The Personalist Project

Something about the following anecdotes bothers me. They come from a well-known and highly-respected Catholic priest, in a post about the problem of self-righteousness—how we can't receive forgiveness if we don't acknowledge our need for it. I agree with him on that point. But the examples he chooses to illustrate it seem to me to illustrate something very different instead—something more like the way we easily substitute the reality of repentance and forgiveness with a formulaic program that protects us from actually having to engage in either. We eschew the real demands of Christianity in favor of much less-costly and easier-to-achieve "acts of will," while imagining ourselves to be behaving in an irreproachable way. Here are the anecdotes:

Some time ago I had a bust up with a colleague. He walked into my office and insulted me straight up. It was real ugly. He accused me of stuff of which I was innocent.

So I asked him to sit down. Although I was furious I said, “You have just insulted me very badly. You’ve said I am a bad priest and that I don’t care for my people. You’ve implied that I use parish money to fund my own lavish lifestyle. None of this is true. You have seriously offended me. You have hurt my feelings and wounded our relationship. Are you able to apologize?”

He said, “I have nothing to apologize for.”

“Let me correct you. You do indeed have something to apologize for. Even if you did not mean to offend, you did. You insulted and offended me openly. Are you able to apologize so that I can forgive you?”

“I have done nothing wrong.”

I asked a third time and was rebuffed.

This mirrored an incident I had with someone else a few years ago. I had insulted him. I did it inadvertently, but it was a serious offense. When he called me on it I said, “You’re right. I was wrong. I apologize. Please forgive me.”

He was silent.

I apologized twice more and he made no response. I finally said, “I’m having a problem here. I have offended you and I’m sorry. I apologized sincerely, but you have refused to offer forgiveness. Can this  be so?”

His reply was, “I do not feel that you have shown sufficient remorse.”


I will go so far as to say I think both stories, as told, display the marks of the master/slave dynamic cleverly disguised as Christian rectitude.

Let me hasten to add that I am aware I could be wrong. Having suffered a lot in similar scenarios, I have become extremely sensitive to this dynamic—perhaps too sensitive. Very possibly the good priest here conveys things he didn't mean, and/or fails to convey vital nuances that were really present in the concrete interactions he describes, so that these anecdotes are no just accounts of what really took place. And possibly I'm reading things into them that aren't really there. 

Still, I'm going to try to show what comes across to me in these stories, with the aim of helping uncover a bad habit-of-approach among staunch Catholics today. (It's intimately linked to the general problem of closed-heartedness on "the religious right" that Pope Francis has been urgently pressing on our attention for two years now.) I'm going to do it by pretending that the "I" in the anecdotes is me. (This is easy to do, since I have myself so often thought and felt and spoken the way this priest does in them.)

First: The Christian mystery of repentance and forgiveness is all about vulnerability; it's about opening our hearts—exposing our selves—putting ourselves at the disposal of another human being who might hurt us. It's about transcending our ego and letting go of control—allowing the protective crust around our hearts be "pierced", for the sake of love and communion. It isn't achieved by a formula of words or a disembodied "act of will." It can't be had without pain. It's usually a work of time and grace.

Human beings (especially those on the "master" side of relationships in our fallen condition) don't like being vulnerable. We don't like humbling ourselves. We shrink from suffering. We dread letting go of control—over our emotions, our situations, and the people we're dealing with. We want to stay in charge.

So, a clear, practical program for dealing with "repentance and forgiveness issues" comes in very handy for us. We know our duty; we know the other person's duty. All that remains is to implement the program, which we do willingly (even though it's not always easy), because we're committed Christians, who understand that our sins won't be forgiven unless we forgive others' sins against us.

So I asked him to sit down. Although I was furious I said, “You have just insulted me very badly. You’ve said I am a bad [mother] and that I don’t care for my [children]. You’ve implied that I [spend recklessly on myself.] None of this is true. You have seriously offended me. You have hurt my feelings and wounded our relationship. Are you able to apologize?”

I imagine I've acquitted myself very well in this extremely unpleasant encounter: I haven't lost control. Instead of insulting him back or punching his lights out, I asked him to sit down, calmly pointed out his offenses, and invited him to engage with me in the repentance and forgiveness program called for in the Gospels. I've done all that can be expected of the offended party.

In reality, though, I've thrown up a protective shield around my heart and my ego; I have declined to be receptive toward him; I have even, in fact, tried to control him. To see it, notice, first, what I didn't do.

1) I didn't take any time to feel my real feelings and let them teach me what they can about myself and my accuser. 

2) I didn't take any time to absorb and consider his charges; I dismissed them out of hand. 

3) I made no effort at all to get to the bottom of his offensiveness—to find out why he thought what he thought and said what he said. Did he have reasons or was he lashing out over something else hidden? Could there be any truth in his accusations? Was there a misunderstanding that I might clear up? Or was there a wound in him crying out for attention? I never asked him any questions. I was too sure that he was out of line and I am innocent of his charges.

Now notice what I did do.

1) I hid my real feelings from him.

2) I corrected him.

3) I made myself his instructor and superior, telling him what to do.

4) I pretended that there was nothing further I could do to restore friendly relations between us unless and until he acted appropriately toward me first.

In short, I expressed no vulnerability; I displayed, on the contrary, a pronounced unwillingness to be vulnerable. I "mastered" myself, the situation, and him. The opportunity for genuine communion between us provided by this occasion was lost, not through his refusal to repent, but through my refusal to open myself to him.

I would have been being much more real, more human, more honest with him and myself, if I had burst into tears or lost my temper. Or, I could have said something like, "Those are horrible, ugly things you're accusing me of! I'm too upset right now to talk about it. Please leave, before I say or do things I'll regret."

Then I could have gone to the chapel and poured out my pain and indignation to God. I could have asked Him to search my heart and show me if there was any truth in what I had just heard; I could have asked Him to teach me how to deal with my gall (which was putting me in mind of what Jesus' must have had to endure); I could have renounced my urge to get even; I could have repented my defensive reaction and begged Him to purify me by His grace; I could have offered the agitation I was suffering for the consolation of the Sacred Heart, or for the good of my accuser, or both. And I could have cried bitter, cleansing tears.

Any and all of these things would have served to soften and open my heart, preparing it for the possibility of genuine reconciliation later, if the opportunity arose.

Meanwhile, my accuser, having leveled his accusations and having experienced my honest reaction—having seen that I am wounded and angry, and having heard that I deny his charges—now has a chance to reflect on what he's said and done. If he cares about me and our relationship, he will ask himself whether he's done well, whether he's been just. Maybe, once he's calmed down and re-centered himself, he'll realize that he hasn't been, and he'll come back to me with sincere contrition. He'll apologize because he's truly sorry, and he'll find me ready to listen and forgive. We'll be closer than we were before.

If he doesn't care about me or about the truth of the matter, though; if he only wanted to hurt me or boost his ego or discharge his own inner tension, there can be no reconciliation between us, at least for the time being. Reconciliation takes two hearts that are genuinely open to each other.

But I can do my part regardless of whether he does his. It may take time (especially if he persists in his falsehoods and denial), but, with the help of grace, I can come to forgive him from my heart and sincerely desire his good. I can even come to believe that he has done me a genuine service, by helping me shed certain illusions and become more humble and self-aware, say. I can sincerely pity the condition he's in (perhaps through no fault of his own) and hope for his recovery—even pray and make sacrifices for his full restoration. I can treat him kindly when we meet, and hope he'll eventually come around. Either way—whether he opens his heart to me or not—my own heart is more open now for genuine love and communion with God and others.

If, on the other hand, we had followed the program I had laid out for us, wherein (without allowing any time, absorption or reflection) he says, "I apologize," and I say, "I forgive you," none of that would have happened. We might have accomplished the appearance of reconciliation, but It would have been a case of rending our garments, not our hearts. 

Now let's turn to the second scene.

I had insulted [a friend]. I did it inadvertently, but it was a serious offense. When he called me on it I said, “You’re right. I was wrong. I apologize. Please forgive me.”

He was silent.

I apologized twice more and he made no response. I finally said, “I’m having a problem here. I have offended you and I’m sorry. I apologized sincerely, but you have refused to offer forgiveness. Can this  be so?”

His reply was, “I do not feel that you have shown sufficient remorse.”

Once again I think I am doing the correct thing, the appropriate thing for a committed Christian.

But, in fact, I am failing to do the genuine, human thing—the "one thing necessary" in a situation like this. I am failing to open my heart to my friend, neglecting to attend to the wound I've caused. I've declined to put myself at his disposal as a human being who has done wrong and owes recompense. Implicitly, I'm instead demanding that he be at my disposal; that he get with my program. "I've done my part, now you do yours or I will be fully justified in judging you guilty of shocking sin." (I might even use you as an example in a column on the "unforgivable sin" of refusing to forgive.)

Notice that I never really considered the possibility that he is right—that I'm not showing him due remorse. I never asked what I might do to persuade him of my sincerity and my desire to repair the damage I've done. Instead, I've taken it for granted that, having said the correct words sincerely, I'm entitled to be forgiven. When he hesitates, I'm appalled. I immediately shift the moral attention in the conversation from me and my wrongdoing to him and his failure to forgive. 

Once again, I have "mastered" him and the situation. The missed chance for true communion is down to my lack of receptivity, not to his unforgiveness.

Imagine if instead, on his first refusal to accept my apology, I had paused, said a quick, silent prayer ("God come to my assistance!"), and consciously opened myself further to the distressed person in front of me—accepting to receive back some of the pain I had caused him. Suppose I softened my voice and said something like. "I must have hurt you more than I realized." Or, "Help me. Show me what I can do to make things right between us. I really care about you and I feel terrible about what I did."  

Such vulnerability might have won him over. Even if it hadn't, it still would have been right and good. It would have tenderized my heart. It would have served to make me more genuinely humble and contrite, more conscious of the damage I to do others through my thoughtlessness. If I had gone to God with my perplexity over the situation, maybe He would have inspired me with creative ideas for making amends. The stage would have been set the stage for our eventual reconciliation...

There's much more to say on this subject, but this is already long. Just three quick points in conclusion:

1) It takes time to get over an injury, especially a serious injury. The deepest and greatest achievements of the soul are usually slow growth events. That process, whether in ourselves or another, deserves respect and patience. It's inhumane, interfering, and impertinent to demand that someone arrive at a far-off destination without spending any time on a journey. 

2) The fact that someone else won't get with our program doesn't mean he isn't repenting or forgiving. It may mean that he senses that we're not really open to him, and he's unwilling to participate in a sham. He's holding out for the real thing. 

3) About vulnerability: I am not entirely sure about this, but I think there are times when it's called for and times when it isn't. We may have honestly done all we can to open ourselves in a given situation or relationship, and find that, for whatever reason, the other person's heart is not open to us or to the truth of the wrong standing between us. In such a case, there is nothing for us to do but commend him to God and "move on," hoping for a breakthrough "in the fullness of time." To be vulnerable in such a case would be to invite fresh offenses—like a battered wife who keeps going back—adding to our injuries and his guilt. [For more on what I mean by "moving on", see here.]  

What we can do, though, is be sad about the breach, and hope it will be healed one day. And we can keep practicing vulnerability with those who are open to us, steadily increasing our capacity for love and communion.

Comments (6)

Sam Roeble

#1, Feb 24, 2015 10:25am

At last, this is the best illustration of the master/slave hermeneutic yet. I think I finally understand it now, thank you!

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Feb 24, 2015 10:29am

Wow, what a great compliment! Thanks so much, Sam.

Jules van Schaijik

#3, Feb 24, 2015 12:53pm

I like the way you contrast having an open, vulnerable heart with the need to master oneself, the situation, and the other. It is so easy, both in theory and in practice, to confuse the self-mastery of the saints with the self-mastery of the stoics. Only the former is truly compatible with love, with tenderness, with losing oneself so as to gain oneself.

In one of his sermons, Newman speculates that

Perhaps the reason why the standard of holiness among us is so low, why our attainments are so poor, our view of the truth so dim, our belief so unreal…is this, that we dare not trust each other with the secret of our hearts. We have each the same secret, and we keep it to ourselves, and we fear that, as a cause of estrangement, which really would be a bond of union… We are amiable and friendly to each other in words and deeds, but our love is not enlarged… and we fear to let the intercourse begin at the root; and, in consequence, our religion… is hollow. The presence of Christ is not in it.

(Quoted in Crosby's book on Newman, which I'm discussing on the member page.)

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Feb 24, 2015 1:04pm

That Newman quote reminds me of something I read in Heather Kopp's book, Sober Mercies: How love caught up with a Christian Drunk, about her recovery from alcoholism. She realized part way through the process that although she'd been actively engaged in Christian ministry her whole life, it was through her AA group that she was experiencing true community for the first time.

You’d think a close-knit community like this would feel at least vaguely familiar to me, that it might be reminiscent of church in some way, or of small groups I’d been part of. But the particular brand of love and loyalty that seemed to flow so easily here wasn’t like anything I’d ever experienced, inside or outside of church. But how could this be? How could a bunch of addicts and alcoholics manage to succeed at creating the kind of intimate fellowship so many of my Christian groups had tried to achieve and failed?

Many months would pass before I understood that people bond more deeply over shared brokenness than they do over shared beliefs.

Later, I read at her blog that that last line was by far the most frequently highlighted and commented-on in her book.

Martha Blandford

#5, Feb 28, 2015 9:22pm

I think this is an important topic.  My spiritual director would be quick to point out the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.  I can, over time, forgive an offense knowing that this is God's will for me, and "what I should do" and, hopefully ultimately, what I want to do.  But reconciliation with the offender is different.  I do not have to choose reconciliation.  I do not have to "be friends" with this person who has hurt me.

Hypothetical situation:  I can forgive the person who abused my child, as difficult as that is to do, and it may take time.  But I do not have to keep them in the circle of my friends, or even acquaintances.  I can refuse them socially, and still forgive them.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Feb 28, 2015 10:26pm

Martha, so great to see you here!

I agree with you on the point. If an offender won't acknowledge his wrong, or otherwise reveals that he is untrustworthy and likely to offend again, then friendship and intimacy are impossible.

Communion entails reciprocity.

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