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Julie VanSpall – Home Front

The infinite process of forgiveness 

Voices March 9, 2018

“Never slam the door of your heart shut,” says Father Eugene O’Reilly, who discusses God’s loving mercy and our call to be merciful, even in the face of hurt.  (Door in Florence, Italy. Submitted photo)

My last column on reconciliation was inspired by a Mission talk by Father Eugene O’Reilly. In his presentation, Father Eugene stressed our heavenly Father’s unlimited mercy and not only his ability, but his true desire, to forgive our sins.

In addition to outlining the fact that Christ died for our sins and was led to the cross for claiming that he could forgive them, Father Eugene also shared some of his personal stories.

One such story involved one of his three sisters who experienced a conflict with another sister. Following the deaths of their parents 18 years previous, she told her siblings that she wanted nothing to do with them and severed her family ties. 

Father Eugene didn’t know, or at least didn’t share, the details of what had happened, but his voice and his words bore deep pain. He shared the sorrow of realizing that his young nephew is now a grown man he doesn’t even know.

He went on to tell us that his estranged sister had recently phoned and left him a voicemail. Rather than reacting with joy, his initial reaction was one of frustration.  Father Eugene then reflected on the parable of The Prodigal Son.

As we know, in that story, the father readily celebrates the return of his lost son; however, the son who was faithful to the family becomes deeply distressed at the situation. First, he is upset that his brother has had the nerve to return in spite of his transgressions. Secondly, he can’t believe that his father is merciful, and willing to erase the slate, so to speak.

Using his own story as an example, Father Eugene illustrated the importance – and challenge –  of truly forgiving others. His powerful words have resonated with me ever since: “Never slam the door of your heart shut.”

Father Eugene’s family story and the words above really touched me because of an incident with a loved one of my own. After holding on to hurt for several years, I recently decided that in order to forgive I had to try to forget, and stop spending emotional energy on the situation. When Father spoke the words about never “slam[ming] the door …” I realized that in trying to protect myself from hurt that was exactly what I had done. Where is the forgiveness in blocking my heart to another? Where is Christ’s love there?

Father Eugene admitted that, in keeping the doors of our hearts open, we are at risk. We “may get hurt again,” but we should never completely shut people out. Christ understands that pain, and Christ modelled the fact that everyone – even those who crucified him – were deserving of mercy. In Father Eugene’s words, Christ pleads, “Look at my wounds … I, too, bear the wounds of (hurt).”

After reflecting on the importance of forgiveness, Father Eugene played and sang his own composition – a song I grew up singing at church – “Father, I Have Sinned.” I have the lyrics and notes of that song memorized, but I heard it with new awareness and emotion, as I realized how the words were impacting my own life.

Fortunately, I was blessed with an opportunity to chat privately with Father Eugene about our similar situations. Based on what he has experienced with his sister, he told me that he can forgive but he can never forget what has happened to him.

The slogan “forgive and forget” links these words together as advice for conflict solution, but I now realize that forgiving and forgetting are mutually exclusive actions.  Since I cannot truly forget the suffering I have endured, I must learn to accept that this is now a part of who I am. Although I have a natural instinct to protect myself, the best way to prevent my soul from hardening and injuring others is to embrace the future with a spirit of forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is not a finite process, but an ongoing state of being.  I must learn from the past and continually strive to adopt a forgiving disposition, through prayer and openness of heart. 

After all, I am also a sinner. I have hurt people; yet, the heavenly Father forgives me my trespasses, just as I must forgive those who trespass against me.