While Southwest airlines allows you to “select your own seat,” I am confident that it was not I who selected my seat on a recent return to Alton. As the flight began, the woman next to me inquired about the book I was reading. I explained the title and summarized the contents saying, “It deals with what it means to receive God’s love and from that receptivity, learning to love one’s neighbor.” She followed with hard questions about suffering, death, grief, and forgiveness, sharing her story about her son’s tragic death with honesty and vulnerability. It was clear that there was a great deal of hurt, resentment, anger, and a dire need to forgive and experience forgiveness. Thanks to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and the providence of the recent lectionary cycle at daily Mass, we carried on this conversation for almost the entirety of the two-and-a-half-hour flight during which I was able to share the Gospel (literally) and some insights on forgiveness that I found practical and effective.
Just two days prior, the selection of the Gospel of Matthew proclaimed at daily Mass was Jesus teaching his disciples to pray, giving them the words of the Our Father. The homilist that day focused on the fact that after doing so, Jesus reiterated a challenging aspect of the prayer, namely that “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Matt. 6:15). The priest then led the congregation in what he called a “microwave” forgiveness session. He invited us to picture a person that has hurt us and to visualize him at his judgment; as he stands before God, God looks to us and asks, “What should I do with him? Should I let him in?” While we imagined that scene, he challenged us to make our own the words of St. Stephen for his executioners, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). This helps us to understand that forgiveness means to see a person as more than his sin, to know what he has done and to know that he is more than that action and more than the hurt inflicted. It was a powerful exercise, and one that I shared with the woman on the plane.
But forgiveness is a complex reality. It’s not always a “one and done” scenario. There are often layers of hurt and one might need to forgive the same person for the same thing multiple times. Forgiveness is an act of the will, but it needs to go as deep as the hurt, which is usually nestled in the depths of the heart. An image that the priest gave in his homily was that of a spiral staircase he once saw that led to a small Eucharistic chapel. He relayed that each time we choose to forgive, we ascend closer to the heart of Christ. The “70x7” that Jesus speaks of in the Gospels is sometimes forgiving the same hurt “70x7” times. Ultimately, our human hearts are incapable of forgiving on our own. It is only capable of forgiveness when it is united to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and in fact, when our hearts are transformed to be his heart in the world. Only in this way can we truly “make the merciful love of Christ visible,” and indeed to live the spiritual work of mercy forgiving injuries.
As we began our descent into St. Louis, I ripped out the pages of my Magnificat on which that Gospel was found along with the notes I made in prayer after hearing that homily and gave them to my new friend. My prayer is that the Lord will give her his heart so that in experiencing his mercy and healing, she can share that with the next person with whom she sits on her next Southwest flight.
- Sister M. Karolyn, FSGM