. I am poor and needy. I am insecure and unconfident in my identity as a beloved child of God. How can I pour into others when I regularly feel like I have nothing to give?

Here is where we must look to Jesus, who he is and what he actually teaches. He is from the Father. His entire identity is in the Father. He is one who receives.

Jesus embraced poverty. He allowed himself to be totally and radically dependent upon his Father. In his human existence, Jesus reflected his eternal identity of being “from the Father.” He then invites us to receive from him, as branches on the vine, just as he himself has received all as gift from the Father.

I love the way Jacques Philippe connects fatherhood with the Beatitudes, especially the first Beatitude of poverty of spirit. The Beatitudes are all promises of Fatherly blessing, through the anointing of the Holy Spirit. If we acknowledge and embrace our poverty, if we open up in humble receptivity, the Father blesses us and confers a Kingdom upon us. If we grieve and mourn, we will be comforted (“paracleted”) by the Holy Spirit.

We men who are wounded in our identity can only be healthy and holy fathers if we are willing to grieve and mourn the ways that we ourselves have been wounded. I can only be a loving father to the extent that I am secure as a beloved son. Many of us were ourselves abandoned or abused or used (or possibly all three!). We spend much of our lives avoiding just how painful that was for us rather than grieving it and seeking healing and restoration. If we are willing to walk that path, we experience a dying and rising with Jesus. We discover his secret of relying totally on the Father. We meet God again for the first time, discovering him to be a Father who never abandons, is never harsh, and only desires to pour blessing into us. We become secure as beloved sons.

This spring, I had the joy of returning to the John Paul II Healing Center in Tallahassee, assisting as chaplain on the “Holy Desires” retreat for priests and seminarians. There Bob Schuchts invited me, three days in a row, to play the part of God the Father in a “human sculpting” exercise. Another played God the Son, another the Holy Spirit, along with several human and angelic (and demonic) characters. We followed our intuitions and interacted with each other in a visual scene. We first depicted the sweet intimacy of the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus abiding in the love of the Father and the Holy Spirit. We then rearranged ourselves to sculpt a contrast: a scene of strained marriage and a wounded child. As God the Father, I felt such an ache for all three humans in the sculpt! The next day we sculpted the baptism of Jesus and the Father’s utter delight in him, followed by the baptism of someone else, who was struggling to be secure in his identity. The third day, there was a character struggling with the same sin over and over. Someone else, representing shame, began covering the person’s eyes so that he could not see my loving gaze as God the Father. Jesus and I were there, deeply desiring to love him, but he knew only shame. In my ache to love this child of God, I whispered into Jesus’ ear and asked if it would be okay for me to take the hands of shame and place them over his eyes. He willingly agreed, even though it would cost him. I moved the hands onto Jesus’ eyes, and immediately I sobbed and wept. I weep again just remembering it.

Something shifted in my heart at that moment. So often I have turned to the Father with my deep and intense longing to see his face and to receive his blessing. This time I experienced his longing for me, for you, and for all his beloved children. I know it was just a glimpse, a taste, a small measure – and my chest felt like it was going to explode. What an intense desire! It brings to mind the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est that God himself has “eros” – a passionate and intense longing as he seeks out his people in love.

When I return to that experience, I find myself having moments in which I can more fully surrender with peace into the Father’s hands. When my own call to fatherhood feels overwhelming or exhausting, when I feel powerless or feel like I am failing, I can enter the Father’s desire that is infinitely bigger than my own. I can be reminded that all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well. God’s fullness will prevail.

The apostle Paul describes this fullness, and our security in the Father’s love, when he names all fatherhood as deriving from God’s Fatherhood. Let us conclude with those beautiful words of Scripture (Ephesians 3:14-21):

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or imagine, according to his power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.