For years, I have been preaching from the pulpit that forgiveness is the ultimate act of self-preservation. I have spoken at length for the need to forgive and seek forgiveness. I have spoken at length on the demand that Jesus has that we forgive fully. I have preached at length about the petition form the the Our Father, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Over the years, I have had to forgive horrible things done to me. However, it wasn't until the events of last week that so much of this hit home.
For those following this blog, you know that my parish church was desecrated. It turned out to be a recently registered parishioner who did the desecration. The timing of the desecration seemed to be the worst possible time: I found out hours before the opening of second session of Camp Maccabee, a camp for young men I run during the end of July. I was told by the bishop to stay at the camp and to not go home. These are all pertinent details, because it set up the classroom in which I would personally learn in greater depth the nature and necessity of forgiveness.
Under the best of circumstances, the camp I run is a pressure cooker. As director, the days are long and very busy. As director, I am in charge of food, finance, schedule, and whatever discipline comes my way. I joke that I just go into triage mode for two weeks. Week one went splendidly. We had added an extra day to the camp and new venues. It was very hot and humid and one of the venues was caught off guard. However, the staff and campers were great. I was gearing up for the second session. I was tired but ready to go for an even bigger group of campers and staff. Then a phone call from the county sheriff from home which began "Father, how much bad news can you take at one time?" sent me into a tailspin. I was to give 2 talks that night. I was torn between leaving and staying; a decision ultimately made by the bishop. Not being home did not make things go away. So now I had a packed schedule and a crisis away from the camp.
For 48 hours I struggled. I was angry. I was very angry and could not show that anger lest the campers and staff think that anger was directed towards them. I told the staff right away and the campers about 30 some hours later. I was doing a poor job of suppressing the anger. It was then it occurred to me just how much time and energy anger drains. My parish and camp needed me to be clear headed; that wasn't happening as long as I harbored anger. I could either give up the camp or the anger. That was the choice. I chose to give up the anger, but it wouldn't be so easy. It rained a lot, which meant tweaking the schedule over and over again. The power to the walk-in cooler was switched off and we ended up losing a lot of food. Thankfully the staff and campers were as good as gold. On the parish front, real good leadership took the pressure off of me. The diocese had been giving me good advice and guidance. These were important to recognize, because anger blinds us to the good.
Anger is a demanding lover. It wants all your time and all your energy. It feeds from them and grows as it is fed. It is a cancer that blinds towards any solutions. I knew I had to quit feeding the anger. Though I had made many posts exhorting my parishioners to forgive, I had not reached that place yet. I wasn't mad at the woman who had desecrated the church. I wasn't mad at God. I had this anger looking for a home...wandering like demon in the desert. I wanted it no longer. I understood as I never had before just much anger holds us back and keeps us disconnected from reality. It took a change of focus for me. It became a matter of where my focus was: on good or evil...on the blessings that were surrounding me or the bitterness that nipped at my heart. I actively chose to focus on the good. It didn't take much: all around me in the parish, diocese, and camp were acting admirably. I could see not just God's blessings, but the way out as well. With the focus changed, my heart healed and the focus could be about a restoration...not a desecration.
What is true for what happened to me is true for all. We all have horrible things happen to us. Sometimes we were the intended victim, sometimes we are collateral damage. The quickness to healing is directly proportional to our willingness to heroically forgive. Nowhere are we asked to condone the violence done to us, only to no longer hold it against the attacker. As long as we hold it against the attacker, then the attacker has taken up residence in our heads rent free. Worse yet, inflicting revenge for the attack only serves to keep the cycle of hurt and alive and growing. Vengeance feeds the beast of anger. Forgiveness slays this beast and frees us from the slavery of feeding him. Forgiveness frees us to once again love. Love is the ultimate defiance to evil.
We live in a world of rage. Our politics in this country are little more than distilled rage. We are told who to hate, who to show no mercy, who to blame for our own shortcomings in life. Anger loves victimhood. Anger feeds on the perpetually offended. Anger gorges on the vengeful. It dominates the lives of those who feed it. We can not be free and slaves at the same time. Forgiveness is indeed necessary to our freedom as followers of Jesus Christ. Forgiveness is a natural byproduct of the theological virtue of love. Hence, the multiple teachings of Christ on the necessity to forgive so as to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. If we want to move into the future as free men and women, we must forgive all who have harmed us and seek forgiveness for those we have harmed.