10 Ways to live a more contented life

“I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.”

These are the words of Saint Josephine Bakhita, who as a young girl had been sold into slavery in the Sudan and had suffered indescribable suffering, torture, physical and psychological abuse.

In her earliest years, Bakhita was surrounded by a loving family of three brothers and three sisters, living a very happy and carefree life. However when she was 7 or 8 years old, she was abducted by Arab slave traders. She who had never known suffering in her life, was forced to walk 600 miles to El-Obeid barefoot. Twice on the way she was sold and bought by a new master. She was forcibly converted to Islam. In the next twelve years she would be sold three more times before she would finally be given her freedom.

In El-Obeid, Bakhita was bought by a rich Arab who used her as a maid for her two daughters. She was treated relatively well until one day, she accidentally broke a vase, and the son of her owner beat her so severely that she spent a month unable to move from her straw bed.

She once recalled one of her most terrifying experiences when she along with other slaves were marked by a process resembling tattooing. With a razor patterns were cut into her belly, breasts, and right arm, and the wounds filled with salt. Throughout the ordeal, Bakhita would recall, she felt a mysterious strength sustaining her.

Finally at the end of 1882, Joseph Bahkita was bought by the Italian Vice Consul Callisto Legnani. For the first time since the day she was kidnapped she was treated in a loving and cordial way. In the Consul’s residence, Bakhita experienced peace, warmth and moments of joy. When political situations forced the Consul to leave for Italy, Bakhita made the trip with him and with a friend of his, Augusto Michieli. On arrival in Genoa, she was left with Mr. Michieli’s wife and eventually became their daughter’s nanny.

In 1988 Mr. Michielli returned to Sudan to take possession of a large hotel he had acquired, followed later by his wife. She left Bakhita with her daughter in the care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice. It was here, under the care and instruction of the Sisters, that Bakhita encountered Christianity. Here she  came to know the God she had experienced in her heart as a child without knowing who he was. “Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself: Who could be the Master of these beautiful things? And I felt a great desire to see him, to know Him and to pay Him homage….”

When her owners returned for her in Italy, she refused to leave the sisters, and the Italian court ruled that because Italian Law had never recognized slavery as legal, Bakhita had never legally been a slave.

Bakhita remained with the Canossians, embraced Catholicism, and was baptized, taking the full name of Josephine Margaret Fortunata (the Latin translation of Bakhita). She was confirmed and received Communion on the same day, entered the novitiate of the Canossian sisters the following year and pronounced her vows in 1986 in the presence of Archbishop Guiseppe Sarto, the future Pope Saint Pius X.

During her 42 years of religious life, immensely happy years for her, Bakhita carried out the roles of cook, sacristan, and doorkeeper. She was known for her gentleness, calming voice, and her ever-present smile. She became known for her holiness by the local townspeople and among her own sisters. The first publication of her story in 1931 made her famous in Italy.

A young student once asked Bakhita: “What would you do, if you were to meet your captors?” Without hesitation, she replied: “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.”

In 2000, she was declared a saint, the first Black woman to receive the honor in the modern era.

“I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.”

Josephine Bakhita

Knowing that she was loved and always had been loved through her whole life led to great happiness for Bakhita. Knowing ourselves to be loved we can surrender ourselves to Love even in the unfairness of life because we are certain that Love is with us. “I am awaited by this Love.” This Love is a person who deeply cares about me. His love alone is what makes my life good.

Once Josephine Bakhita discovered this love radiating within her, she began to radiate this love to others. The simplest roles of service were assigned her: cook, doorkeeper, sacristan, and in these simple tasks she was able to give to those around her an extraordinary love.

We most probably will not live through as destructive an experience as slavery and human trafficking as did Bakhita, and yet trauma does touch in many ways our spirits and sear our souls. For some of us more than others. But all of us in some way bear wounds that bring tears to our eyes.

Often it can take many years, often well into our adult life, until we can settle into a deep awareness of being loved. Like Bakhita, it may be the kindness of others that begins that journey to discovering the ever-present surrounding love of God in our lives. Encountering Jesus in the sacraments chips away at our fears and heals our wounds so that we can so gradually begin to sense that our spirits live on the very Breath of God. Let these words from the hymn Nothing Is Lost on the Breath of God by Colin Gibson wash over you:

Nothing is lost on the breath of God,
nothing is lost forever,
God’s breath is love,
and that love will remain,
holding the world forever.
No feather too light,
no hair too fine,
no flower too brief in its glory,
no drop in the ocean,
no dust in the air,
but is counted and told in God’s story.

Nothing is lost to the eyes of God,
nothing is lost forever,
God sees with love,
and that love will remain,
holding the world forever.
No journey too far,
no distance too great,
no valley of darkness too blinding;
no creature too humble,
no child too small for God to be seeking and finding.

Nothing is lost to the heart of God,
nothing is lost for ever;
God’s heart is love,
and that love will remain,
holding the world forever.
No impulse of love,
no office of care,
no moment of life in its fullness;
no beginning too late,
no ending too soon,
but is gathered and known in its goodness. (Words © 1996 Hope Publishing Company, 380 S Main Pl, Carol Stream, IL 60188)

Josephine Bakhita shows us that when we are loved we are content, and we are able to become love for others. Here are 10 simple ways to live a more contented life and radiate love to those around you that are easy enough to work into your everyday rhythm:

  • Gratitude: Deliver a letter of gratitude in writing or email to a person you are grateful to, but have not thanked appropriately.
  • Counting kindness: Count the acts of kindness you receive every day.
  • Three good things: Write down three things that have gone well for you this week and offer a prayer of thanks to God.
  • Surrender: Release one thing over which you have no control. In your imagination wrap it in a box and hand it to Jesus. Watch what he does with it.
  • Gift of contentment: Find five things you are already content with about your life, your appearance, your relationships, your work and family. Now try to find something you are discontent with. How can you become more content with this thing?
  • Offer compliments: It’s easy to criticize and complain. Rise above criticism, and see how many compliments you can offer in a day.
  • Shift your expectations: Write down five positive outcomes that you’re expecting throughout the day. Making these positive outcomes part of the fabric of your life is a key to combating fear and depression.
  • Count your blessings before your sleep: Keep a gratitude journal by your bed. Each night write at least three blessings for which you are grateful before you turn out the lights.
  • Let it go: See how many small things during the day you can just let go.
  • Love unconditionally: See others and events through gentle eyes, focus on the person and their feelings and needs rather than situations and issues.

Image Credit: Public Domain via Rawpixel

Pin Pricks and Pet Peeves

This is the third article in a short series on forgiveness. We have explored the dramatic and traumatic stories of Saint Rita and Corrie Ten Boom. In this article, we’ll be thinking about the million-and-one pin pricks that we receive and give to others every day. Though these aren’t dramatic or traumatic in themselves, when not attended to they can lead to drama and trauma and to the need for forgiveness in order to restore peace in a relationship.

These pin pricks never show up in the biographies of saints. We certainly don’t expect to read about Saint Rita’s frustration when her husband left his socks on the floor every morning or how Corrie was driven crazy by the way her father repetitively tapped his pencil on the desk. But, honestly, we have to face the fact our lives are full of these pet peeves that get under our skin and in the way of our relationships…and probably our saints had a few pet peeves themselves.

A quick Google search for pet peeves reveals that there are lists of pet peeves about just about everything: Wikipedia defines a pet peeve as “a minor annoyance that an individual finds particularly irritating to them, to a greater degree than would be expected based on the experience of others.”

One list of 70 pet peeves includes: chewing sounds, interrupting during a conversation, texting during a meal, throat clearing, leaving cabinet drawers open, not screwing the lids onto bottles and containers all the way, cutting lines, talking during movies, being late, cracking knuckles, and, well, you get the point…. I have to admit I do some of these things myself and am probably driving at least one sister I live with nuts.

One evening I learned a really important lesson. I was washing the dishes and had accidently left the sprayer option on the water faucet. When I turned on the water to rinse the dishes, I  sprayed not only the dishes but also my superior who was standing next to the sink to get water for the coffee pot. There was no response. No surprise. No disgust. No anger. No running to clean off her habit. Nothing. “It’s okay,” she said. “Don’t worry.” And that was the end of that. I learned two things that night, however. One: Always check to make sure you don’t have the sprayer left on when you turn on the water. Two: You don’t always need to give a dramatic reaction to make your point.

Back to my Google search for “pet peeves.” There are office pet peeves, driving pet peeves, as well as pet peeves particular to flight attendants, and teachers, and doctors, and veterinarians, and admissions counselors. There are annoying trends that drive us crazy about email, about social media, about sports, about teams. Pet peeves are a part of daily life.

When minor annoyances are not addressed over time, they can have serious effects on a relationship. The way someone who lives or works close to us chews, or piles things on their desk, or hums while they work, or leaves the newspaper on the table, or insists on giving their opinion rather categorically about just about everything, can make us feel misunderstood, not appreciated, unimportant. And we so often do things that make others feel the same way or worse.

Practices for addressing pet peeves

Here are some practices you can develop that will keep those pet peeves from ruining your day and your relationships:

Practice expressing respect actively and frequently throughout the day. Get in the habit of noticing what you like about other people and telling them what about them delights you. Tell others, in their presence, how great they are in a particular area. Build up a groundwork of trust and respect for each other.

Share behaviors that could be pet peeves that bother other people. Keeping things light and humorous, take some time to share with the people who work or live nearest you your own behaviors that could bother others. “I know I talk to myself at my desk here. It’s a habit I’ve had since childhood and one I picked up from my dad when he worked at home. Just let me know if it is bothering you because I honestly don’t even hear myself do it anymore. I promise not to be offended, at least not most of the time.” Your sharing not only lets others know you are aware that something you do mindlessly could bug them, it also tells them why you do it and gives them permission to ask you to tone it down if it is becoming obnoxious to them.

Have a dialogue about pet peeves with people who work or live close to you in different settings. Go around the room or table and let everyone share one pet peeve that bothers them in the office or home or team. Go around the room till everyone has three opportunities. Sometimes we have no idea that something we do or don’t do drives another crazy. At times, it requires just a simple adjustment. Religious sisters get transferred often from one assignment to another. In each community, we begin to live with different sisters who like things done a certain way. “My mom always told me to…. That’s why I…” Well, my mom didn’t really care that much about the item that is Sister’s pet peeve. I have to admit, however, that most of these things are small and I can adjust the way I do many little things in order to not bother the others as much as possible. The benefit for me is that I take on new habits that are actually really helpful. The pet peeves become my teachers!

Engage in anti-pet peeves. “An anti-pet peeve is the opposite of a pet peeve: a tiny thing in life that brings you an exponential amount of joy.”  This site provides themed collections of anti-pet peeves. Readers contribute activities that bring them great joy, so much joy that they make sure they enjoy them every chance they get. For example, one reader described how he loved bringing a cup of coffee to his wife first thing on Saturday morning and seeing her react as if it were Christmas morning. Every time. Another loved watching her dog on her back while she was on video calls.

Focus on what you love not what you hate. My dad loves thunderstorms. Nothing makes him more happy than to sit in a room and watch out the window as a thunderstorm rolls in. My mom hates thunderstorms. Dad shared with me one evening how he and mom were at a Bed and Breakfast in the mountains. They went to bed for the night and a thunderstorm broke out in the sky overhead. He, being nearest the window, was delighted as he watched the lightening and heard the thunder roll across the sky. In a few moments, mom got up and closed the blinds. He just rolled over and went to sleep. That story will remain in my heart forever. Dad’s love for mom far surpassed his frustration at not being able to watch thunderstorms. He loved her too much to fuss over something so small. I’m sure he sneaked out and watched storms when he could be alone. But he respected her fears and her wishes when they were together. Again and again my siblings and I hear our father say, “I love your mom so much!” The pet peeves couldn’t embitter a heart so full of love to the point that he made a big deal about insisting on what he wanted. Being in a good relationship was more important to him than indulging his desire to relish in thunderstorms.

Respect where another person is at. A pet peeve that bothers us about another person may actually just be a temporary stage of growth. Maybe at this point in the other person’s life they need to know they are important, valuable, smart, popular. Sometimes we just need to let another person alone as they grow through things. We can embody behaviors that correspond to our values, and these might have an influence on the other person as they notice there is another way to act. But just as you will only kill a seedling if you force the seed open to hasten its growth, stuffing another person into your own mold only leads to frustration and hurt.

Don’t waste your time with stupid stuff. Everyone has pet peeves, just as everyone has weaknesses. Be the person who has the wisdom to distinguish between what is worth fighting for and what isn’t. What’s important and what can pass. What’s serious and what is not. Be the wisdom figure who can think things through instead of blowing up. Who can work on themselves to be great-hearted rather than being petulant and demanding. The more we feed our pet peeves the stronger they will become and the more they will affect our relationships.

Learn to accept the fact that we are all imperfect Someone has the habit of putting wet dishes on top of the dry dishes in the kitchen. It doesn’t bother them, but it certainly bothers you because you have to put them away. You may be trying to finish a project and the rest of the team is behind you chatting about their plans for the weekend. A customer loses their temper and causes the scene, demanding to speak with your manager. There are so many things that can annoy us and drive us up the wall. Before pet peeves begin to take control and people become disgruntled, simply ask yourself if a situation is worth getting upset over. The question itself can give you a change of perspective. Some things are big and need to be addressed, but most things are small. We are all imperfect, and learning to accept this can go a long way toward being able to work together with charity.

When clashes and resentments break out between people over pet peeves forgiveness is a necessary path to healing. Next we’ll be presenting a prayerful exercise for forgiveness.

How to make forgiveness a part of your life

Early in the morning on October 2, 2006 in Dacula, Georgia, twenty-year-old Matt Swatzell was driving home from a twenty-four-hour shift as a firefighter and EMS and had had only 30 minutes of sleep. Less than four miles from his home he fell asleep at the wheel and collided with another car, killing thirty-year-old June who was driving and injuring her nineteen-month-old daughter, Faith.

It was in the hospital that Matt learned that June was pregnant and that both she and the baby did not make it.

June’s husband Erik Fitzgerald was heartbroken. He was a full-time pastor. Close family and friends stood with him as he grieved his wife’s death and that of his unborn child. One day, one of his students said that she couldn’t help but think of how the driver of the car was feeling. Eric immediately asked the group to pray for the driver of the car. With this simple prayer began a journey of forgiveness that has inspired hundreds of thousands. Their story was recounted in Today and People among other outlets.

In the face of the tragedy, Erik recalled a message he heard in a sermon: “In moments where tragedy happens or even hurt, there’s opportunities to demonstrate grace or to exact vengeance. Here was an opportunity where I could do that. And I chose to demonstrate grace.”

To start, Erik attended Matt’s sentencing and extended his forgiveness. As a county officer, Matt was facing a felony and harsh time. But Fitzgerald pleaded for a lesser sentence.

“I didn’t see why this accident and tragedy needed to ruin any more lives,” said the pastor. Matt paid a fine and did community service.

Although Matt wanted to thank Erik for all he had done, he couldn’t legally speak with him during the two-year criminal investigation.

The day before the two-year anniversary of the accident, however, Matt went to the grocery store to purchase a card to send to Erik. When he returned to his car in the parking lot he was just about to turn on the engine when he saw Erik walking into the same store. Not sure what to expect, Matt approached  Erik and introduced himself. Matt burst into tears and Erik told him that he forgave him.

“That was the biggest relief I’d ever felt. He just said from the start that he forgives me,” Matt recalled. “Just hearing him say those words, it just impacted my life completely.”

Then Erik told him, “I have a desire to want to be in your life.”

“You forgive as you’ve been forgiven. It wasn’t an option. If you’ve been forgiven, then you need to extend that forgiveness.”

Erik Fitzgerald

The men stayed connected by meeting at least once every two weeks, attending church together and eating meals at the Waffle House and other restaurants, just the two of them.

“We recognized that when we first started meeting it was unusual. We knew it was God,” said Erik. “You forgive as you’ve been forgiven. It wasn’t an option. If you’ve been forgiven, then you need to extend that forgiveness.”

“Part of the draw I felt to befriend Matthew was he was a good guy. He wasn’t a convict or on drugs. He was just a guy who got off a shift,” said Erik. “I felt it was my responsibility to encourage him and see the big picture.”

So Erik was there for Matt when he married and at the birth of their first child, who shares a birthday with Erik’s own daughter. Matt’s anxiety and guilt were still so overwhelming that he feared something would happen to his wife and child. After many meetings with Erik and a counsellor, Matt was able to move past the hurt.

“I can honestly say that without this friendship I don’t know where I’d be,” said Matt. “I can’t say, ‘This is a beautiful story and it’s got a great ending.’ It doesn’t,” he told Today in an interview. “It’s nasty, it’s real, and it’s something that I’m going to struggle with for the rest of my life.”

A Process for Forgiveness

Forgiveness can be difficult, particularly when our inner resources are depleted. It’s difficult for anyone to rise above the pain of being hurt by another or the guilt we feel when we have hurt someone else. We feel we were justified. Or perhaps we can’t admit that we were responsible and that hanging on to being in the right is somehow hanging on to the last shred of our sense of self. Unforgiveness creates a tremendous weight of bitterness, rejection, and broken relationships.

When I am hurt I have trouble being near the person until I have worked through my anger and released them from my demands that they be different than who they are at this time. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or even pardoning an offense. It means changing our response to the offense. Some ways to practice what I call “everyday forgiveness” are: forgive yourself, forgive the “stupid stuff” that happens every day, forgive the people and institutions that have hurt us, forgive the unmerited suffering that seems so unfair like an illness or failure. Instead of bitterness, choose to offer compassion and empathy to the person or institution or event that wronged you.

People who forgive tend to be more satisfied with their lives and to have less depression, anxiety, stress, anger, and hostility. People who hang onto grudges, however, are more likely to experience severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as other health conditions. That doesn’t mean that they can’t train themselves to act in healthier ways. Here is a method of forgiveness that you might try:

1.) Reflect and remember the event that has wronged you. How did you react? How did you feel? How has your anger and hurt affected you since?

2.) Empathize with the other person. Try to understand what could have led the other person to do what they did to hurt you. You may begin to realize that the one they are truly hurting is themselves. How much they must be suffering from their own negative behavior.

3.) Forgive deeply. We are not talking here about behavior that is abusive and destructive. Ultimately no one is perfect. In this exercise we are addressing how annoying, hurtful, broken people hurt us all the time. The choice to forgive is ultimately the choice to love and to release the other from the obligation to pay you back because of what they have done. It is a choice for your own happiness, when you let your grievances go.

4.) Let go of expectations. An apology may not change your relationship with the other person or elicit an apology from him or her. Forgiveness needs to be offered with no strings attached. It is a gift of compassion, offered because it is the right thing to do, because God has invited us to live in forgiveness, and because it makes us happy. If you don’t expect apologies or changed behavior, you won’t be disappointed.

5.) Decide to forgive. Once you make that choice, seal it with an action. If you don’t feel you can talk to the person who wronged you, write about your forgiveness in a journal or even talk about it to someone else in your life that you trust.

6.) Forgive God and forgive yourself. The act of forgiving includes forgiving God if you are angry with him for what happened and how your life has turned out because of the offense. We often need to forgive ourselves also for any way in which the wrong we have received has affected us or our other relationships.

Image Credit: Public Domain via Rawpixel

Suffering and Forgiveness: Lessons from Corrie Ten Boom

“Forgiveness is the Christlike suffering which it is the Christian’s duty to bear” (Deitrick Bonhoeffer).

That stings.

No one likes bearing suffering. The idea that Jesus has made suffering a part of Christian life that we can’t escape doesn’t make it easier. In fact, I’ve seen this idea lead to anger at Jesus.

Corrie ten Boom, born on April 15, 1892 in Haarlem, Netherlands, also didn’t find it easy, even as she preached the Gospel message of love and forgiveness. You may recognize her name as she was the author of the very popular book The Hiding Place. The Ten Boom family had decided to hide Jews in their home during the Occupation when a woman in May 1942 knocked on their door asking for refuge. The father readily took her in although the police headquarters was only half a block away. The whole family worked in the Resistance until on February 28, 1944, a Dutch informant, Jan Vogel, told the Nazis about the Ten Booms’ work. A little after noon that day, the Nazis arrested the entire Ten Boom family.

In September 1944, the Nazis deported Corrie and Betsie ten Boom to the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women in Germany. Life at Ravensbrück was almost unbearable, but Betsie and Corrie spent their time sharing Jesus’ love with their fellow prisoners. There, they held worship services after the hard days at work by using a Bible that they had managed to smuggle into the camp. Through the two sisters’ teachings and examples of unfailing charity, many of the prisoners there converted to Christianity. While they were imprisoned at Ravensbrück, Betsie and her sister began to discuss plans for founding a place of healing after the war. Betsie’s health continued to deteriorate, and she died on 16 December 1944 at the age of 59. Before she died, she told Corrie, “There is no pit so deep that He [God] is not deeper still.” Twelve days later, Corrie was released because of a clerical error. Corrie Ten Boom returned home amid the “hunger winter.” She still opened her doors to people with disabilities who were in hiding for fear of execution.

After the war, ten Boom advocated reconciliation as a means for overcoming the psychological scars left by the Nazi occupation. In her presentations after World War II when she sought to be a voice of healing, Corrie used to say to people who came up to her with their own stories of bitterness and non-forgiveness, “Can you forgive this person?”

When they said they couldn’t, or that they didn’t know how they could ever forgive the person who had hurt them, she would reply, “No? I can’t either. But God can.”

Sounds kind of pollyannish doesn’t it? I remember, though, one time in confession telling the priest that I couldn’t forgive someone under whom I had suffered for many years. And I had tried, seriously tried, to forgive for many years. Again and again. His words broke the cycle of my struggles that seemed to be getting me nowhere. “Yes you can,” he said to me. “You can forgive because Jesus makes that possible, Jesus who died on the cross for you and for them.”

They were words backed up with grace and rooted in the ground of truth.

Maybe instead of talking about whether or not we have forgiven, we should instead acknowledge in our whole life we are simply learning how to forgive, learning how to love enough to bear this responsibility of being the forgiving and merciful Jesus in the world today.

After the war, Ten Boom returned to the Netherlands to set up a rehabilitation center in Bloemendaal. The refuge housed concentration-camp survivors and until 1950 exclusively sheltered jobless Dutch who had collaborated with the Germans during the Occupation, after which it accepted anyone in need of care. She returned to Germany in 1946 and met with and forgave two Germans who had been employed at Ravensbrück, one of whom had been particularly cruel to Betsie. Ten Boom went on to travel the world as a public speaker, appearing in more than 60 countries. She wrote many books during this period.

In a story run in Guideposts in the year 1972, Corrie Ten Boom narrates how she came to realize that she herself was still learning to forgive.

She had just finished speaking in a church in Munich. It was 1947 and she had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. As people filed out of the basement, a heavy-set balding man clutching a felt hat between his hands approached the front of the room where she stood.

As soon as she saw him, it came back with a rush. This man had been a guard in the large room at Ravensbrück where the newly arrived women had to undress and leave their clothes and shoes in a pile. In shame they had been forced to walk naked past this man. Now he stood there, pathetic himself, humbled.

“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he said. “I was a guard in there. But since that time I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein, …” his hand came out, … “will you forgive me?”

Corrie stood there, frozen, ice clutching at her heart. Her sister had died at Ravensbrück. Did this man think that he could erase her slow terrible death simply by asking for forgiveness. She wrestled in her heart with the most difficult thing she had ever had to do.

Finally, after what had seemed hours but which were probably just seconds, she remembered that forgiveness is an act of the will not the emotions. She prayed silently to Jesus for help. She told him, “I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You, Jesus, must supply the feeling.”

In her own words recorded in the story in Guideposts, Corrie said, “And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’ For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”

What forgiveness is not

Forgiveness is not easy. We can only forgive because God has forgiven us. It is only by experiencing forgiveness ourselves, that we can understand how precious it is to give this gift to another. We all have received the mercy of God. He has forgiven our sins, washed them away—even though we don’t deserve it. This is why St Paul can say in the letter to the Ephesians: “Let all  bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Eph 4:31-32).

Forgiveness is not an emotion, it is an act of the will. As Corrie faced the gentleman who had been a guard when she had been at Ravensbrück, her heart’s thermometer was cold, small, frightened. Even though she preached forgiveness with her actions and her words, even though she knew that she had been forgiven by God and needed to respond to this person before her asking for her forgiveness, her heart’s reactions didn’t correspond to what her mind knew. She simply asked Jesus’ help and, by an act of the will, stuck out her arm and asked God to do the rest. What she experienced—“I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then”—was God’s action within her. It was gift. She received in her own spirit the divine love and mercy that characterized the heart of God.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. The expectation that we will forget the person and actions through which we have been hurt is called denial. I’m sure Corrie was haunted all her life by what she had experienced in the concentration camp and by the slow death of her beloved sister Betsie. Her prayers, her encouragement to others, her preaching, her actions to provide places of healing for those who had suffered as she had in the concentration camps, as heroic as they may have been, were softened and sifted and saturated by her own struggles with memories, heart-movements of loss and grief, flashbacks and psychological struggles, as well as her desire and determination to be a person of reconciliation.

Forgiveness doesn’t excuse the wrong. Forgiveness doesn’t say that what was done doesn’t matter. If it didn’t matter, then there would be no need of forgiveness. Instead, forgiveness respects and reverences what has happened and the deep wound it has caused. Forgiveness says: “I know what you did. It hurt. It damaged me. It wounded me in ways that I may bear for the rest of my life. But I won’t hold it against you.”

Forgiveness is not reconciliation. In any number of ways, Corrie had forgiven those who had destroyed her family and her Jewish brothers and sisters. She encouraged others to forgive them. She had run a rehabilitation for concentration-camp survivors which until 1950 exclusively sheltered jobless Dutch who had collaborated with the Germans during the Occupation. She travelled to Germany to meet with and forgive two Germans who had been employed at Ravensbrück. That night, however, in the basement of the church in Munich, God asked her to go a step further. Reconciliation requires repentance. In this case, the former guard who approached her had repented and had even become a Christian. He extended a hand and asked her directly for forgiveness. There are many times that we may forgive, but reconciliation at that point is not a question. There is no repentance. It would be dangerous or unhealthy to reconcile with an individual who could continue to hurt us. There are other times, however, when we can offer this reconciliation. In Corrie’s case, she probably never saw this man again. When we take that next step of reconciliation, it doesn’t mean that we are required to resume friendships or move back in with the offending individual. We can reconcile without putting ourselves in the position of being hurt again, particularly when we ourselves haven’t healed sufficiently to create and enforce clear and healthy boundaries.

What forgiveness is

For us, forgiveness is a matter of becoming capable, of being given the power, to disrupt the cycle of continued wrath and suffering we experience as inevitable. Forgiveness is always going to be demanding, costly, and a freely chosen effort. Others cannot tell us when and how we must forgive. No one but we ourselves can require us to forgive.

As we wrestle with forgiving, here are three things that will help us open to God’s grace:

  1. Pay attention to how thoughts about the person make it more difficult to forgive. Take your mind off of the person. Don’t give yourself the luxury of grumbling. Don’t justify yourself or feel sorry for yourself. Don’t imagine ways you could get even. When you see those thoughts coming in for a landing just tell them that there is no place for them in your heart.
  2. Remember that you yourself have been forgiven any number of times. Recall a time when God has shown you his love and let you start again. Remember a time when someone else has shown you mercy. Ask God to help you call to mind times when you have needed forgiveness just as any other sinner. Practice being grateful for the mercy you have shown by the Lord.
  3. Whenever the person who has hurt you comes to mind say the words “I forgive you” whether you feel it or not. Remember that forgiveness is an act of the will, and our emotions often deceive us. Just because we feel anger and hatred for another, our will can still choose to forgive, to at least say the words “I forgive you.” Ask the Holy Spirit to pour God’s love into your heart. When you are ready, you can take the next step of asking God to bless this person.

We can only offer ourselves to God’s action—to “seek, suffer (that is, allow), and trust.” And in that effort, God will supply for all that we fall short.

This article is the second in a series on forgiveness. Read Saint Rita: How to Choose Forgiveness.

Image: Luis Ángel Espinosa, LC via Cathopic

Saint Rita: How to Choose Forgiveness

When we’ve been hurt by others we may struggle with feelings of anger at being treated unjustly, fear of what will happen next, guilt over our part in what may have happened, and the seeming impossibility of reconciliation. And yet, as we stay up at night replaying what has happened, we may wonder at the cost of not reconciling:

The relationships broken. The difficulty of the situations we will be put in. Losing love, support, companionship, opportunity.

Have you been there? I know you have. And so have I. Many times.

In this series on forgiveness let’s find a way through the pain, learning how to navigate the swirl of inner chaos with the help of the saints, Scripture, and some spiritual activities that will make taking the leap into forgiving seem more desirable and possible.

Let’s start with Saint Rita. This amazing Italian woman born in 14th century Italy had a lot to forgive. As a child she had a deep love for prayer and more than anything else desired to become a nun. Her parents married her off instead.

Rita entered into marriage only to discover how harsh and cruel her husband Paolo Mancini was. She was married to him for 18 years and bore him two sons. Paolo had a terrible temper and was abusive.

The young mother sought to shield her two sons from Paolo’s influence and prayed that her husband would see what was happening to the family because of his rage. She hoped that her sons would not be as angry and violent as their father. Eventually, Paolo did have a change of heart and begged forgiveness from those whose suffering he had caused. However, Paolo had made many enemies in his life, and one day he was caught in an ambush and murdered.

Now Rita was a widow left with two sons in their early teenage years. The two boys vowed to avenge their father’s death and kill the man who had taken the life of their father. Rita prayed that they would not destroy their souls by taking revenge on the life of their father by murder. She even gave the Lord “permission” to take their lives if by doing so it would save their souls. Not long after her husband’s death her two teenage sons died of natural causes. Saint Rita nursed them in their final days and they begged her forgiveness.

After her sons’ deaths, the grieving widow and mother sought out the men who had murdered her husband and established reconciliation and peace with their whole family.

After losing her husband and sons, Rita joined the Augustinian nuns and her body is incorrupt to this day. She is invoked as the saint of impossible cases.

There are four things we can learn from Saint Rita to help us think about forgiveness in new ways:

  1. Forgiveness is a way of seeing. When harm has been done to us it is often hard to get outside the quagmire of our thoughts, imaginations, emotions, and our desires to make a quick decision to “set things right” or “feel at peace.” Saint Rita teaches us to take the long view. To see beyond what appears so abundantly clear to our eyes and our heart. Forgiveness requires us to see beyond fears, reactions, expectations, both our own and those of others. Forgiveness requires that we see the other who has hurt us as a person who is loved by God, potentially, at least, my brother or sister in Christ, always worthy of respect and love.  
  2. Forgiveness is a new way of imagining situations. We struggle with forgiving others at times because we are trying to protect ourselves or others from being hurt again. When we open ourselves to imagining the situation in new ways, forgiveness offers us new possibilities for alternate responses other than anger, revenge, and defensiveness. Like Saint Rita, we discover that what seemed to be a path of darkness and hopelessness suddenly becomes the place in which we are molded into the very person God has made us to be.
  3. Forgiveness is only possible for the courageous person. I have to admit that when I have succumbed to my feelings to want to “hit back” or “take out” someone or a group who has hurt me, I feel small and petty. And I feel this way even if I am convinced I am in the right. It takes a courageous person like Saint Rita to dream of new ways of thriving in the midst of a difficult and undeserved situation.
  4. Forgiveness is rarely a one-time event. We have to be honest about the damage that has been done to us by others who have hurt us. Even if we tell God that we forgive, even if we pray for the other person and for their success and holiness, even if we think we’ve moved on, we may have to revisit the situation and the wound again and again. Like Saint Rita, we touch the complexity of situations, how they ripple through the lives and experiences of other people we know and love, how we relive again and again what happened.

Forgiveness does not come spontaneously or naturally to people. Forgiving from the heart is heroic. Only the healing power of love can enable the wounded heart to experience the liberating power of forgiveness.

When we make the courageous choice to see and imagine our lives and the lives of the person who has hurt us differently, we weaken the ego’s monopoly on our perceptions and the tempest in our emotions gets put on pause for the slightest moment in time. Then miraculously we are enabled to release, to rest, to let go, to cease ruminating on the hurt and to have compassion instead on the wounded and the wounder. We are able with the grace of God to acknowledge and affirm the greater truth of who we are and who others most deeply are.

Next look at forgiveness: What Forgiveness Is…And What It Is Not

Image Credit: Public Domain Wikimedia Commons