The Wounded Heart
“Time heals all wounds,” except when it does not. When we are hurt by someone, all too often, time makes a wound grow deeper and fester. The Divine Doctor, Jesus, gave us very clear instructions for the healing process: forgive the ones who hurt you. Yet for many Catholics, this is not striven for in their spiritual life. We have no rite, no ritual, no process that would guide us to forgive. Often, we focus our attention on God’s forgiveness of our sins, our own faults, and our hurtful actions towards others. While these are important, we are tempted to omit the other side of the coin: offering forgiveness to others.
The necessity of forgiveness is exemplified in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15). We usually and rightfully see ourselves as the Prodigal Son, the sinner who returns to the Father, but the story does not end there. It continues with the Father inviting the older son to join in his mercy and forgiveness; but the older son cannot forgive. He is hurt and protests the injustice of the Father’s Mercy. We also need to see ourselves as the older son. Where do we fail to see that the Father’s mercy asks us to forgive, too? Where has our hard work and service made us as proud as the elder son, hardening our hearts towards those who have hurt us?
What Is Forgiving?
Contrary to common belief, forgiving does not mean forgetting. It is rather about finding peace with the past and changing our emotions about a hurtful memory. Forgiving also does not mean condoning or excusing the hurtful action of the other. The hurt is real, no matter if the hurtful action was intentional or accidental. A forgiving person can still call for justice after a crime but will give up the “right” or desire for vengeance, which is a critical distinction. Forgiving is also not a feeling. When we are hurt, we suffer, we are angry, and we usually do not feel inclined to forgive. These initial feelings often come naturally and can be transformed by forgiving.
Forgiving is a choice, a decision to let go of the anger and to let go of our right for vengeance. It is the action of letting go of the pain and finding healing for our hearts and then, step by step, we can experience healing and attain emotional forgiveness. The choice and decision to let go is like the difference between clenching a fist and opening it. Clenching a fist in anger stops the blood flowing, as if getting ready to strike and retaliate. Opening the fist relaxes the body, lets the blood flow, and allows one to stretch out the hand to the other. The fist also symbolizes how we hold on to our right for vengeance. Vengeance is the desire to retaliate an offense manifold. In archaic cultures, vengeance for an offense was limitless: they killed one of us, we will kill a hundred of them. Homer’s epic Iliad tells such a story about a spurned lover, who in reaction attacks and destroys the whole city of Troy, taking countless innocent lives. Within this vicious cycle, the violence increases exponentially. The Old Testament limits the retaliation to a one-to-one ratio: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Compared to its archaic predecessor, this is a radical reduction of violence. Jesus Christ radically reduces the violence to zero and breaks the vicious cycle through the call to forgive. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Mt 5:39). Finding healing means that in forgiving we move forward trusting the Lord that our hearts can heal and find peace. Psychologically speaking, we trust that we can move from unforgiving emotions to emotional forgiveness, but this healing takes time and repetition.
Forgiving does not mean that we blindly open ourselves to getting hurt again. Keeping a distance from a perpetrator or finding justice through the law is often required. This does not mean, however, that we cannot forgive at the same time. On the contrary, the deeper the wound, the more important it is to forgive. Restorative justice proponent, Dionne Wilson, experienced one of the most extreme forms of hurt imaginable: her husband was murdered senselessly while on duty as a police officer. While the perpetrator was sentenced to death, Dionne experienced no satisfaction from that fact, but rather only suffocating anger and bitterness that had started to consume her life. She shared about experiencing sleeplessness, the inability to eat, work, or think about anything other than the horrendous crime. By taking steps to forgive the murderer and write to him, she was led on a path of healing and peace.
This folk tale might help us to understand. While working in the field, a snake bites a man. Angered by the snake, the man takes his hoe, chases after the snake for a while until he finally reaches it, then kills it. Afterwards, the man goes to the doctor, who tells him that the snake was venomous and that precious time has passed while the man was chasing the snake. The doctor informs him about an antidote, but it is too late to be applied, and the man dies. While being unforgiving, we are often chasing after the wrong thing just like the man in the tale. Instead of working to find healing, we seek vengeance, poison our hearts, waste precious time in our lives, and may keep this bitterness until the grave.
Jesus made a very strong case to forgive in many different Scripture passages: in the imperative to forgive seventy-seven times (Mt 18:21-22), the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18:23-35), the precedence of forgiving through prayer (Mk 11:25), and the precedence of reconciliation over liturgical sacrifice (Mt 5:23-24). We also ought to recall the words of the Our Father, so frequently part of our regular prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Reading the actual passage in the Bible, where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, reveals critical context to better understanding it. Right after the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus repeats and clarifies only one passage from the whole prayer, as if this passage would be most prone to be forgotten, misunderstood, or overlooked. It says in Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Clearly, this means that Christians must forgive before they ask God for his forgiveness and that forgiving facilitates God’s forgiveness to them.
In this regard, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a constant reminder that we need to forgive others first. The Catechism calls this a “strict requirement” (CCC 2838), stating that “in refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters, our hearts are closed and their hardness makes them impervious to the Father’s merciful love” (CCC 2840). At the same time, the sacrament can also help us to open our hearts to his grace and to forgiving (CCC 2840). In essence, both forgiving others and being forgiven in the sacrament, open our hearts and help us to strive towards the “unity of forgiveness” (CCC 2842). Thus, in forgiving others, we are not just following Christ, who helps us to forgive, but the Lord’s forgiveness also becomes a “living reality” in us (CCC 2843).
Pope Francis calls forgiving the “clearest expression of merciful love” and “an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves.” He says it is the “instrument placed in our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart” and that letting go of the anger, wrath, violence, and revenge is a necessary condition to live joyfully.
How to Forgive
There are various ways and instructions we can find on how to forgive. Forgiving usually involves a number of steps. A proper setting also helps the act of forgiving. In my experience from spiritual direction and youth ministry, one way to challenge Catholics to begin taking steps towards forgiveness is to plan an “evening of forgiving” with praise and worship, a teaching on forgiveness and testimonies, followed by the invitation to forgive right there, supported by spiritual directors. Regarding the concrete steps to forgive, I would suggest these six steps from my own ministry experience: realization, recollection, choice, act of forgiving, prayer for healing, and the renewal or release of the relationship.
Realization means to reflect on the fact that we do get hurt and that the way to healing is to forgive. This possibly involves rational thinking about the positive effects of forgiving and willing ourselves to obedience to the Lord’s command to forgive. Unforgiveness is the greatest obstacle to this step, as well as dominant narratives about the supposed importance to punish and retaliate when we are hurt.
Recollection means to recall the hurtful event. What happened? Who hurt me? What did he or she do? Why does it hurt? This is a crucial and painful step. It is imperative that the spiritual director does not play down the hurt of the event, nor excuse the perpetrator, nor dwell on what the forgiving person might also have done wrong in the course of events. Rather, the spiritual director should acknowledge the pain and that the person is hurt. This step is all about confronting what happened in a factual and emotional way, but without fleeing from it or fighting it.
The third step is to choose, to make the decision, to forgive. The state of unforgiveness, the bitterness, anger, and fear are again obstacles for this step. After the recollection, we might be inclined to hold on to the hurt as a form of debt, a righteousness in our anger. The decision to forgive must be made in spite of these emotions in the knowledge that over time and with repetition, healing will come and replace these emotions. This step can be very hard to take, since it often goes against common notions of justice or retaliation. In cases of doubt or hesitation, we can fully rely on Christ here, trusting his model, his words. and his guiding presence impelling us to forgive.
The next step is to carry out the act of forgiving itself. To make the decision a reality, it is essential to say the words out loud. This is comparable to the difference between promising that we will pray and actually praying. This act can be done by speaking the forgiveness for the perpetrator and naming the wrongful action: “I forgive [Name] for [what he or she did] ...” It is not necessary to do this in the presence of the perpetrator.
The next step is to pray for the healing of our hearts. This is a prayer to Christ to ask him for healing and peace, so that the decision to forgive, made over and over, will replace the emotions of anger, fear and bitterness with emotions of empathy, compassion, and love. Blessing the person who hurt us can be a first sign of this change of heart and keeps us faithful to the Lord’s command to “Pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44)
Lastly, we pray to either renew the injured relationship or to release ourselves from it. Bishop Desmond Tutu emphasizes this step from his many years of struggling to overcome apartheid in South Africa. In many cases, it is wise to keep some distance from a hurtful person who might take advantage of one’s good will. In other cases, it is important to renew a relationship and to take the initiative towards reconciliation. In either case, forgiveness brings peace to what was broken and allows us to move forward into the future, with or without the other person, depending on the circumstances.
Forgiving in Catechesis
It may be a challenge for catechists to teach about forgiving others. The above described “evening of forgiving” is one option. Other opportunities come with catechesis on the Gospel readings about forgiving others, which are plentiful during the liturgical year. Another opportunity arises when we teach about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which propels us to forgive others and vice versa. In my experience in youth ministry, it has been much easier for young people to understand the reality of sin after they reflected on others hurting them. That is why I always scheduled the unit on confession and sin after the unit on forgiving others.
Without good catechesis on this topic, the importance of forgiving others and tending to the wounds in our hearts might be easily overlooked. Just like when we visit the medical doctor, we can be tempted to ignore our hurt, to push it down, and to avoid the process of forgiveness and healing. We might tell ourselves that these wounds will heal by themselves; but all too often, they do not. The instructions from the Divine Doctor Jesus could not have been clearer; he commands us to forgive. Forgiving does not come without pain or without cost, yet it is the remedy to overcome the hurt, the anger, the bitterness, the fear, and to truly heal our hearts.
Dominik Gnirs is the Associate Director for Parish Campaigns in the Development Department of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and worked earlier in the Office of Religious Education. He holds a Magister in Theology from the University of Vienna, Austria.
 Dionne Wilson, Workshop “Who am I to judge?” at LA Religious Education Congress, 2015.
 Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus (April 11, 2015), own translation from the original Latin term: “remissio” = “forgiving.” In the official English version translated as “pardoning.”
 Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 145ff.
Photo: public domain image from Pixabay.com.