Earlier this month my wife Maria pointed out to me a very beautiful paragraph on forgiveness by Romano Guardini included in one of the daily readings (Meditation for Nov. 12) in the November issue of Magnificat. Remembering that I had the book (The Lord) in the basement, I searched it out to read further—from Chapter XIII.
After reviewing the relevant line of the text of the Our Father and some commentary on it in Matt. 6:14-15 (But if you do not forgive men, neither will your father forgive you your offenses), Matt. 18: 21-2 (Forgive 70 times 7 times) and Matt 18: 35 (the story of the king settling accounts with the heartless servant who was forgiven but would not forgive a lesser debt), he begins his analysis.
He points out that Christ himself, earlier in the same chapter of Matthew, discusses what is to be done with someone who refuses to see or to admit his wrongs. Guardini writes:
It is up to you to straighten him out. If it is you he has injured, you must not simply ignore him in a mood of irritated moral superiority, but must go to him and do everything possible to make him understand and be willing to clear things up. If you come to him condescendingly, or pedantically, or in the role of the ethically superior, he will only consider you presumptuous. His opposition to your claims will entrench itself against the real injustice of your Pharasaic attitude, and the end will be worse than the beginning. Therefore, if you wish to obey Christ, you must free yourself of all ‘righteous’ indignation. Only if you forgive entirely, can you contact the true self of the other, whom his own rebelliousness is holding back. If you can reach this better self, you have a good chance of being heard, and of winning your brother. This then is the great doctrine of forgiveness which Christ insists as one of the fundamentals of his message.
Then he asks what must we overcome in ourselves to be capable of such genuine and complete forgiveness, and proceeds to analyze interior obstacles with a very profound grasp of human psychology. In my reading of the chapter, he cites four “levels” of obstacles within us hindering our ability to forgive, in ascending order:
1) in the domain of the purely natural—and with parallels even on the animal level—the sentiment of having to do with an enemy, the sense of the something hostile making me vulnerable. Guardini writes:
This is also true of fallen man, deeply enmeshed in the struggle for existence. He who injures me or takes something valuable from me is my enemy, and all my reactions of distrust, fear, and repulsion rise up against him. I try to protect myself from him, and am able to do this best by constantly reminding myself of his dangerousness, instinctively distrusting him, and being prepared at all times to strike back….
On this level, then, forgiveness would mean overcoming these sentiments: a) first by letting go of this response of natural animosity, despite the fact that it seems to be my only sure defense, and b) by overcoming my fear and risking defenselessness in the knowledge that the other cannot really damage my inner self—only I can do that. He acknowledges that it is self-evident that I still must protect myself from further damage from the offender on other levels, but I must find the courage to forgive—“a profound and weighty thing.” But “its prerequisite is the courage that springs from a deep sense of intimate security,…for the genuine pardoner actually is stronger than the fear-ridden hater.”
2) On a slightly more ‘human’ level, he says, the next obstacle would be the desire for revenge, springing not from “mortal danger,” but from “the danger of loss of power or honor” following the other’s offense or damage to me, which seemed to show that he was stronger than I. The impulse to retaliate seeks to restore my self-respect “by humiliating my enemy. I would rise by the other’s fall.” Therefore , to genuinely forgive him would mean to “renounce this satisfaction” and requires “a self-respect independent of the behavior of others….”
3) A third obstacle to forgiveness, now “one step closer to spiritual value,” is the desire for justice—the proper ordering of human relations:
When someone does me an injustice, he disturbs that order there where it most vitally affects me, in myself. This is what arouses me…. [T]he just order is primarily protective.
Here, he says, forgiveness would mean a) first, renouncing the right to administer justice oneself, leaving it to the proper authorities or to providence—i.e., ultimately to God—and this is “the beginning of self-purification;” and b) secondly, going all the way to real pardon, which is “relinquishment of the wish to see punishment meted out at all.” In this second step, he says,
one enters upon the open country of freedom. There too order [i.e., justice] exists, but of a different kind. It is not the result of weights and measures but of creative self-conquest [and] magnanimity…. Forgiveness reestablishes order by acquitting the offender and thereby placing him in a new and higher order of justice.
Then he gets to the heart of the matter—and takes it very seriously, not sliding over it or taking it for granted in a superficial way:
But why should we act thus? The question really deserves to be posed. Why forgive? Why not simply reestablish justice? Wouldn’t it be better? One answer is: forgiveness is more human. He who insists on his rights places himself outside the community of men. He would judge of men rather than be one of them, sharer of the common fate. It is better to remain within the circle of humanity and broaden heart and mind. Prerequisite is an innate altruism….
4) However, here we meet with a fourth obstacle, i.e., false modes of altruism or “charity”—yielding thereby false modes of forgiveness, i.e., sham forgiveness. He says that if we know people who proclaim or attempt such idealistic behavior “we also know how often it is accompanied by negative characteristics, by weakness, lack of dignity, indiscriminate negligence, disregard for truth and justice, even sudden outbursts of cruelty and vengefulness….”
Yet, despite all this, despite all the obstacles and false highways and byways, we are still called to true charity, true mercy, and true forgiveness and must not let ourselves be turned away by these false modes. “Only forgiveness frees us from the injustice of others.” Guardini concludes:
“[God’s] pardon is pure grace, which is not founded on our worthiness, but creates it. A priori, however, is the opening of the heart for divine magnanimity: our readiness to forgive “our debtors.” If we close it instead, we shut God’s forgiveness out.
Briefly, forgiveness is a part of something much greater than itself: love. We should forgive, because we should love. That is why forgiveness is so free; it springs from the joint accomplishment of human and divine pardon. Like him who loves his enemies, the pardoner resembles the Father….
Pardon reestablishes Christian fraternity and the sacred unity of the I-you-he (God). He who reasons from this height considers his neighbor’s welfare precious,…and just as God longs to win the lost one back…, the Christian longs to help his brother to return to the community of sacred life.
Christ is forgiveness incarnate. We search in vain for the slightest trace of any reaction of his incompatible with pardon.
And now we touch bottom: God’s forgiveness did not occur as a mere pardon, but came as a result of Christ’s expiation. He did not cancel man’s sin but reestablished genuine justice. He did not simply tear up man’s frightful debt, but repaid it—with his own sweat and blood and tears…. [This is] the foundation of our whole Christian existence…. We cannot enjoy the fruits of salvation without contributing to salvation through love of neighbor. And such love must become pardon when that neighbor trespasses against us, as we constantly trespass against God.
But this means, if we go back to the beginning and re-read the first quote from Guardini above, that the offended one must even reach out to the offender, “not ignore him” but take the initiative and “must go to him and do everything possible to make him understand and be willing to clear things up.”