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.

4 thoughts on “Paths to Forgiveness

  1. I can follow you in the way you view rituals. They do have some importance, but not enough to violate any moral rule in order to preserve a ritual.

    But I do think that taking distance, both in time and physically, helps a lot in getting over heavy emotional pains. Alcohol helps as well, but I wouldn’t recommend it :D. But seriously, I don’t know any other way than taking as much distance from the cause as possible. As time passes, take physical distance, don’t talk about it etc. Those things seem very helpfull. I never really got the talktalktalk thing…

  2. Great, great thoughts and especially questions… Ritual is so very important, no matter the religion or non-religion. It’s a guide or a shepherd through phases of life. Like your morning coffee ritual– which I can very much relate to, by the way!– it’s a reliable, routine-based method to get you through that part of your day.

    In terms of ritual which moves people through the painful process of forgiveness and reconciliation, speaking from my arena as a Christian pastor, there are rituals we use especially during Lent to move through the forgiveness of wrong/sin. Certainly rituals within Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday do that. I’ve also created some of my own rituals that invite people to name an area of forgiveness (usually a person or circumstance). I’ve had people write down the name of a person or a painful circumstance which needs forgiveness, then walk it forward to place on the altar as a way of letting go of the burden and bondage of that hurt. The physical/emotional/spiritual steps of naming, writing, walking forward and letting go has been a powerful ritual. Now is that a cure all? Not at all, and I don’t expect it to be. But for some, that could be a very important step in moving towards full forgiveness and the peace that comes with it.

    In terms of forgiving ourselves (another huge area people struggle with), I’ve done something similar in which people write a sin or an area of struggle they’ve struggled to let go of and to place it on an altar or even nail it to a cross as a sign that God forgives them and that they also have the freedom to forgive themselves, too.

    As you know, oil is used quite a but in the church as a sign and means of conveying God’s healing. I’ve been a part of reconciliation meetings in which folks anointed each other with oil as a way of conveying healing, forgiveness and grace towards one another.

    And back to Holy Week, the footwashing ritual is a powerful, powerful ritual. I once saw a man, he was a judge, in fact, wash the feet of his family, and as he did, he asked their forgiveness for all of his anger and times of neglect and callousness. It was beautiful to watch and so healing for himself and his family.

    So… all that to say that at least from a Christian perspective, there are rituals and resources there. The key is intentionally, courageously and honestly using them, which admittedly doesn’t happen as often as it should. But as for me, I do my best to be open to God’s leading to use these things when they’re most needed.

    Again, Sophie, thank you for your thoughtful observations and questions!

    1. Dear Pastor Owens,

      Aren’t you sometimes afraid that rituals are for some people all there is left of religion? Like my good-Catholic grandmother once said: “I’m a Catholic because I’m raised to be a Catholic.” Nothing more, nothing less. Even now in her 80s she still goes to church. But don’t ask anything about the moral and existential questions religion tries to answer! Learning the Bible by heart, completely ignoring the importance of the mind.

      A professor of mine was member of the Masonic Lodge. Unlike most members, he was quite open about it. He also complained how people nowadays either ridicule the rituals or take them to serious and make them the essence of the gathering.

      Rituals as means either tend to become superfluous and ridiculed or they become the ends instead of the means. It’s hard to find the right position.

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