Surviving and Thriving, III
In my earlier articles, I have written about the spiritual discipline of prayer, and the importance of maintaining a clear mind, free from unduly anxious thoughts or feelings of resentment and unease. All of this is important to those of us seeking peace and calm. However, maintaining attitudes and ways of being is not just about living well. It is also about establishing and maintaining a healthy community, which is fundamental to our faith. We are a worshipping community, and if we are to functional well, then we need to be able to live with one anther comfortably. This is so important, that when our liturgy was over-hauled twenty years ago, ‘the peace’ was established as an essential precursor to our entering into the Eucharistic prayer. It is mildly amusing to some of us, just how contentious and difficult this proved to be for so many congregations and individuals.
Forgiveness is core to Christian teaching, thought and practice, so that in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer, we recite the request to God that our sins are forgiven. We play for ‘high stakes’, as we acknowledge that forgiveness is conditional upon us forgiving others. For those of you who may doubt the centrality of forgiveness in our belief (and this means way of life, not just thinking), then ponder that the crucifixion dominates each of the Gospels, and the writing of St Paul, and the predominant report of the conduct of Christ at the end of his life, on earth, was that he forgave those who abused him in such barbaric and relentlessly cruel ways.Unless we as individuals and communities understand these lessons, and apply them to ourselves, then we have no engagement with the Christian Faith. Its benefits, its message and its hope are forever lost to us.
Some of you know that once upon a time, I worked in a shelter for the homeless. I remember that on one day, an argument broke out in the kitchen between two of the ‘clients’ who had work assignments there. One was known to be difficult, cantankerous and domineering, and the other acknowledged to be reasonable, calm and easy-going. On this occasion, the easier of the two lost their temper, and a furious row ensued. Initially, the response of the rest of the clients was one of sympathy and understanding for the individual who had been provoked. However, as the argument continued, the mood shifted in the shelter. What became the dominant thought and opinion was one of discomfort and unease that an argument was taking place. The rights and wrongs of the initial disagreement faded to the extent that everyone just wanted the altercation to end. They wanted things to return to normal, and the initial sensitivity about injustice slipped away to be replaced by irritation about the atmosphere of anger and demands for retribution. In terms of how we live with one another, although there is a requirement for justice, this was subsumed by a need for enmity to go, and be replaced by calm and order.
In our lives and communal working, we need to be mindful of each other’s requirements for security, acknowledging the fundamental need for mutual acceptance and dignity. Being with each other is not always as straightforward as we’d like to think. We can sometimes find that things go ‘pear-shape’ without understanding how we have fallen out with the other. Of course, there are also times when things go wrong, because there has been an action which is premeditated, and calculated to wrong another or cause harm. Whatever the cause, conflict and upset occurs in every community. If our lives are to proceed in harmony, then we have to learn how to deal with the disruption of relationships. And for most of us, we have to learn how to forgive, and sometimes, that we have to acknowledge our need for forgiveness.
As in most things in life, this is about what is rattling about inside our heads. It might be that the actuality of forgiveness is about our talking to each other about sensitive and difficult things, but that can never happen until we have made the crucial move in our imaginations. I can promise you that unless you make these moves in your mind, you will never make the movements vital to maintain and establish relationships fundamental to your happiness and equanimity. I can also promise you that if you are waiting for the right moment to come, to start dealing with issues of forgiveness, then you will never deal with them. If your conscience is challenging you, the time to deal with it is now. That may mean taking some time to think through the issues, and if it’s complicated, you may be wise to take advice, but it is important that you deal with things now- delay at your peril.
The Gospel teaching on forgiveness is clear and challenging. We are told to be prepared to forgive repeatedly and without resentment. There are caveats. Where the wrong-doing is calculated or destabilising, then the right thing to do is to take the problem to the leadership of the community, and leave it in the hands of those with authority to act. But in matters of personal breakdowns of relationships, we are expected to act first. Rather than calculate the nuances and finer details of what has happened and why, we are urged to put peace first, and healing, even if that means burying differences and perceived slights, hurts and upsets. St Paul urges us to set aside resentment, pondering that it is up to God to deal with matters of revenge.
There are certain areas of life, psychology and trauma where ‘angels fear to tread’. These are profoundly complex and difficult areas of life and our learning to live with each other. Where there is serious disruption to day to day being through psychological upset or breakdown, then help should be sought from those trained, qualified and certified as being skilled and appropriately mentored and assessed for this work. We never know what may lurk in the minds of others, and we should be very careful of thinking which leads us down the path of judging the behaviour and attitudes of others. It is first and foremost our responsibility to forgive others, and sometimes ourselves. Leave others’ consciences to themselves for work and assessment.
By now, you should be clear that resentment, (either long term or of the moment), can lead us into areas of pain and conflict. Forgiving one another, quickly, and without rancour, is by far the best way to be. However, for those who have suffered significant harm, the advice must be to ponder forgiveness, and act with deliberation and care. The story is told of Gordon Wilson, who lost his daughter Marie, in the Enniskillen bombing of 1987. He publicly forgave his daughters’ killers on the day of her death, and yet he struggled psychologically with this for the rest of his life. We might contrast this with the story of Jo Berry, who met the IRA terrorist, Patrick Magee, who had planted the bomb, which killed her father, Anthony at Brighton. Patrick later renounced the use of violence, but neither he nor Jo have spoken of forgiveness. They entered into a dialogue, which included Jo visiting Patrick’s birth place, and attempting to understand something of the roots of the Nationalist campaign, which caused so much pain, hurt and destruction in the last part of the previous century. They both acknowledge that although difficult, their engagement with each other has been of immense benefit to each of them. This is part and parcel of Christ’s teaching about ‘counting the cost’ of following him. It is not just about relinquishing wealth and material comforts- it is also about moving into a different way of dealing with hurt, emotional pain and conflict.
If you think that you need to enter into a mediated conversation about who took the last biscuit, then you have got something wrong somewhere, and need to reflect upon your attitude to life. If you think that you have to forgive without reflection,(for example, someone who burgled your home), then work through your feelings first, and talk to someone qualified and trustworthy to help you. These can be big things, but walking around with unresolved attitudes of resentment and unhappiness about the conduct of others will cause you interminable difficulty, and may prevent you from finding peace and serenity. As the lock down lifts, many will have strange mixes of emotions. Dealing with the resolvable and solvable problems now makes sense. And who knows, you may start feeling happier as a result.
Forgiveness is a big topic, and I have found that even when you think that you understand it, and know how to work with it and through it, stuff happens which can bring you back to the beginning. Work at it, and give thanks that our faith is based on getting our relationships with each other right, in all kinds of ways. It isn’t easy, but the result of getting these things right, is that we can look ahead with joy and anticipation to being in community. We hope that soon, this will be the case in all senses of the word, but it also brings tensions and complications. It is part of being human, and it guarantees that we will not be bored. And finally, if you are determined to go through life as a ‘grumpy old git’, guess who, and what kind of people will be waiting to greet in you heaven (or hell)? Be the kind of person now, of whom you would like to be with for eternity- who knows how long each of us has to get this stuff straight?
MQ, June 2020