The Season of Lent is a time to rehearse the words and actions of Christ in our lives. In the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7 of the Gospel of Matthew) Jesus not only outlined the conditions for belonging to the kingdom of Heaven but also gave us the words to pray: the Our Father. This prayer includes a petition that the Father ‘forgive us our debts as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us’ (Matthew 5:12). As we prepare to enter the Lenten season, Joe Doolan explores five stories of forgiveness between friends, family and strangers. Each story challenges us to reflect on Christ’s call to ‘forgive our debtors’ and create new stories as “ambassadors of forgiveness”.

Family forgiveness

Henry Lawson’s classic short story, When the Sun Went Down, tells of two quarrelling brothers working at a rough-and-ready mineshaft. The words ‘don’t let the sun go down on your anger’ (Ephesians 4:26) is a maxim these brothers knew well. But a morning row made the elder one angry and unforgiving of his quick-tempered brother. An accident in the shaft leads to the moment of grace and a powerful gesture of forgiveness.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive...

Neighbourly forgiveness #1

An excellent picture storybook for Lent is The Summer My Father Was Ten by Pat Brisson (Boyds Mills Press, 1999). Every school or parish preparing children for the Sacrament of Reconciliation would love this text. The book tells of an old Italian man who carefully tends his vegetable garden only to have it destroyed by some fun-loving local boys. One of them lives in his apartment block. The story of that boy’s remorse, reconciling grace and commencement of new life has a certain sacramental schema.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive...

Stories of forgiveness Book
The Summer My Father Was Ten by Pat Brisson Boyds Mills Press, 1999

Neighbourly forgiveness #2

Though it has a Christmas setting, Henry Lawson’s poem The Fire at Ross’s Farm is another story of Easter repentance. The Romeo and Juliet theme of a young couple with feuding fathers could signal a sad outcome rather than a farmer’s repentance. This poem tells of the son whose call to assist a neighbour’s plight is met with his father’s hatred and a threat: Don’t come back! But forgiving grace somehow works its miracle.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive...

Trust in God to repair the tear

Thomas Merton’s translation of the Desert Fathers, The Wisdom of the Desert offers a simple instruction on the need to forgive:

Saying XXXV

One of the brethren had been insulted by another and he wanted to take revenge. He came to Abbot Sisois and told him what has taken place, saying: I am going to get even, Father.

But the elder besought him to leave the affair in the hands of God.

No, said the brother, I will not give up until I have made that fellow pay for what he said.

Then the elder stood up and began to pray in these terms:

O God, Thou art no longer necessary to us, and we no longer need Thee to take care of us since, as this brother says, we both can and will avenge ourselves.

At this the brother promised to give up his idea of revenge.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive...

Heroic forgiveness

The story of the French Resistance veteran Ms Maïti Girtanner (1922-2014) is an amazing account of Christ-like forgiveness in a violent world.

A brilliant young pianist living in Western France, she gathered military information by offering recitals for the German elite during the Second World War. Maïti was monitored, captured and tortured. A young doctor inflicted terrible damage to her spinal cord and central nervous system. She never played the piano again.

During her imprisonment, Maïti said that she assumed responsibility for her own sanity, for the good of her fellow prisoners, and for her enemies. She not only inspired other prisoners with her religious conviction but boldly spoke to her persecutor about her faith and the ‘reality of eternity’.

Forty years later this medical torturer, suffering from a terminal illness, sought her out and asked pardon for the pain he caused. Maïti Girtanner met with him, and forgave him. She took his head in her hands and kissed him on the forehead.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive...

Stories of forgiveness Maiti Girtanner
Maïti Girtanner Public Domain

Death bed forgiveness

The story of the American Civil War (1861-1865) includes the ministry of religious women working in surgeons’ tents, assisting with the amputations and tending the dying. The account of these sisters cleaning up the carnage and ministering to the dying is an amazing Catholic chapter.

Another remarkable account of an ambassador of forgiveness emerged during that conflict. In the 1850s an anti-Catholic hooligan confronted a young religious Sister of Charity in Boston. The bigoted thug, in public view, berated her with the nastiest names he could muster. The humiliated Sister was stunned by this assault. Clearly the man had no sense of Christ’s commandment to love. She stopped, and gave him a stare from Mt Sinai, then walked away.

Several years later this Sister was toiling in a military hospital in Missouri caring for the wounded and praying with the suffering souls. She would enquire of the very ill: Was there something for which they wanted God’s forgiveness?

A dying soldier said that one thing weighed heavily on his mind:

‘I insulted a Sister of Charity in the streets of Boston.
Her glance of reproach has haunted me ever since.
If that Sister were only here I would go down upon my knees
and ask her pardon.’

To his great surprise the Sister gave him a look of tenderness and compassion, then calmly said:

‘If that is all you desire to set your mind at ease, you can have it.
I am the sister you insulted,
and I grant you pardon freely and from my heart.’

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive...

Ambassadors of forgiveness

In giving and receiving forgiveness we can truly be Christ’s ambassadors in the world (2 Corinthians 5:20). Our Easter celebration is the great event of the Father’s forgiving love: Christ’s saving Passover through death to life.

During this Lenten journey what pardoning words and healing gestures can we offer?

References:

Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert -Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century, 1960, New Directions Book, New York, p. 37

Eric Varden, The Shattering of Loneliness, On Christian Remembrance, Bloomsbury Continuum, London, 2018, p.98-105

Charles P. Connor, Faith and Fury: The Rise of Catholicism During the Civil War, 2019, ETWN Publishing, Chapter 4, The War Years, 1861-1865. p. 203-204. The story was related by Archbishop Patrick J. Ryan of Philadelphia, who, as a young priest, had ministered to many of the soldiers in the St. Louis Military Hospital, Missouri.