The Heart of the Gospel

Part 6

Forgive Offenses

Since original sin, forgiveness is a vital human need. One could even say that history can be divided into two parts human sin and divine pardon. In revealing Himself to Moses, God proclaimed that He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. (Ex. 34:6-7) The rest of the Old Testament bears eloquent witness to that divine self-description. Again and again, God's chosen ones transgress His law, break the covenant, turn away from His love. Again and again, God shows them mercy, pardons their offenses and forgives their sins.

In the Incarnation of His Son, this merciful God took His work of pardon a giant step further. Jesus spoke plainly of the need to forgive: as we forgive those who trespass against us (Matt. 6:12); forgive, and you will be forgiven (Luke 6:35). Yet He did even more. As He was being nailed to the Cross, Jesus gave the supreme example of mercy: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)

Forgive each other, as the Lord has forgiven you. (Col. 3:13) St. Paul experienced the full import of those words. Not only had the Lord forgiven him but Paul had seen for himself the limits to which this work of mercy takes a Christian. The dying words of the deacon, Stephen, still rang in the converted Pharisee's ears: Lord do not hold this sin against them! (Acts 7:60) Paul knew firsthand the joy and the challenge of forgiving. He would concur with Pope Francis that forgiveness is the most obvious and yet the most difficult work of mercy to put into practice: At times, how hard it seems to forgive! And yet pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart. To let go of anger, wrath, violence, and revenge are necessary conditions to living joyfully. (Misericordiae Vultus, 9)

St. Clare of Assisi was also well aware of the "challenge of pardon." Ever the spiritual realist, she bluntly warned her daughters to beware of all pride, vainglory, envy, covetousness, care and solicitude about this world, detraction and complaining, dissension and division. (RULE OF ST. CLARE, 10) Even in a united, loving religious community, where everyone is intent on living a holy life, the Seraphic Mother realized that there is a daily need for mercy.

The Lady Clare saw her monasteries as places of "quick mercy," thoroughly imbued with the spirit of Gospel pardon: If it should happen, God forbid, that occasion of disturbance or scandal would ever arise between Sister and Sister on account of word or action, let her who gave cause for the disturbance immediately, before she may offer the gift of her prayer in the presence of the Lord, not only humbly prostrate herself at the feet of the other, begging pardon, but in all lowliness entreat the other that she would intercede for her to the Lord that He have mercy on her. But let the other one, mindful of that word of the Lord: "Unless you shall have forgiven from the heart, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you," generously dismiss all injury her Sister has done her. (RULE, 9)

The best way to prepare to forgive others is to experience oneself the grace of forgiveness. Perhaps this is why St. Clare insisted that her Sisters go to Confession at least once a month (cf. RULE, 3) and that at least once a week they come together in the community Chapter where they ought humbly to confess their ordinary and public faults and negligences. (RULE, 4) Awareness of how much we have been forgiven paves the way for generously dismissing all injury done to us. It also prepares us to receive mercy from Him who desires to forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Then we experience firsthand the all seasons' spiritual truth that it is in pardoning that we are pardoned!

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