Paths to Forgiveness

Autumn LeavesYesterday I asked Pastor Chris Owens: “A central tenet of Christianity (at least in the “good parts version”) is forgiveness. Is that a topic you talk often on when advising people? Is that something a lot of people ask about? What do they ask? What do you say?”  Understandably, Chris asked me to be a little more specific, so here we go.

I was thinking about the role of rituals in coping with life’s hardships.  For example, we have a lot of such rituals to help us cope with loss and death, particularly religious rituals but also social and cultural ones.  Religious rituals may be couched in terms of helping the souls of the deceased leave this world white secular ones will talk about helping the living let go of the dead, but they tend to meet in the middle.

Creating rituals can help us orient ourselves, find the next step when we are at a loss for what to do, how to cope.  We may debate whether there really are seven stages of grief and what they are, whether they always occur and always in the same order, but at least we name our pain, and this helps us handle it.  This is denial.  This is bargaining.  This too shall pass.  Which is not so different in some ways from I sit shiva.  I offer a mass.  I light a candle.  It’s a little dot to help us make it to the next dot, put one foot in front of the other.

Or take the example of 12-step programs to help one struggle against addiction.  Although there are secular versions of this model, it’s far easier to find religious and especially Christian ones.  They don’t replace medical help, psychological counselling, etc. but they provide a framework. a path to walk, to make each step a little less daunting.

Rituals don’t have to be only for unpleasant, painful moments: we have secular and religious rituals for celebrations: birth, coming of age, marriage, thanks giving, etc.  I even turn making the morning coffee into a little ritual because frankly, before I’m caffeinated in the morning, it really helps to have a little step-by-step routine to get me to the first cup!

But I was thinking that for such an important social need, I don’t know any rituals that deal with the need to forgive.  Now, to be clear, I don’t mean the conscious decision to let go of a grudge for a slight or a quick word.  It seems to me that has more to do with bruised pride and voluntary forgetfulness of the offence.

No, I mean forgiving when you have been hurt, forgiving and letting go when the pain caused is still real; hence the close comparison with mourning. I frequently read admonitions to letting go of hate, resentment, etc.  There are probably some books out there somewhere that suggest steps in getting from Point A: Pain to Point B: Forgiveness, but they are certainly not as well known as rituals and processes to help with grieving.  And let’s face it, in a way we can “forgive” death for taking a loved one because in the end we know that it’s impartial, nothing personal, and we’ll all die some day.

But how do you let go of the pain caused by a loved one when the past cannot be changed, you’re hurting, but you genuinely want to reach forgiveness?

And what about the time factor; they say time wounds all heels heals all wounds, but what if this dulling doesn’t happen, or takes very long?  Can we do something positive to resolve issues and actively move towards forgiving, rather than waiting passively?

Tell me what you think, what you’ve read and heard on the topic!  I’m interested in constructive discussion and comparing perspectives.