By Christina M. Sorrentino
“He who knows how to forgive prepares for himself many graces from God. As often as I look upon the cross, so often will I forgive with all my heart.” (St. Faustina, Diary, 390)
Forgiveness is a tremendous challenge when it often seems that by offering pardon to another we are surrendering to a loss of justice. But the reality is that forgiveness does not diminish justice, it leaves it to God. We are assured by our Christian faith that there will be retribution, where God will reward the righteous with remunerative justice, and with His response of wrath against man’s sin He will inflict penalties upon the ones who choose by their own free will to remain far away from Him, which will be His retributive justice.
It was seven months ago that I made the conscious decision to forgive. I knew that forgiveness was the only way to allow the grace of God to heal my wounded heart, mind, and soul. It was not instantaneous though, and it took my heart awhile to catch up with my head. I struggled with the incredible hurt and pain that one individual, the woman who was supposed to be my “spiritual mother” inflicted upon me, especially since she admitted during the very last time that I saw her to committing the wrongdoings on purpose and for no particular reason.
My whole world was spun upside down and the vocation that meant everything to me was taken away because one person chose to become an instrument of the devil instead of an instrument of the Holy Spirit. With her head down and eyes looking downward gazing towards the floor she begged me for my forgiveness and to pray for her. At that moment forgiving her and praying for her was the hardest thing that I had ever had to do. But as soon as the words left her lips to ask me the question I immediately chose to forgive her, and to continue to pray for her as I had always done prior to my departure at the convent.
I questioned her sincerity at first in truly being repentant for what she had done to me, but ultimately decided that it was not for me to decide because God knew the disposition of her heart. And I hoped that one day she would be able to accept God’s forgiveness for what she had done, so that she could find peace just as I had found peace in forgiving her. I wanted her to be able to accept the love and mercy that I knew God was waiting to offer her in the Sacrament of Confession. Forgiveness truly sets us free.
We know the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant where the Master forgives his servant for a large debt, but then the servant refuses to forgive a small debt of his fellow servant. The Master then rebukes the first servant, and throws him in prison until his large debt would be paid in total, which would actually be beyond his lifespan. The first servant lacked great humility when he punished his fellow servant, and acted as if he had never been forgiven himself. If we do not find in our hearts to forgive those who have sinned against us, how can we then expect our Heavenly Father to be merciful and to forgive us? (Matthew 18:21-35)
When we refuse to forgive another we become a slave to the sin of pride, and lose our freedom to have peace within our hearts. Anger, bitterness, and resentment can take control over our heart, mind, and soul, and permitting such feelings to take up residence within us rents the space within our heart that is for Christ alone. If we allow these emotions to become the master of our thoughts, words, and actions then we prevent ourselves from being able to heal from the hurt and suffering, and to find peace. God desires for us to have peace, and to not spend the rest of our lives as a prisoner of pride.
“Today I decided to forgive you. Not because you apologized, or because you acknowledged the pain that you caused me, but because my soul deserves peace.” (Najwa Zebian)
How can we control our natural emotions and prevent ourselves from having the tendency to lash out or retaliate against those who have trespassed against us? We need to act on a supernatural level by allowing the graces of the Holy Spirit to work within us, and place our “littleness” before God. By placing ourselves at the feet of Jesus we can surrender our pride and imitate Christ’s example of mercy and Love. As Christ hung from the Cross painfully laboring his last breaths with blood dripping from His sacred wounds He spoke the words, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Having been forgiven by the Lord in His mercy and Love, can we then lower ourselves, and be humble enough to do the same and forgive another?
We can ask the Holy Spirit to give us strength, and look to the saints as models of forgiveness. St. John Vianney once said, “The saints have no hatred, no bitterness; they forgive everything, and think they deserve much more for their offenses against God.” The martyrdom of St. Stephen teaches us to forgive in his last words before death, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit… Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:59-60) The child virgin and martyr, St. Maria Goretti, before taking her last breath, forgave her assailant, Alessandro Serenelli, after he stabbed her fourteen times and mortally wounded her. St. Ignatius of Loyola in the bitter cold of winter walked one hundred miles to care for a sick man who only a short time prior to his illness stole from him. Another Saint whom we often turn to for intercession to help us with forgiveness is St. Pio of Pietrelcelina, who suffered immensely at the hands of his superiors and even Vatican officials, who believed him to be a fraud.
We need to allow the light of Christ to radiate from the depth of our souls, and like the beautiful Saints before us, we can unite our hurt and pain to the suffering of Jesus on the Cross. Christ can heal our wounds, if we let Him, by transforming them into a fountain of love poured out like a libation for the sanctification of poor sinners. It is by love alone that we will be able to forgive those who have left us with these scars. The gateway of our hearts will become open to receive peace as we are set free from the yoke of bondage – the self-prison that we create for ourselves when we are held captive by our own pride – if we choose forgiveness. Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian who helped to hide Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, once said, “Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.”
Image of Saint Faustina with the Divine Mercy used under Creative Commons license. Attribution: Phancamellia245, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.
I was sitting at a table happily conversing with a group of girlfriends when I saw her walk in. She had made some attempt to look put-together, though her puffy eyes and downcast demeanor implied otherwise. I knew she struggled emotionally and had a lot of marital drama, so I wasn’t surprised. I watched her walk past my table and choose a seat at a distance from everyone else. Apart from the bride-to-be, whose shower had brought us together that day, I’m pretty sure I was her only other friend in the room.
“Friend” was a challenging term to use here. Only a few years my senior, she had been my boss for three years. Our strong personalities often clashed. I felt stifled by her, and I think she felt threatened by me. Our rocky relationship eventually drove me to leave that job.
Both of us had become close with another coworker—a kind and deeply compassionate young woman who was preparing to marry the love of her life. This woman and I had spent a lot of time together, even outside of work, and our friend circles intertwined. I knew half of the people in the room that day, but I was well aware that my former boss, who normally feigned confidence, was like a fish out of water here. As I continued my comfortable conversations, I felt a nudge to go over and speak to the lonely one. I ignored it. I continued to catch glimpses of her out of the corner of my eye but continued to suppress the inspiration to do the kind and uncomfortable thing. In a little while, I thought. But before I ever had the courage to respond to a simple prompting, she had left the party.
Thankfully, I had a more pleasant encounter with her at the wedding a month later and some positive text exchanges in the weeks that followed. At that point, the three of us who had once worked together a part of a tight-knit (albeit dysfunctional) team had all moved on and were on the verge of new chapters in life. The former boss expressed in a group text one day how much she missed our team, and in a genuine gesture, I texted back suggesting that we meet for lunch soon at her favorite Italian restaurant. Maybe I could make up for my neglect of charity a few months earlier. She responded affirmatively.
But the shared meal of bread sticks and gnocchi soup never happened. Three days after that text conversation, she took her life. She left behind a husband and five children whom she decided would be better off without her.
As I tried to process the news, memories rolled through my head. I spent the first three years after leaving my community with this person, day in and day out. She hired me for my first-ever career-type job and allowed me to gain experience in a field that I came to love. We had more than our fair share of challenges, but we both made some attempt to bond over those things we had in common—like an appreciation of unique foods and a love for cinematic music. While the memories and tears flowed, one phrase echoed through my head: I wish I had loved her more.
I had planned to work that secular job for a year or so while I searched for a new ministry to pour myself into. What I had failed to realize was that God placed ministry opportunities right in front of me. He gave me people who needed to be loved. He gave me moments to sanctify and challenges to offer. I was no less called to be His disciple in this job than I was in my community or in any other full-time ministry. I shed some tears as I thought back over those years and recalled the day of the bridal shower. I prayed for God’s mercy on this woman’s soul and for her family. For myself, I asked that I not be so blind in the future. Sure, I may not have been able to change the course of this person’s life, but I know I could have made some small attempt to love her more.
Recently I was attending another bridal shower. As I walked back to my table after refilling my iced tea, I noticed a woman sitting alone, as everyone from her table was helping the bride-to-be with gifts. I felt a gentle prompting and walked over to her. I introduced myself and invited her to come sit at my table. She smiled and accepted the invitation. I recognized the God moment, and I praised Him in my heart for another chance to love.
A year ago today, with great fanfare, the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy began and Doors of Mercy across the world were flung open. Now, inevitably, the liturgical year has ended and the Doors of Mercy are being closed again. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. As a local priest said in his homily on Saturday night, “A lot of us feel as though too many doors are already closed to us, without these ones being shut as well.”
Amen to that. For me, of course, his words called to mind the door of the convent, long since swung shut, with the sisters on one side and me on the other. A closed door, whether it’s a physical barrier or exists only in the mind – or a combination of both – is a blunt and painful image of separation. There’s another way to look at it, however. Today, the Doors of Mercy are being closed… because we are inside.
All year, they have stood open and allowed God’s Mercy to draw us toward Him. No one, Catholic or not, aware of the significance of this year or not, has remained untouched by the outpouring of Mercy into the world. The graces He prepared for each of us through this Year of Mercy have been given, now; wherever you are in your journey into the heart of the Church, the door through which you were brought to that point is being closed behind you by a gracious Host.
And if the extraordinary door has closed, the ordinary ones through which we can go forward from here are still open. Prayer, works of mercy, and above all, the Sacraments – the front door of the Church is open and always will be. Another year has ended, and Christ is King.
“You will not be alone, because I am with you always and everywhere. Near to My Heart, fear nothing. I Myself am the cause of your departure. Know that My eyes follow every move of your heart with great attention. I am bringing you into seclusion so that I Myself may form your heart according to My future plans” (Jesus to St. Faustina, 797)
April 27, 2014- One of the most difficult days of my life, and yet, a very important day for the Church- Divine Mercy Sunday when St. John Paul II, the “Divine Mercy Pope”, was canonized. This was the day that I came home from the convent, and yet as I reflect on it more and more, I see it as a reflection of God’s Mercy and love to me.
Mercy, we hear it so often at Mass and in Scripture. It is one of the greatest attributes of God, and yet, how many of us plunge into the depths of what it means? The Latin, Misericordia, comes from “miserere”, which means “misery”, and “cor”, which means “heart”. So, this word literally means the act of a heart entering into another’s misery. So Divine Mercy is the message that not only does God enter into our misery with us, but that He comes and brings an even greater good out of every evil and suffering.
Coming up on the two year anniversary of my leaving, God blessed me with the beautiful grace to go on pilgrimage to the country that radiates God’s Mercy. He truly took me on a journey to experience the reality of this heart reaching out to me in my misery, especially in the experience my coming home from the convent. How? Redemptive Suffering. The people of Poland have experienced so much suffering, from the destruction of cities like Warsaw during World War II, to the incomprehensible terrors that resulted in concentration camps like Auschwitz. And yet, while these people have been through evils unimaginable, they have a heart for the Lord and hope unlike any other I have experienced.
This really blew me away… How can people who have experienced such immense suffering live like this? How can they have joy and hope, when everything they loved seemed to be taken away from them? How can they rejoice in Christ when they clearly came face to face with their own weaknesses and lived through so much fear?
In my own pain coming home from the convent, I have found that it has brought me face to face with fear and my own weakness. I have often given into discouragement, thinking that I can only love God once I move past the “ups and downs” of grieving the convent. But the people of Poland really helped me to see things in a new way through the lens of God’s Mercy.
As I progressed through my pilgrimage, the answer to my questions became clear to me. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Maximilian Kolbe, Faustina, John Paul II…These people were not immune to fear or death…Actually they were steeped in it. But what made these people saints they were meant to be?
They encountered the immense power of Divine Mercy. They experienced evil, came face to face with fear and suffering, and yes, knew ever deeper of their helplessness amidst such evil. But they made a choice- they chose to use it as an opportunity to cling to Christ and to take part in His suffering with Him. They saw their crosses in life through a twofold lens- that God was with them in their cross, and that they could unite their cross for another. They made the decision to allow the merciful Christ to be with them in their own pain, to receive His love gushing forth from his heart, and to be one with Him on the cross. And not only did they live out their suffering with Christ, but they had faith in God in whom they trusted would keep His promises. They had the hope in the reality that the resurrection comes after the cross, and that Christ not only brings good out of evil, but an even greater good!
The image of Divine Mercy shows this reality well. In this image, Jesus is appearing after He rose from the dead, and yet, He bears his wounds…the wounds of His Love. His wounds are glorified, and radiate the depths of God’s Mercy to us. It is Jesus saying to me and to you, “I love you this much. I am here with you and will lead you through this.”
And perhaps what is most important is the words at the bottom. “Jesus, I trust in You.” Yes, these words seem to reflect the attitude and call that Christ presents to us in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. Jesus is asking us to trust Him, amidst worries, struggles, and even joys! When coming face to face with our weakness in our own specific journeys coming home from the convent, He wants us to trust in His goodness and in the reality that the resurrection comes after the cross. Just like Himself, He wants our wounds to be glorified- we need only to entrust them to Him!
Divine Mercy Image from Wikimedia Commons: By Luxetowiec (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0.