The word forgiveness hauls me back to when I was a young Catholic girl. I remember being taught how to recite Hail Mary Full of Grace and those confession boxes with a raspy voiced priest on the other side of a screen who told me he was God's gatekeeper. Before I could receive forgiveness for my collection of human sins -- swearing, swiping a cookie or thinking a mean thought about my brother -- I had to say, "Bless me Father for I have sinned."
To forgive was to be divine and as a child, among my spanking clean brethren, I did forgive all those who had trespassed against me. As time passed though, the trespasses seemed to add up faster than my ability to forgive and pretty soon I was buried in what had gone wrong. That's when I started to wonder: just what was the point of wiping the slate clean? Cynicism set in.
How do we forgive actions that seem unforgivable? A father who abandons us? A hospital emergency worker who killed our mother -- by accident? The man who held a knife at our throat?
As I considered my own laundry list of sorrows, it felt more important to add up the crimes and stand as a proper witness to the many wrongs. It certainly seemed reasonable keep tab and be wary.
The question of forgiveness has come up for me a lot these days. Along with millions of other couples out there in the U.S., a country that suffers from a startling divorce rate, I'm in the middle of couples counseling with my husband. We are determined to save our marriage. For him it's number two. For me, number three. The statistics aren't on our side. Second and third marriages have even higher failure rates than first marriages, according to Elizabeth Gilbert, who penned the book Committed about her own second marriage.
On one particular dark night, I went to sleep angry and woke up the same way. It had been like that for days, weeks and months. It hurt to be so pissed off at this man I called "husband" and an old lesson of forgiveness popped into my head. I thought, "just forgive him, Jennifer. Just try. Make it like a little candle you hold in a dark tunnel and keep your eye on that flame. Forgive him every five seconds if you have to but forgive."
This thought was the beginning of a major shift that nudged my rigid wall of anger just enough that I could see past my husband and peer into deeper shadows. The image of the little candle held in the dark was one I had used before, as an eight-year-old child when I had endured a sustained violent and sexual attack by a man three times my age. Unable to escape, as a child, I took refuge in this image of the candle of forgiveness. I told myself that I might not even live to see another day but it would be okay if I just held fast to that light.
To revisit forgiveness has meant, for me, that I had to revisit what it took to survive as a child and what I had been doing to survive for many years of my life. Yes, my marriage was in trouble but my own heart was in bigger trouble. It needed to heal in order to trust and love.
It has taken time but I've learned from myself as that small child, who used forgiveness as a way to survive, that forgiveness isn't an idea and even those who study forgiveness within the faith now are telling us forgiveness is beyond the religious and the dogmatic.
When you really look at the word "forgive" it means: to stop feeling angry or resentful toward. It means stopping and in the stopping, there is a form of surrender. In my own use of forgiveness, as a child, the act of "stopping" offered passage to the other side when I was out of options, directions and explanations.
My favorite study of forgiveness comes from Women Who Run with Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes who writes, "many people have trouble with forgiveness because they have been taught it is a singular act to be completed in one sitting. That is not so. Forgiveness has many layers, many seasons."
Estes lists the four stages of forgiveness as these: to forgo (leave it alone), to forbear (abstain from punishing), to forget (refuse to dwell) and to finally, forgive (to abandon the debt).
Forgiveness is a lifetime path, perhaps a walk that is never fully complete but it is there and ready to be taken. I am on my own journey, one step at a time. I find the most important person to forgive as I go along, is myself and then I work out from there. As I take these small steps towards inner peace, I forgive, forgive and forgive again and while do this work, my husband remains at my side.