12 November 2012

On mercy & the heresy of feelings

St. Josaphat
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

I've been ranting for years now—in the confessional, the pulpit, in my office; probably even in my sleep—that one of the greatest modern heresies to infect the Church is the pernicious idea that all things spiritual must be felt in order to be true. For example, a woman comes to me in despair b/c God has abandoned her. I ask: what makes you think God has abandoned you? I just don't feel His presence anymore, she says. What am I supposed to say to this? What does it mean? If God—the source and summit of our being—abandons us, we won't be around anymore to feel anything! That she feels anything at all is proof positive that God has not abandoned her. Another example: a man tells me that he's forgiven his wife for cheating on him. Good, I say; so, what's the problem? I don't feel as though I've forgiven her. I ask, what does forgiveness feel like? I don't know, he says. Then how do you know that. . .oh, nevermind. . .you get the picture. Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” Where does he say that we are to be happy/sad/angry/anxious/giddy/calm about forgiving a sinner? Just forgive them, a deliberate act. Let feelings come what may. 

Just in case we didn't get it the first time, Jesus adds a little hyperbole: “And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, 'I am sorry,' you should forgive him.” If you're thinking in terms of the heresy of Feelingism, you're probably thinking that Jesus is setting us up for some serious emotional abuse. Seven times in one day I'm supposed to forgive this louse?! Yes. Even seventy-seven times, if necessary. This is a problem only if you think that you have to feel the forgiveness magically flowing out of you like a stream of warm regard. You don't. Because forgiveness isn't about feelings. It's about the intellect, how you choose to think. It's all about changing your mind not your passions. When someone sins against you, think first: that poor person is in a state of sin. Then, think: when one of my brothers or sisters is in a state of sin, the whole Body of Christ is weakened. When the one who sinned against you repents and asks for forgiveness, immediately forgive him so that the Body is strengthened. Can you be angry, sad, happy that you've forgiven them? Sure. So long as you forgive. Think: the measure I use to measure will be used to measure me. 

Now, just in case the first two times Jesus teaches us about the necessity to forgive sinners didn't take, we have the reaction of his disciples to reinforce the lesson. After he tells them to forgive the same sinner seven times in one day, how do the disciples react? You gotta be kidding! But, Lord, he'll just keep on sinning! What about my hurt feelings?! No, none of those. The disciple say, “Lord, increase our faith.” Strengthen our trust in you, Lord. Fortify our belief in this truth. Faith, trust, belief are all more or less synonyms, and all are made manifest by intellectual assent; that is, saying Yes to truth. No feelings here. No emotions. Just a plain, old-fashioned recognition that Jesus' teaching on forgiveness is true. “Lord, increase our faith” is a prayer for better understanding so that the Lord's teaching may become a virtue, a good habit. Think of it this way: forgiving a sinner isn't even really about you at all. The other guy is the sinner, so he/she is the one in trouble. Why wouldn't you help get them out of trouble? It's good moral exercise for you, and your persistence in mercy can only be an excellent example for them. Last question: does it matter that you don't feel like being merciful? No, it doesn't. Just be merciful. If for no other reason than that Jesus commands it. 
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13 comments:

  1. You should be able to hear me laughing all the way in New Orleans. This cracked me up. We are discussing heresy tonight in the faith formation/Bible study group, and as Sr. Maria said to me yesterday: "We all have a little bit of heresy in us."

    But just because someone says they don't feel like they've forgiven someone doesn't mean they haven't - I find, often, an extreme difficulty in expressing things like this. For even when I know, believe, and have intellectually made the Choice to forgive (or anything else), how do I separate feeling from thinking in my language? It is sometimes quite the challenge, and language often comes up short to express a given reality. I can only speak for myself here, but words are sometimes incredibly inadequate in expressing the convoluted-ness that is my mind/heart. Just because something appears to be expressed as a "feeling" doesn't mean it is a "belief". I agree that words are important, and words mean things, but words do not always convey the true depth or even the true simplicity of a given scenario.

    And, hey, next time, just tell us how you really feel...er....think.

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    1. Our language was irreparably vandalized when we replaced "I think" with "I feel." Feelings have a proper place in human discourse. . .but they should never replace intellectual work. My students at UD got a little frustrated with me at times b/c I would correct them in class when they started a sentence with "I feel that. . ." I would ask, "Do you feel it or think it?" What we've learned to do is to disguise thought as emotion so that our thoughts get the protection afforded emotions. Sneaky. And ultimately dishonest.

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    2. Oh no! What have I become? I, too, annoy people when I ask them "do you feel it or think it?" Yikes! :-) (must be my inner-INTJ coming out)

      I agree with what you are saying, with one caveat: there are times when the intellectual/spiritual/emotional/physical is so intertwined that it is hard to tease out from where a thought (feeling?) originates. And I do THINK this has a lot to do with the movement of society toward placing feelings above thoughts - it is easier (for most) to "feel"; it doesn't require the effort that thought requires, nor does it require any fortitude to stand one's ground, because how can you argue/debate with a feeling? I hope that makes sense - and I think I just restated what you said...

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    3. ". . .how can you argue/debate with a feeling?" Precisely. And that's the reason our culture has elevated Feelings over Thoughts. We tell people that whatever they feel is true. Well, their description of what they feel may be accurate, but this doesn't mean that every statement I make beginning with "I feel. . ." is magically accurate. That my description of my feelings about X is accurate in no way changes the truth or falsity of X.

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  2. ModerateRealist6:59 PM

    This was, indeed, more like a rant than a homily.

    I will skip the rant I felt like making and simply offer this experience, Father:

    Forgiveness is one of the most difficult moral actions a fallen human can be asked to undertake.

    The Church make know what the Truth is, but she --and her ministers-- are lousy pedagogues when it comes to teaching or helping people through the process of forgiving. And it is a process, like it or not, as complex as any. And more than most.

    Rants, IMHO, are not helpful unless followed up by cura animarum.

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    1. MR, I think you're right. If this were the only homily I've ever posted about mercy/forgiveness, then I'd have to give up the habit and become a talk radio host! :-) I wanted this one to be very pointed in order to give folks (me included) no wiggle room when it comes to forgiveness. Failing to forgive a sinner is too important to our spiritual health to leave to fickle passion.

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  3. Anonymous2:02 AM

    Thank you Father for the reminder about our feelings. The secular world goes on and on about just how important our 'feelings' are in every situation. It's great to hear you remind us about using our intellect as well.

    Many Thanks!

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  4. I remembered Dawn Eden's post about one of the main confusions regarding forgiveness (HERE).

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    1. Matheus - thanks for sharing the link. Always a good reminder - and "somewhat" more gentle than Fr P's homily :-). I know that when someone finally explained to me what forgiveness actually entailed, and that it didn't necessarily require reconciliation, it was an eye-opener and made so many things in my life much easier...but even so, I am prone to forgetting that lesson. Thanks again.

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  5. Anonymous11:58 AM

    This touched upon but did not solve a number of difficulties. Evidently forgiveness is not about feelings. So I acknowledge intellectually that it would be better for this person to reform than to be subjected to revenge. So far, so good. Does this stop me from, upon seeing him, snapping into a fantasy about creative ways to cause him pain, or gripping nausea; does it stop me from waking in the middle of the night desiring to put him in the same insomnia he has put me in? Why,no. The result of this intellectual exercise? To the misery of rage and frustration is added the misery of shame and failure. Something must be missing in your description of forgiveness. It is supposed to have some sort of good effect somewhere, isn't it?
    Part of the problem may be an attemtp to forgive someone who has not actually repented and is continuing the vicious activity; or someone who assumes that the passage of time makes it so that an injustice is over, when (because of its practical effects) the injustice is a gift that keeps on giving.
    Please provide a descrition of forgiveness that works in real-world situations like these; this one was unbearably theoretical.

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    1. Anon., my goal in this homily was not to solve all the problems of forgiveness. My goal was to eliminate an anxiety that whirls around the act of forgiving; namely, the irrelevance of emotions to the act of forgiving a sinner. Of course, the one doing the forgiving is going to feel all sorts of things before, during, and after the act. But the point is to act: forgive. If we allow emotion to enter the picture, we hesitate to do what the Lord has told us unequivocally to do. You are focused on how the forgiver feels. And that's fine. But the forgiver's emotions shouldn't matter in the act b/c the sinner needs to be forgiven.

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    2. Anonymous

      Take a look at the link I posted on my comment above. It may help.

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  6. "I forgive you" is not a declarative statement. It is a performative statement. In saying the statement the act is accomplished.

    It doesn't change feelings immediately. feelings and emotions take longer to catch up to the reality.

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