Wednesday, May 15, 2002


I received a very moving email yesterday from a woman who was physically, psychologically, and even sexually abused as a child by her mother. I share part of it here:

One of my quiet joys these days is that my mother seems to be experiencing some genuine happiness for the first time in her life. It is as though the final movement of my own healing is to see my mother becoming free to enjoy herself. I realize that in the current climate, rejoicing in the ultimate happiness of the one who made your childhood a living hell must seem unimaginably sick. One of the unexpected fruits of forgiveness for me was that I was suddenly free to see my mother as a person for the first time, a pathetically child-like, self-absorbed, but not unlovable fellow human being. But, you might say, I suppose it’s excusable. She is your mother after all. But a priest would be entirely different! Would it? How could betrayal by a relative stranger, however exalted his office, be more terrible than decades of rejection and abuse by the one person who has known me since conception and whose personal vocation it was to love me into life and maturity? Who most profoundly and immediately stands in God’s place in the life of a child: the one who gave you birth or a priest that you barely know?

I would be very sorry if you came away from the end of this passage with the impression that my correspondent was complaining about her victim status. The entire message is too long to quote, but the context of this passage makes the very opposite clear: only through forgiveness has she been able to relinquish a sense of victimhood and move, through pastoral and psychological counseling to be sure, into a healthy, happy, integrated life.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius set this problem before us on the very first day. In No. 16, Ignatius writes:

That the Creator and Lord may work with greater certainty in His creature, if the soul chance to be inordinately attached or inclined to anything, it is very proper that it rouse itself by the exertion of all its power to desire the opposite of that to which it is wrongly attached.

It would seem to me, though money, sex, and power are the usual things to which people wrongly attach themselves, that anger, hatred and an unforgiveness are equally obstacles to the Lord working "with greater certainty in His creature." I suppose it is not for me to forgive the abusers on behalf of the victims. But is must be for me to encourage the abused themselves to do so.

No doubt that last statement is going to provoke anger and outrage in some, and I am sorry for that. I have never suffered anything like what some of these victims appear to have gone through, and that no doubt disqualifies me to speak on the subject in many eyes. But there is no exception to the rule that those who would be forgiven must also forgive, no clause that says "unless you were really wronged." What would be the point of demanding forgiveness in the case of petty offenses, but allowing really awful things to go unforgiven? Christ himself was scourged and murdered "that sins might be forgiven." He lived that we might know the conditions.

The Universalist heresy says that all are forgiven, no matter the offense. The reasoning is that God cannot demand of Man--unqualified, unlimited forgiveness--without offering it Himself. I must confess that I have more than once been tempted to accept this heresy, for it has a profound logic to it, and Logic too is God's creation. But it ultimately fails as an idea, because it misses something essential. The act of unlimited forgiveness is not an arbitrary precondition laid down by God, but an explanation of the manner of receiving Grace.

Think of it this way: There is a space within you, a part of your soul, where Grace slides in. Grace, being the proper goal of the human soul, is the one true and proper desire. Unfortunately, other Desires are corruptions of Grace, and though they cannot fill the space where Grace belongs, they can block it, just as carbon monoxide bonds to hemoglobin where oxygen is designed to bond. To receive Grace, to receive God's forgiveness, we must first clear the part of our soul where desire goes, to make room for it. Hanging on to a wrong, however profound and evil, covers the entrance, and keeps the Grace out. A victim of CO poisoning is given pure oxygen for a long time, to cleanse the blood completely, just as God constantly offers us pure Grace to cleanse the soul. But in both cases it is our choice to receive treatment or die. We would surely not describe a doctor who tried to help such a person as laying down arbitrary conditions for his patient's recovery.

But as Jesus tells the rich man in the story of Lazarus, "they will not be persuaded though a man rise from the dead."


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