The photo depicts forgiveness in terms of a crossroads. The past points downwards and the future points upwards. Forgiveness is the central road and reflects a moment in the present when we set ourselves free from the downward pull of the past and open out to a bright new future.
Some years ago while engaged on sea chaplaincy work the ship made ports of call in different parts of the Baltic. One brief stopover was at Tallin in Estonia. This was part of the Communist block that would have lived for decades behind what was commonly called the ‘Iron Curtain’.
While there we had the opportunity to visit a Communist Musuem which contained artifacts and information from that era. A woman in her early seventies gave a presentation which was really a description of her life under communist rule which had been her lot for so many years. It was truly a life that had been blighted.
Her story began when she was eight with her family being deported to Siberia. Her mother worked as a librarian and because of her education was deemed a threat to the Stallinist regime. Two weeks were spent travelling to Siberia on what amounted to a cattle train in freezing conditions. Her father had died the previous year so there were four children together along with their mother.
Conditions were deplorable when they arrived and starvation was rife. The mother however managed to keep the family alive by gathering and selling sap from trees. All around so many other deportees starved to death. Three years later the mother was rearrested and brought to Moscow for trial. There she was sentenced to ten years hard labour but given a choice, either to serve her sentence in Siberia or to remain in Moscow. Because her family were in Siberia she choose to return but true to the Communist determination to break the spirit she was forced to remain in Moscow. Back in Siberia the family still managed to survive with the eldest sister now in charge.
In her late teens Stallin died and the family were free to return and made their way over a thousand miles back to Tallin. In the aftermath of the war she became part of the Resistance Movement and was arrested by the Stazis who had an even worse reputation than Hitler’s S.S. While in custody she was tortured and then spent years in a prison where the light was minimal and the sun never shone. The policy was that prisoners could never see the faces of their captors in case the regime ever collapsed and there would be reprisals. Eventually it did collapse and as a free woman her life resumed.
One of the visiting party then asked the question as to how she now felt in relation to the perpetuators and the collaborators who had taken the best years of her life? Her reply was quite astonishing because this is what she said:
Everybody in life is called to bear witness to the resilience of the human spirit. We all have to learn to be greater than whatever is done to us, what life throws at us, or even what we have done ourselves. The most important lesson of my life has been to practice the art of forgiveness. If I had not learned to forgive I would still be in prison and the one guarding me would not have a communist uniform but would be wearing my own clothes. Had I not forgiven I would still be in jail and be my own jailer. Communism is dead and gone, and thank God for that, but why should I allow them to have the last say over my life. It is by forgiveness that I have set myself free.
One thing I want to say about forgiveness is that its something we all believe in until we’re hurt and then we discover just how difficult it can be. The word resentment means to hold onto hurts. Its interesting to divide up the word into its components. Re-sent-ment. The negative sentiments that I intend for someone else are being re sent to myself. With resentment I give the person I least like permision to occupy rent free space in my head. Understood for what it is, forgiveness is like serving an eviction order and reclaiming my own head space. The problem with holding a grudge is that it shackles us to our offender and we become their hostage. Forgiveness alone is the key that can set us free.
Forgiveness is not forgetting what has happened and letting the other off the hook.
It is not making excuses for the other because we only excuse what was not meant.
It is not pretending that we are not angry but it is being bigger than our anger.
It is not condoning behavior that is unacceptable.
It is not reconciliation since that is a choice involving all parties.
It is acknowledging the hurt that is and by choosing forgiveness not to live in the past, but to move on with our lives.
Monday 14th September
The Blame Game
So endemic is the tendency to blame that it is an intrinsic component of Original Sin. We seem to be born with it as part of our DNA. In the Genesis story when confronted with their actions Adam blamed Eve and Even blamed the serpent while neither took responsibility. Growth towards maturity always involves a movement away from blaming to taking responsibility. An anacronym for BLAME could be, Big Losers Always Make Excuses. We always lose out when we blame, just as Adam and Even were put out of the Garden. To blame is to give our personal power away and so we remain in a powerless victim mode. Blame can also be spent as B-lame and in truth we are always lame when we blame. It is never what someone else has said or done that has upset our apple cart, but rather how we have reacted to it. No one is the ultimate cause of our unhappiness except ourselves. It’s always easier to fix the blame than the problem.
Fr Jim Cogley