THE LORD’S PRAYER: Forgiveness, by Evelyn Underhill
Meditations Based on the Lord's Prayer
It is part of the economy of mercy, the redemptive and transforming work of God, that the Divine Charity already present within the soul should overflow to make good its shortcomings and blot out its sins. Were this not so, our situation would be hopeless; for we share by nature in the disorder of a fallen world, its implicit resistance to the demands of love. So here we continue our filial and confident claim on that Charity; a claim which our situation, whether as children or as creatures, compels us to make. Forgive us our trespasses – our voluntary share in the world’s sinfulness – as we forgive them that trespass against us. Penitence is ever the fruit of adoring vision. “The more holy I find God,” said Baron Friedrich von Hügel, “the more wicked I feel myself to be.” “Thou the Holy, Thou the Strong.” I, the unholy, feeble, sinful; yet able in my weakness to perceive Beauty and adore.
Once again the soul is brought to a closer, more personal apprehension of its true situation; is thrown yet more deeply into God. If we cannot live without his life feeding and supporting us, still less can we live without his loving-kindness; tolerating our imperfections, rectifying our errors, forgiving our perpetual shortcomings and excesses, debts, and trespasses, and giving us again and again another chance. His challenge stands over against us, in its eternal beauty and perfection: but we know that the standard of eternal perfection must not be applied to us. The adoring soul which worshiped with the seraphim and said, “Hallowed be Thy Name,” now stands by the side of Isaiah and shares his creaturely shame. “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips.” We belong to an imperfect world. That downward pull, that declension from the light, which theology calls original sin, is felt at every level of our being. With the deepening of our experience we become more and more conscious of this. Hence the life of prayer is always a progress in lowliness; and now we arrive at the genuine and life-giving humility which is the fruit of seeing ourselves as we really are. “Glory be to thee! Have mercy upon me!” We take our lowly place, acknowledge our wretchedness; and on this poverty and helplessness we base our confident prayer for the indulgent gentleness of God.
Moreover, the scene in which we are placed makes its own drastic demand on prudence and courage. As Abbe Henri de Tourville says, it is useless for the Christian to look for a main road on which he can walk safely and steadily in his journey’s end. Like the Swiss, he must learn that rough tracks are the native roads of his country; that we only become surefooted by long practice, and that slips and falls are sure to occur. Sometimes we lose the path, sometimes trip over a stone, sometimes fall headlong in the mud. We are beset by invitations to stray; by the attractive shortcuts suggested by vanity, egoism, or fear. We stand in perpetual need of the kindness and patience of that God who is our Guide no less than our Goal, who picks us up, overlooks our frailties and follies, again and again puts us back on the path. “Forgive us our trespasses.” A whole type of prayer, a special and intimate relation with the Unseen, brought into existence by the very fact of our mixed half-animal nature, the ceaseless tension between the pull of Earth and the demand of Heaven, is summed up in these four words.
The sequence of Antiphons which the ancient church ordained for the opening days of Lent – a liturgical direction, as it were, for the intention of the penitent Christian soul – shows how many-sided is our creaturely need for the pitying indulgence and redeeming action of God. “Lord, that I may have light! Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin. Lord, my servant lieth sick of the palsy. Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof: but say the word only and my soul shall be healed.”
Each phrase casts its searchlight on our condition. We need light, for the eyes of the mind are darkened, so that we cannot see the reality of our state; we need cleansing, for our very selfhood is sullied and impure. Our souls are sick and helpless, for sin has sapped their energy; we need a new dower of vitality from beyond ourselves if we are to become the sons of the Kingdom and serve the creative purpose of the Will. We end with an act of total and contrite confidence in God’s restoring action – the crown of penitence: “Say the word only, and my soul shall be healed.”
Over against the Glory of God, the Majesty of the Holy, the debtor, the penitent, the publican, the unsatisfactory and unharmonized creature who exists in each of us dares to claim his filial rights. Here stands one who constantly falls short and knows it; who is blinded by prejudice, sick of self-love, capable of hatred and envy, violence and fear; one who could have done more and did not, thought he was strong and turned out weak, should not have trespassed in pursuits of his own ends, and did: a child of god, not an outsider or an outcast, who now faces the facts and says, “Forgive! Here, in the constant exercise of the divine economy of penitence and pardon, is one of the strongest links which binds the soul to God.
But this is not all. Were the mere escape from consequence, the blotting out of transgressions, the object of our prayer, how greatly it would fall beneath the level on which Christ has placed man’s relation to God; and how easy a concession it would offer to our inveterate self-love. But instead of an easy concession, the divine forgiveness makes a heroic demand upon our courage. For that forgiveness is not the easy passing of a sponge over a slate. It is a stern and painful process; it means the reordering of the soul’s disordered love, setting right what is wrong, washing it from wickedness and cleansing it from sin. Theology declares that original sin, disturbing the balance and harmony of man’s nature, causes especially four kinds of spiritual damage: ignorance, malice, weakness, and claimful desire. Here are the roots of our worst deordinations; and these the Charity of God must cure. That Charity must compel self-knowledge, kill animosity, brace the will, and mortify desire. Playing without hindrance on the soul that craves for forgiveness it burns to heal; redeems transforms, and purifies all at once. The Lord’s Prayer contains no direct demand for purification because pardon, the restoration of a loving relation with the Perfect, involves purification. The penitent soul accepts the jurisdiction of Charity, and Charity will have its perfect and searching work: burning up the chaff in the unquenchable fire of love. The cleansing pains of contrition are part of the mercy of God.
That is one side, but only one side of the situation. What makes this position crucial is the power, the freedom of the sinner; the fact that he does not merely soil his own garments or lose his own way, but inflicts damage and suffering on his fellow creatures when he departs from the order of Charity. He has used his liberty for their destruction. He needs the forgiveness of men as well as the forgiveness of God. Through mere lack of loving imagination, through inveterate self-interest and self-protective hardness, or by deliberate intent, he has inflicted mental, emotional, and spiritual injury and added to the confusion and pain of the world. He is a culprit, a debtor. He has abused the sacred gift of freedom, and because of this things are worse than they were before. It is this desperate situation, whether corporate or individual, which we entreat God to accept and resolve: and this he can only do in one way – by making the utmost demand on the charity and humility of the creature, by a universal application of the law of generous love. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. We ask with confidence because we are the children of Love and have accepted its obligations, even though our own worst declensions will always be from Love itself, and our heaviest debts will be arrears of Charity. Yet here too, acknowledging our insufficiency, we are forgiven, if we try to look through the eyes of the divine pity on the failures of our brothers and sisters in love: forgetting our own injuries, however grievous, and remembering only our common tendency to sin.
There is no lesson Christ loves better to drive home, than this disconcerting fact of our common human fragility: which, when we have truly grasped it, kills resentment and puts indulgent pity in its place. Let the man, the group, the nation that is without sin cast the first stone. God’s forgiveness means the compassionate recognition of that weakness and instability of man; how often we cannot help it, how truly there is in us a “root and ground of sin,” an implicit rebellion against the Holy, a tendency away from love and peace. And this requires of us the constant compassionate recognition of our fellow creatures’ instability and weakness; of the fact that they too cannot help it. If the Christian penitent dares to ask that his many departures from the Christian norm, his impatience, gloom, self-occupation, unloving prejudices, reckless tongue, feverish desires, with all the damage they have caused to Christ’s Body, are indeed to be set aside, because – in spite of all – he longs for God and Eternal Life; then he too must set aside and forgive all that the impatience, selfishness, bitter, and foolish speech, sudden yieldings to base impulse in others have caused him to endure. Hardness is the one impossible thing. Harshness to others in those who ask and need the mercy of God sets up a conflict at the very heart of personality and shuts the door upon grace. And that which is true of the individual soul, is also true of the community; the penitent nation seeking the path of life must also conform to the law of charity.
This principle applied in its fullness makes a demand on our generosity which only a purified and self-oblivious love can hope to meet. For every soul that appeals for God’s forgiveness is required to move over to his side, and share the compassionate understanding, the unmeasured pity, with which he looks on human frailty and sin. So difficult is this to the proud and assertive creature, that it comes very near the end of our education in prayer. Indeed the Christian doctrine of forgiveness is so drastic and so difficult, where there is a real and deep injury to forgive, that only those living in the Spirit, in union with the Cross, can dare to base their claim on it. It means not only asking to be admitted to the Kingdom of Redeeming Love, but also declaring our willingness to behave as citizens of that Kingdom even under the most difficult conditions; the patriot king forgiving the invaders of his country, the merciful knight forgiving his brother’s murderer and sheathing his sword before the crucifix, the parent forgiving his daughter’s betrayer, the devoted reformer forgiving those who have ruined his life’s work, the lover of peace forgiving the maker of war. Cruelty, malice, deceit, and violence doing their worst; and seen by us through the eyes of a pitiful God. All this is supernatural, and reminds us again that the Lord’s Prayer is a supernatural prayer; the prayer of the reborn, the realistic Christian who exists to do God’s Will. Even so, this clause comes a long way down: after the life of worship, the life of consecration, the prayer that the soul may be fed by the hand of God. Only then is it ready for this supreme test; this quiet and genial acceptance of the wounds of life, all the deliberate injury and the casual damage that come from lack of love; this prayer from the Cross. “Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you.” “The saints,” says Saint Teresa, “rejoiced at injuries and persecutions, because in forgiving them they had something to offer God.”
Yet we may not put off the effort. It is to be made now. Forgive us, as we forgive; or, as another reading has it, “Forgive, and we will forgive.” Not as we hope to be able to forgive presently, when our sense of God is more vivid and our sense of injury, our emotional uproar, has died down: but now. Show us, Lord, your indulgent charity, and we will try to show it in our turn: bear with our faultiness because we are trying to love, ignoring our bruises and scratches, the small sums that are owed us, the infringements of our rights. “Having already said Thy Will be done,” says Saint Teresa again, “it follows that we cannot harbor any kind of grudge.” We can only claim the privilege of sonship because we have already admitted the unqualified rights of brotherhood; mutual tolerance and unlimited forgiveness, even in those cases, indeed especially in those cases, where violence, deceit, and injustice seem to triumph, where anger is supposed to be justified and generosity is hard. Blessed are the merciful, the generous, for they shall obtain mercy. The soul can only ask for as much as it is willing to give, or try to give. We say here that we are satisfied if God deals as gently with us at our worst as we deal with our fellows at their worst – no more. We ask to be treated as we treat them; and we must expect to be taken at our word. Our disloyalty, selfishness, and hardness, our failure in wide-spreading love, with all the resultant damage, obliterated and forgotten; insofar as we have obliterated and forgotten the disloyalty, selfishness, and hardness, the failure in love which has marred our lives or the lives of those we love. It becomes clear that only a very great Christian can dare to say this prayer without qualification. It is the acid test of a life of charity, of true incorporation in the Body of Christ. Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect; indiscriminate and unmeasured in generosity, and in forgiving, healing love.
Mutual forgiveness of each vice,
These are the gates of Paradise.
There is nothing more purifying, more redeeming than the penitent love which is awakened by the generous forgiveness of another love. It opens a door in the brick wall which self-esteem has built between itself and God. But hardness and unpitying resentment are the gates of hell. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth: the helpless misery of the angry egoist.
There are two perennial situations in which the human creature, whether individually or as a group, has to exercise that self-oblivious charity which is the essence of forgiveness. First the cases in which it considers that its established rights have been infringed – trespasses: where the vigorous self-love of others has threatened its national, social, professional, or emotional claims. Secondly, the cases in which it considers that its own just demands on affection, deference, consideration, possessions, or status have not been met – debts. Either by attack or by neglect, singly or as a body, the creature’s self-love, its fundamental pride, is injured; and its anger aroused. At once the walls close in; it is inevitably cut off from the society of the sons of God, and is alone with its own wrath, its own rights. But those in whom the life of prayer is operative, whose filial relation with Eternal Love is sure, are required to abandon the standpoint of self-interest whether personal or corporate; quietly and humbly to forgive the trespass, freely remit the debt, if they want to know the living peace of God. Saint Teresa makes an easy and prompt forgiveness, in all the ups and downs of daily life, the very test of prayer; and thinks contemplation of little worth if we come from it able to resent anything.
“Forgive us our debts.” In the last resort, the soul’s debt as toward God is Sanctity: for man’s supernatural life, with its unspeakable possibilities, its obligations, its goal, is a trust held from the Eternal. The lord of the unmerciful bond slave forgave him a debt beyond repayment; the ten thousand talents of the parable, two million pounds and more. That, too, is the soul’s situation, entrusted with the seed of sanctifying grace to cherish, the talent of holiness to increase; incorporated in the Mystical Body of the Incarnate, fed with his abundant life. It has received the unpriced gifts of the Spirit that it may bring forth the fruits of the Spirit; not in the interests of any personal beatitude, but because they are demanded by the eternal purposes of God. Love, Joy, Peace, Long-Suffering: these are a part of man’s debt, and here he can hardly say in his own strength, “Have patience with me and I will pay you all.” Here, then, he cannot dare to say, “Pay what thou owest!” to other faulty men.
Again and again in the gospels we find Christ insisting on the hopeless situation of the exacting, unforgiving soul, who dares to ask from God what he is not willing to give in his turn. Again and again, he points out that the rigorist is a fool as well as a knave. By his own act he has put himself under the hard law of retribution which he chooses to exercise, instead of the easy and generous love which he refuses to show. For it is by the very existence of the Divine Compassion that the soul is judged. Every time that a veil is torn and it draws a little nearer to Reality, there is a fresh judgment over against the standard of God. We are judged by love, not only at the end of life, but in every crisis and opportunity of life. Everything which asks us for forgiveness judges us; and only if we pass that examination can we safely ask to be ourselves reinstated in the kingdom of love. “In making up his accounts with us,” says Saint Teresa, “God is never strict but always generous. However great our debt, he thinks it a small matter if through it he can gain us.” That generosity is the principle which runs through the New Testament. There, forgiveness is not an effort, a stern duty; but the delighted overflow of a compassionate, self-oblivious charity. It is the joy with which, after long exhausting search, the tiresome sheep is found, the lost coin hunted down; the delight of the father receiving safe and sound the worthless son who has disgraced the family name, wasted the family money, and only remembered family affection when all other resources failed. Even here, forgiveness means music and dancing; no hint of disapproval, all memory of folly and ingratitude drowned in love. Mercy and grimness cannot live together. The truly contrite soul is joyful in its shame: made glad by a confident remembrance of the infinite goodness of the Eternal, the “multitude of tender mercies” dominating its horizon and reducing to their proper proportion its poor little follies and sins.
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