Saturday, December 20, 2008

Forgiveness and Mercy

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. (Mt 5:7)

Picture from Wikimedia. It is in the Public Domain.

At first glance, this beatitude seems to follow the ethic of reciprocity (see “Ethic of reciprocity” in Wikipedia), but I think Jesus suggests more than that. I think this is clearer when we rephrase the beatitude thus:
God blesses those who are merciful to others for God will show them mercy.

The blessing is not that people would return the mercy shown them but that God notices those who have been merciful.

What is mercy?

There is an article in the online Catholic Encyclopedia on “Mercy”. For those of us who are more adventurous, the same site offers St. Thomas Aquinas’ treatment on the same subject in the Summa Theologica. I say adventurous because St. Thomas needs some getting used to, especially if we are not familiar with Aristotle and Mediaeval Philosophy. (Please refer to my next short post to read further on what I think is important when reading the Summa Theologica.)

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Mercy as it is here contemplated is said to be a virtue influencing one’s will to have compassion for, and, if possible, to alleviate another’s misfortune.” If I were to put it in simpler terms, mercy is a habit (virtue) that has two functions:
  1. stirs one to have compassion for another person’s misfortune

  2. motivates one to try to help remove the other person’s misfortune

St. Thomas Aquinas and those teaching at his time would teach that when a merciful person discerns misfortune or misery in another, the motivation resulting from mercy is in some sense involuntary. Also, mercy must also be linked to charity as it is something the controls relations between two distinct persons.

One result of a merciful heart is the willingness to forgive. For many people forgiveness is like a switch that can be turned on or off. For these people, they will soon realise, especially when they are gravely hurt, that forgiveness cannot be simply switched on or off. Their first misunderstanding is that forgiveness is a feeling. A similar misunderstanding is that love is a feeling. Of course, there are feelings involved in forgiveness and love. However, they are not primarily feelings. Forgiveness, like love, is a decision, what philosophers would call, “an act of the will.” Mothers will definitely be able to identify with this idea. When a child has wilfully done something wrong, a mother may feel very indignant and angry but it doesn’t mean that the mother has stopped loving the child.

A merciful person is motivated to forgive; he wants to forgive because he is aware of God’s love for both himself and the one who hurt him. However, it is very difficult to reconcile the feeling of hurt and anger with that decision to forgive. It is difficult. It is also imperative for our immortal souls to forgive despite our feeling. Now to forgive is not to forget the hurt. Neither is it to forget that anything happened between the two people. Thus, the saying “forgive and forget” can be dangerously misleading. To forgive means to choose to treat a person as if he/she has not hurt me even though I know he/she has. To forgive doesn’t mean I forget and set myself up to be hurt again. To forgive doesn’t mean that I allow that person to hurt me again. On the contrary, to forgive means to give a person a second chance so that he/she would be able to do the right thing and not hurt again. It means that if that person is about to repeat the same thing, I must charitably warn that person of the consequences of his/her actions. I could go on and on about this but I choose not to be too long.

All the above is very easily said, but not easily done. There is one ingredient missing: God. We are emotional beings and we would cease to be human if we weren’t. To be merciful means we need to depend on God. The habit of choosing to forgive and love can only come about if we allow God to heal all the hurts deriving from the offence. Most people find that their emotions go on a roller coaster the moment they try to forgive. To confront a hurt before healing begins is diastrous. One feels hypocritical: I say I forgive when there is this emotion in me that pushes me to hit back!

Healing. That is the missing link between being hurt and forgiving. When someone offends us, we are hurt. Our spiritual being is hurt. Like a physical wound, we need to tend to it and allow it to heal. God provides the healing but we must take care not to cause more damage to the wound. If we dwell on the incident, it is like someone taking out the bandages of a treated wound just to touch and see that it is healing. We know that in any physical wound, constant removal of the dressing and probing would not only not speed up healing, it may even cause the wound to turn septic and cause even more pain. When we dwell on a painful memory, this is what we are doing. We probe and dig further into the hurt, causing more pain. When we begin a healing process by inviting the Lord into our beings, we should leave the ‘bandages and dressing’ well alone. We will feel the hurt, just like in the case of a physical wound. When some time has passed, we may be tempted to return to the hurt, much like a healing wound would itch. We have to let go of the hurt and put it aside, allowing the Lord to do His healing. One of the problems with “forgive and forget” concerns healing as well. If we forget that there is a bandage over a physical wound, we may end up carelessly hurting our wound or ruining the dressing. Similarly, if we totally shut off the incident from our mind, a more devastating emotional upheaval may be triggered by an trival matter.

One of the most common experiences is that the hurtful incident just comes in without one’s willing it. Actually, our memories are not random. We don't just remember things. Memory is associative. We are reminded of something in the past due to something we see or hear or even another memory. One of the best ways to handle a recurrence of a hurtful memory is to immediately turn our thoughts to “what was I thinking of before remembering?” As we consciously trace the memory to its source, we actually leave the hurtful memory in the background. We are aware that it is there but we are focusing on something else, much like when we try to ignore a healing wound that itches. Another benefit can be gained from this exercise: we begin to see what the triggers of the hurtful memories are. For example, if a couple of siblings quarreled over a case of wine, the train of though might be:
Case of wine which was triggered by grapes which was triggered by raisins which were triggered by fruitcake which was triggered by cherries which was triggered by the brand of chocolate called Mon CheriƩ.
See how something totally unrelated could have ended up reminding us of a hurtful incident. So if we are aware of those things that are often leading us back to the hurtful memories, we might be able to shift our thoughts the moment these ‘risky’ thoughts entered our minds.

How do I know that I am healed? When I can truly laugh off the hurtful incident even if I feel a tinge of discomfort, it would be safe to consider the healing 99% complete.

I know that I will inadvertently hurt people in my speech and decisions. There are times when I will hurt people in my own frustrations. This is something that would happen because I am still a sinner. This is something that I tell myself every time I am hurt. The virtue or habit of mercy needs to be nurtured with time. When I need to make the decision to forgive, I go through the steps above to get healed and consciously make the decision to forgive and love. Ultimately, I know that co-operating with God in this way will help me become the merciful person he has called me to be.

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