16 September 2017

On the failure to forgive

24th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Mt. Carmel/OLR, NOLA

In Dante's Inferno, those who lived and died as slaves to anger are consigned to the Fifth Circle of Hell.* The violently angry spend eternity attacking one another on surface of the swampy waters of the River Styx. The sullenly angry sulk beneath the slime, forever stewing in their self-imposed loneliness. Though they share in the sin of inordinate anger – expressed in different ways – what these sinners have most in common is their stubborn refusal to forgive. . .while they could. Rather than release her offender from his debt, the violently angry sinner slashes out in a rage, causing him harm. And rather than release his offender from her debt, the sullenly angry sinner retreats into a silent, brooding resentment that slowly consumes all of his charity. When our Lord urges us to forgive our offenders as many times as necessary, he's not giving us some Hallmarkish therapeutic advice for Better Living. He's telling us outright that the failure to forgive – in the end – is tantamount to choosing to live for all eternity basting away in the slimy waters of the River Styx, Hell. The failure to forgive another is the failure to receive forgiveness from God.

If forgiveness were easy to give, we wouldn't need our Lord to command us to do it. We wouldn't need that image of the master turning his unforgiving servant over the torturers. That forgiveness is difficult to give is part and parcel of our fallen humanity. But why is forgiveness so hard to give? It might be b/c we are afraid that forgiving someone who has offended us might come to believe that his/her offense wasn't really all that offensive to begin with. If I can easily forgive being hurt, then maybe I wasn't that badly hurt in the first place. Maybe forgiveness is hard b/c we are afraid of being hurt again by the same person, by the same offense. If I forgive this hurt, maybe he/she will hurt me again in the same way. Or perhaps forgiveness is hard b/c we like the feeling of another being in our debt for sin. She hurt me and I'm not forgiving her b/c I like that she owes me. As our Lord makes clear, my failure to forgive is a trap for me. There is no justification, no way to make right, my refusal to grant to another what God has freely given to me. Yes, I've been sinned against – terribly wounded – and my fallen nature urges me to seek justice, to seek balance. But when I seek that balance w/o acknowledging that my own sins have been forgiven, what I am truly seeking is vengeance. 
And unrepented vengeance earns me a dip in the River Styx, or a visit with the master's torturers. Our Lord recounts at the end of his parable: “I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?'” The obvious answer here is: “Yes, Lord!” If you can't bring yourself to answer that question in the affirmative, why not? The most common reason I've heard as a priest goes something like this: “I could say that I've forgiven, but I don't feel like I've forgiven.” Our Lord requires us to “forgive from the heart,” meaning a genuine forgiveness that relieves the other person of his/her debt to us. No where does the Lord require us to feel good about forgiving another. No where does he demand that we be happy about it. Forgiveness is an act of the will – from the heart – we just do it. And then we go on with our lives knowing that no one owes us a debt of sin, knowing that we ourselves owe no one a debt of forgiveness. “Wrath and anger are hateful things,” Sirach tells us. And only a sinner holds them tight.

*Cantos VII - IX

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