Forgiveness, I’ve found, is not for sissies. I guess it does come easier to some than others. My husband is a very easy forgiver. I am not. I’ve been known to hold a grudge or two. Even after someone forgives me I’ve always been quick to re-defend myself and go back again and again with a new argument to prove whatever point I’m trying to make. For MelanCatholics like me, accepting and parceling out forgiveness has many complicated facets that once shined and perfected, are only gone back over and over again searching for any little flaw that we missed. Which quickly leads my thinking to, perhaps I am forgiven, but why am I not overflowing with mercy and grace? Why don’t I feel it, really feel it, down to my toes?
I’ve been on this journey for a while and something keeps gnawing at me. Yes, I’m forgiven. Yes, I have to forgive some other people. There’s no sin greater than God’s mercy. Got it. But why wasn’t I feeling it? Or even if I felt it, which surely I had to at least one moment in time, what was next? I yearned and sought and hunted for what was to happen next. I filled the time with reparative works of redemption. I’ve spoken on this blog many times about the graces that have filled my life since my first acknowledgement of Grace and my beginning to mourn for her. Yet, something was still awry. After lots of counseling and prayers and talks and reading and praying and tears, I still felt like I wasn’t finished and was starting to fear I never would be. If I’m forgiven, and I believe in that forgiveness and that awesome mercy, shouldn’t I feel a little bit of, dare I even go down that road, love?
I suppose none of us will ever be finished in the way we imagine ourselves to be. I was waiting until I was good enough, healthier, better, more spiritual, stronger, to abandon my own plan and ask what His might be. In looking at all I had done in the past couple of years, what He might ask of me if I was ready for the next step? I just kept feeling that there was still more work I could do, there had to be. It can’t be that easy.
I spent the last several months in the ebb and flow of a cyclical depression that has demarcated my life since August 22 of 1987 and perhaps a bit before then when I started to question if I was truly worthy of anything. Was I good enough for anybody? Would I ever be?
Maybe I haven’t been resisting God’s love, maybe I just didn’t know what that kind of love is supposed to feel like. I’m not that familiar with all encompassing, overwhelming love. I know what it felt like in the first few years with my husband, now that was some overwhelming love! But, over the past 17 years together, that love has eased into a familiarity and comfortableness, that though I am grateful for and am aware of just how blessed I am to have that love at all, it’s not the same as in the beginning. But it’s not supposed to be. Yes, my children love me, but as children do, they can make you wonder if you were ever cut out to be a parent at all. The love from Him is different and I have had to have felt it at some point. I know I’ve been in the presence of it. When the tears fill my eyes during Mass, when the first few notes of a familiar hymn begin, when I gaze upon Him in adoration. In all the places where I’ve sought him out – I have had to have taken with me just a little piece of His love for me. But then I would keep it in my pocket and not allow it into my everyday life or in my interactions with others. His love seemed almost too big for me. Okay in small doses, but anything bigger, that would be a bit scary. Love that big would have to hurt at some point.
I went into my second Rachel’s Vineyard retreat not knowing what I wanted out of it. I arrived at the same retreat house as my earlier retreat– and it was familiar and inviting and safe and quiet – which is the best part! I was looking forward to going away by myself “to a deserted place and rest a while." I did have hopes for finding whatever it was I was missing.
I won’t share all that happened on the retreat for most of it is deeply personal and I need to be a bit stingy about it. But, like my first retreat, the time spent in Adoration proved to be the turning point. Another of my favorite things about retreats, the closeness of a chapel, the nearness of Him, the tangible availability of Him, the palpable Spirit so nearby.
I had spent Friday evening and most of Saturday mentally hashing out the better part of the last two years. Trying to focus on the positive things I’ve done and where I’ve been led. Saturday morning I was a bit unsteady and I started to wonder if I was okay at all and I started to worry that I may leave the retreat and be worse off and not better. I had the chance on Saturday night to have a conversation with the good Priest who was at our retreat. Don’t you love it when you go to confession with a Priest, who doesn’t know you all that well, or maybe you always go behind the screen, but the Priest, in persona Christi – they cut to the quick of it, the very core of you in mere moments? Wow. He had me figured out and had many good things to say.
Afterwards, I went back outside to wander around a bit. At the retreat, you are given a rather large and cumbersome rock at the beginning. The rock is to symbolize whatever it comes to symbolize for you and you are to take it everywhere with you. The last time I held on to it like an old friend. It came to symbolize all that I had carried around for 20+ years and the guilt and shame and secrecy and unworthiness and the non-belief of his love and mercy for me. I pitched that rock into a pond on that retreat. Since it also symbolized my grief over my lost Grace, I wanted it be physically somewhere that I could come to visit if I wanted. A memorial that I would know is there. I could come and visit and be sad, but then leave again. A touchstone that I couldn’t touch.
This time, I got rid of the rock a bit differently because of what it began to symbolize. It began to symbolize me. Imperfect, rough around the edges, heavy, boring, mundane, gray, morose. There weren’t any shiny spots or anything beautiful about the rock. I thought about writing on it with a pink Sharpie I had to try make it symbolize something a bit more worthy. Then it hit me, or He hit me. There was nothing I could do to make the rock, or myself, better. All of this good work that I had been doing for the past two years, this forgiveness that I was aware of, yet still I felt unworthy in His presence.
What I was missing was that yes, I am forgiven, and I will be forgiven again and again and again until my last day on this earth, but nothing I can do on my own can give me what comes along with that forgiveness. If I accept His mercy, I’ve got to accept all that goes with it – and that’s a long bill of sale. I never felt ready to take it on. I will never ever be able to make myself perfect enough for Him. Spending all this time waiting until I was 100% fixed to surrender to him. To raise the white flag. To just give up.
I walked quietly up to the second floor chapel and there He was - in the beautiful candlelight. I went up to Him and knelt down and tried to settle my mind down with what I had just begun to realize. I started to hear the voices from those who have held my hand on this journey. I began to realize more deeply that I am the only person holding me back. Not my past. Not the people from my past who hurt me. Not my Mom. Not my Dad. No one, not any more. I am the only one standing in my own way.
I’m not sure what happened to cause me to do what I did next. I stood up and moved the kneeler out of the way. I knelt on the floor for a few moments and then I lay down in front of Him, on the floor, with my nose on the carpet. Immediately my shoulders relaxed and I felt the ever present knot at the base of my neck start to soften. My breathing became quiet and deep. Then the words came in my head and from my heart. “I give up,” I told Him. Take all of me, every broken, ugly, gray and jagged edge piece of me. Take the pieces of me that I feel are forever bruised and tarnished because of my choices. Take the parts of my mind where I don’t allow you to reside because I’m afraid of what I’ll do if I allow you all the way in. Take my wounded and patched together heart that still has deep recesses of pain that cry out for aid only You can provide. Take all the memories of the past that I don’t know what to do with. Take all my anger and pain. Fill me up with something else, fill me up with whatever you want to, just please take me. Please turn all of this into what it’s supposed to be. I’ve done all I can think of. Tell me what do next. Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
I’m not sure how many times I said I’m sorry and as the tears dropped from eyes onto the floor and I felt as if every ounce of energy had gone out from me, I felt I heard Him say, “get up.” And so I did, first kneeling until I felt steady enough to stand. As I stood up, I felt an emotion that I hadn’t felt, truly felt in I don’t know how long – joy. I looked down and there was my rock, there was me, ragged and broken and heavy. I heard my husband’s voice in my head, “leave it there,” which he has advised me to do with many things that I insist on carrying around with me. I remembered many times hearing people say to “leave it at the foot of the cross.” So, I walked behind the small alter toward the crucifix that hung on the wall and I placed my rock, I placed myself, on the floor at the foot of that cross.
I walked back down the stairs not just physically lighter for having left my rock, but emotionally lighter. I got it, for the first time in a long time, I got it. I had been taking the forgiveness, but saying no thank you to the rest of it, all that which comes with forgiveness from Him. His mercy makes me a new creation. Because of His mercy, I don’t have to work so darn hard. No, I’m not off the hook, but I don’t need to spend the rest of my life searching for punishment for my past because I won’t find it. As unmerited as it may be, He has poured out his love and mercy on me and instead of soaking up every particle of it, I’ve allowed it to trickle off my raggedy edges and puddle at my feet because I felt I wasn’t good enough for it to seep in. Instead of being a sponge, I became a cold, hard, rock. I had become so tough over the years to keep any pain from coming near to me, but in the same way, I’ve kept joy and love at arms length. I had spent the better part of the past 10 years keeping friends at arm’s length. I’ve held grudges against family members because it was easier than trying to get along. I’ve pushed my husband away just to see how far I can push him before he doesn’t come back. The energy I've spent testing God and my husband and whomever else in my life just to see if I can make them not love me. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t stifle a laugh.
I had opened my mind to forgiveness, but not my heart. It’s got to penetrate my heart for it to change me from the inside. I can’t change anything intellectually without the cooperation of my spirit, my soul, all of me. I lay down in my bed that night and I whispered many prayers of thanksgiving and many more prayers for those that I love and for those that have helped me along the way of this journey.
I started to re-read all of my favorite scriptures about the women who Jesus helped or came across. I can relate to all of them and I can easily relate to parts of all of their stories. I read and re-read Luke 7, but this time I started to concentrate on what the woman must have felt like after Jesus forgave her sins. I had for so long concentrated on these women in scriptures when they are down in the dirt, tears on their faces, drying His feet with their hair, but I would stop before it got to the good part. He forgives them – what joy they must have felt! I have only begun to imagine what that must have been like. I need to concentrate now more on what happened after the forgiveness – love, joy, happiness. I had accepted his forgiveness but stayed stagnant – not allowing it to go any further.
I know I’m still on the high from the retreat and it’s only been a week and things will return to normal – but the love remains, it will always and forever, despite everything I do or don’t do. I’ve lived the last couple of years knowing that I was forgiven for my abortion, now I want to live with the love that comes along with His mercy – show me what that can do Lord.