The Water of Forgiveness through the Still-Frozen Ground by Michael Ford
It wasn’t the telephone call I was expecting.
On the line was an elderly man I’d met only once. He reminded me that some years before he had been in touch about a project and had lost his cool. Clearly distressed, he told me that he had always regretted what he had said, even though I could only vaguely recall the episode. He said he had been unwell at the time and had not been himself.
Now he was dying from cancer and wanted to put things right.
As the man apologized for what he felt had been an error of judgment and asked for my forgiveness, I found myself deeply moved. I told him that, of course, I forgave him, words he so longed to hear. I said he should put the matter behind him and be at peace. His sense of relief at the end of the line was palpable.
We had one further conversation before he died, with what I hope was greater serenity than he might otherwise have had. The matter had been troubling him for years, but only in weakness did he find the inner strength to speak to me again.
Realizing we have been responsible for a breakdown in human relationships can burden us to an extraordinary degree, as our minds get tossed about in a sea of regret—and sometimes shame. We can’t put the clock back, no matter how much we would like to. But we can seek reconciliation.
Brother Roger Schutz, who founded the ecumenical community of Taizé, close to the medieval abbey of Cluny in central France, devoted his life to this cause. From the Burgundian hilltop, Brother Roger and his brothers opened up new roads to heal the divisions of Christianity. They believed that the undivided church was, in fact, the secret bedrock beneath all the divided churches. Unity had therefore to be discovered rather than built. As part of his mission, Brother Roger empowered young people from around the world to become “bearers of peace and reconciliation” in their own cities, towns, and villages.
Inspired by Saint Augustine of Hippo, Brother Roger wrote that Christian witness is always about making one’s life a reflection of the gospel. Communion with the living God touches what is most unique and intimate with the depths of our being. Only a life of communion with God can lead us to seek reconciliation and alleviate suffering. Moreover, the church doesn’t exist for itself but for the world, so it can place within it “a ferment of peace.”
Brother Roger encouraged his brothers to love their neighbors regardless of their political or religious beliefs, and never resign themselves to the scandal of the separation of Christians: “All who root their lives in forgiveness are able to pass through rock-hard situations like the water of a stream which, in early springtime, makes its way through the still-frozen ground.”
But there can be no peace in the world unless we have peace in our hearts. At confession, the priest’s words—“Your sins have been forgiven”—do indeed break the ice in our relationship with God and we can move forward with joy. In fact, even our physical health can improve after making a confession, for we are all holistic beings.
When I last heard those gently spoken words from the lips of an ordained monk in the confessional box of an abbey church in England, something definitely changed. I felt like a new person. The priest promised to pray for me and, after he pronounced absolution, I walked back to my pew as though something had been lifted. There was not only a spiritual release but also an emotional and physical freedom.
The forgiveness conveyed by the priest in such an ordinary, undramatic manner enabled me not only to understand God’s redeeming love for us in a more profound way but also to find the courage to forgive others less resentfully. If we have been hurt by someone or some institution, sometimes it can be very hard to let go of what has happened and what persists in hounding us, often in those strange, liminal hours before dawn. The monk hidden behind the grille really helped me relinquish something that had been holding me down.
It was not unusual in the culture of New Testament times, of course, for people to associate sickness with sinfulness. Jesus saw the mystery of suffering as inseparable from sin and estrangement from God. Times change and this is not the church’s teaching today. Indeed, in our highly psychologized culture, there tends to be more of a mind-body understanding of health which is not connected with sin: psychological burdens have been proven to result in physical pain—and chronic conditions at that.
Confessors often have a special charism. When I was researching the life story of Henri J. M. Nouwen, I visited the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York where I met Brother Christian. He described to me what Henri had been like as a confessor. “I’ll never forget it,” he said. “His voice was low, and he spoke of my failings. Boy! I walked out of there and felt it had been really something. One of the greatest times I ever made use of the sacrament of penance was with Henri Nouwen. It was a beautiful experience. He took about 45 minutes and had the ability to put me at rest. It wasn’t an easy 45 minutes. He didn’t do a lot of talking—neither did I. He just brought up the limitations and failings. That was Holy Saturday before the big day of the year. That was a tremendous experience.”
When Henri Nouwen was in Holland once, he sought out a priest who was reputed to have a special gift for hearing confessions. When he returned, a friend noticed that Henri not only had a look of relief and joy on his face, but also, surprisingly, one of distress. Henri said he was mortified by the fact that it had been the first time in seven years that the priest he had gone to had heard someone’s confession. Here was a man who could help people experience the mercy of God but nobody went to him. Henri was also dismayed by the fact that, in the Netherlands at that time, confessionals were being used for storing unwanted furniture and boxes. Catholics could still ask about making their confession but it was no longer a common practice on a Saturday evening.
It has to be said, though, that the experience of confession is not always a positive one—especially if you’re speaking in a foreign tongue. At the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris in Montmartre, I was actually told to leave the confessional without any hope of absolution! I was confessing in French, and what I was attempting to communicate seemed to get lost in translation, for suddenly the shrouded priest became furious and sent me packing.
Shocked, I sat on a bench at the back of the building gathering my senses, for I was far from pleased with him. Then, close to me, I noticed a distraught couple weeping together. I went over and asked if I could help. They told me their young son was dangerously ill in hospital and they didn’t know whether he would live or die. Dazed and bewildered, they had come to the basilica in search of spiritual consolation. This time my French was understood. I tried to offer a few words of comfort and we prayed together.
It was an incredibly poignant encounter. It seemed that my abrupt expulsion from the confessional at the precise moment those anguished parents were passing was, in fact, a timely calling to be alongside them in their hour of need. Absolved of my sins or not, I knew my vocation that evening was to become the presence of God for them as their beloved child hovered between life and death. ♦
Michael Ford is a biographical writer and ecumenical theologian living in the UK. His features for TAC reflect a lifelong interest in the spiritual and psychological journeys of women and men from all walks of life. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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