Forgiveness through God's grace - Madonna Magazine

Forgiveness through God's grace

David Braithwaite SJ 10 March 2017

The Apostleship of Prayer is Pope Francis’ worldwide prayer network. It receives monthly prayer intentions from the Pope and urges Christians throughout the world to unite in prayer for those intentions. Thus we all become part of an international Community of Prayer.

Forgiveness is clearly one of the most central experiences of human life, and yet it can be difficult to find serious reflection of a philosophical or theological nature on this important subject. One fairly recent exception is Paul Ricoeur’s important work Memory, History, Forgetting (2004) which, towards its end, deals with the vagaries and complexities of forgiving in relation to forgetting. Ricoeur turns to St Paul and Kierkegaard to find a way through the thicket, since the experience of forgiveness, and its history as an idea, is deeply and unavoidably theological and spiritual.

Forgiveness turns out to be an impenetrable conundrum when addressed by reason alone. The famous (or infamous) Jacques Derrida in a short essay noted rather evocatively that forgiveness is only meaningful if it is the ‘forgiveness of the unforgiveable’. This movement into paradoxical language is hard to avoid with the topic, which is no doubt the main reason that philosophers, as a general rule, tend to neglect it.

Spiritual writings, on the other hand, regularly turn to the struggles involved in this central dynamic of our lives. While spirituality could be said to be all about living with paradox, philosophy and with it a certain type of theology, seek to navigate out of this dark landscape in an all too unseemly hurry. (We see here an example of why this schism between spirituality and philosophy leaves both disciplines the worse off.)

In any case, without too much reflection we can agree that freedom from the memories that seem to bind us is tied to the process of forgiveness. But is the eradication or oblivion of those memories a righteous desire? Popular culture will often offer up the hortatory ‘forgive and forget’, but real forgiveness requires not oblivion of memory but a different relationship towards those memories that does not encompass their loss so much as it does remembering in a very different way, in a loving way

The movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) deals creatively with this very dilemma when the main character is offered the chance to undergo a process that will eradicate his painful memories of a failed relationship. In the end, he realises that he wants to keep those painful memories in spite of their pain, because they constitute an important and beautiful time in his life. True beauty wounds. No doubt soon we will be able to undergo such a process given the advances in neuroscience, and we will have to actually decide if we want that oblivion of memories. It’s worth considering how we might respond.

As a work of supernatural grace, the act of forgiveness will always exceed the grasp of reason alone. This grace changes our ‘lens’ on events to shift it into a Christ-like optic of acceptance of the brokenness we all share, and which cries out for healing.

This struggle to forgive and seek forgiveness is the living out of the drama of Christ’s redemption in our lives. As we know, when in the grip of deep wounds, forgiveness can seem simply impossible to the one offended. The reality of true forgiveness is that, like salvation itself, it is only God’s grace that makes it possible.

The miracle of ‘forgiveness of the unforgiveable’ is surely, for the believer, evidence of the sheer wonder and beauty of knowing Christ.

(Fr David Braithwaite sj is the Australian director of the Apostleship of Prayer, and director of the Cardoner Project.)



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