Metanoia: Understanding the True Meaning of Repentance — Against Heresies
Metanoia: Understanding the True Meaning of Repentance
« The word metanoia is defined as “a change of mind.” This definition, however, is much more complex than it first appears. »
Que signifient les mots métanoéô et métanoïa — Sylvain Romerowski
Que signifient les mots métanoéô et métanoïa?
« Le mot métanoïa désigne ici le fait de se tourner vers Dieu, autrement dit la conversion à Dieu. »Sylvain Romerowski
The little toe
Fancy designer clothes, sports cars, Swiss watches, sumptuous palaces, … all this never really interested me. In fact, until recently I was not at all attracted to luxury, in any form whatsoever. On the contrary, it tended to make me uncomfortable. A few events in Michelin-starred restaurants and magnificent reception rooms organized by my engineering school, or rare stays – if we can call one night a stay – in Parisian luxury hotels with girlfriends for our birthdays; these moments, even more precious in my eyes that they were only sporadic, were my first contacts with luxury.
Simple tastes, you can say that again, in fact in my case one could squarely speak of an appetite for simplicity. Though being more regularly in contact with it, I was amazed a few years ago to notice I still didn’t develop a taste for luxury: because it must be said, just as for many of my colleagues, the many business trips paid by my employer could have got me used to the five-star hotels, flights with prestigious companies, company SUV cars in countries where the petrodollar flows like water. And yet, all this was not enough to rid me of this preference for the simple, the discreet, the non-shining. Since then, it has changed a little: my last expatriation in Qatar certainly played a role, but as we will see later, it took much less than that to really make me abandon this deeply anchored state of mind in me.
I wonder today how came about such a strong trend in my behavior. In reality, more than a preference for the simple it was a strict rejection of luxury. Out of avarice, I don’t think so, out of disregard for the material, perhaps, but above all – and that’s what literally revealed itself to me in pain, out of guilt, certainly.
I don’t know what triggered what was originally just a sneaky feeling. I do not know what was the mechanism that animated and reinforced this state of mind in me. All I know is that when any idea was popping up in my mind, associating luxury with my person, a question inevitably arose: why me?
Truth be told, it goes much further than luxury. As for me, this reflex of thought occurs in many other cases, in such a way that I came to wonder if it was not the very notion of pleasure to which my mind had become allergic. It’s a bit extreme, but at the same time the clues are too numerous to deny it. On the outside, for a long time and on a recurring basis I have been hearing my family, my friends, my colleagues saying to me: « you are too kind, be careful! », « you should think of yourself before thinking about others otherwise you will get screwed », « why is your life so complicated while you facilitate those of others? ». Without paying more attention, and this was my case, one could simply deduce: usual pattern of the deep down altruist, misunderstood by his relatives and living in an increasingly selfish world. But what is wrong with this diagnosis – in addition to the fact that some of the relatives quoted are as much or even more generous than me, is what happens inside. A few examples. I used to feel guilty when passing near a homeless person sleeping on a metro platform. (Ok, fair enough) I used to feel guilty when seeing a person left standing during a meeting because of not enough chairs planned. (Well, a little weird, that said if you sat last…) I used to feel guilty when guessing that I was about to win card game and that the other would therefore necessarily lose. (Hum? Wait, what?)
I am convinced that I am a generous person and animated by good feelings towards others, even if it sometimes involves making certain sacrifices, and to me there is no problem with that. Actually, it is also one of the founding principles of the Christian faith, « love your neighbor as yourself », « there is more pleasure in giving than in receiving », « give to the one who asks you », … However, what was problematic for me was the fact that even when nothing was expected from me, that it was simply about me and my pleasure, my comfort, or just, my well-being, something in me was blocking, something considering that I did not deserve all this.
As a rule, the things that concern me are relatively complicated. It’s as if it comforts me that not everything is easy for me. The more complicated it is and the more I struggle, the more a strange feeling of satisfaction and comfort increases in me, until it confirms me « there, it’s good, everything is fine, you are in your place ». In fact, I have long lived with the omnipresent thought of not deserving. Not to deserve what? Many things, if not all. In a similar way to what I believe to be a sham of some ecologists, who are in fact stingrays of the first order, my altruism and my simplicity are only the mask and the costume carefully conceived by a deep unlove of myself.
Wait, I do not hate myself though, far from it. Besides, another of my flaws is a well-hidden pride though rooted in my personality. This is quite paradoxical given the rest of this article, but we will come back to it later. Without hating myself, I’m in a system of thought where I can’t, or very hardly, appreciate myself, what I’m doing or saying. To be able to achieve this, I would need an approval: either an external one, by what others think of me, or an inner one, by my satisfaction in the complication. And this is the second case whose reality brutally imposed on me during an evening of a business trip in Italy. Everything was going very well since my arrival a few days earlier. Indeed, as I said above, my company knows how to put its employees in very good conditions for working abroad: rental of a high-end sedan, lunches in the local gastronomic restaurants, and mostly stay in a 4-star hotel on the shores of Lake Como. Everything is fine, but as usual I am embarrassed. I know how to pull the wool over my colleagues’ eyes, but deep down I do not feel in my place. It is in my room where, out of sight, I can give free rein to my « simplicity »: for example, use of as few wardrobes as possible even if it means keeping my suitcase half full, concealment of the remains of shower gels and shampoos so that they are not replaced by room service, and also prohibition to use heating given the little time spent in the room each day. With this, one could see a lazybones, a green, a practical guy, … But how to explain the fact of moving around your room without turning on the light on a dark night and with all the variety of furniture that such a high-standing hotel can contain? Even if I am thrifty, I will not be the one paying the bill of the room and even less the electricity bill. Even if I think about the environment, the red light of the TV’s standby mode consumes every day as much as the light bulb I would have needed for a few minutes. And even, yes, even if I am lazy and think to myself that it is not worth turning on just for the time I will do the few meters from the bed to the bathroom, the probability of bumping my little toe, at full speed against the foot of a solid oak chair, is simply much too high. And it didn’t miss.
You know this progressive pain that starts from a tiny place (bitten tongue, phalanx crushed by a hammer, or, more rarely, dislocated shoulder) and that radiates slowly in your body as if it were all your limbs that were hurting. In general, there automatically follows a flood of insults that your mouth will irrepressibly, shout, churn, or whisper depending on the time of day and the profiles of the people around you. In my case it was a slight whisper, imperceptible to the guests of the neighboring rooms, but heavily loaded with the coarsest words I know. The intense pain, which was that of a fracture according to the doctor I saw later, made me hate this chair, firstly, and especially hate myself, in a second phase.
I don’t know if because of the dazzling ache that crossed my foot we could speak of a flash of clarity, but one thing is certain, it is that an awareness began to operate in me from this moment. I saw myself, still in the dark, holding my foot, almost having tears in the eyes – from pain or anger or both, getting angry against a chair when the problem was myself: the chair was where it should be, me not. I was in the dark, I was advancing in the dark, that night especially but also every other day of my life. I did not allow myself the light. What for? I still cannot answer this question today, but it was an undeniable fact in any case and my toe was both the witness and the victim of that.
Jesus Christ said, « I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but he will have the light of life. » It took me quite some time to understand that in my case, the darkness is mainly those that I imposed on myself and for most of my existence. This incident of the broken little toe had allowed me to realize that « the light was off », it still had to be turned on. This is precisely what my faith in Jesus helped me to do. Today I gradually manage to get rid of my darkness thanks to him, as I let his saving light drive it away, as I learned to accept to be loved by a God who more than once proved to me and to so many others his infallible love. It has nothing to do with the approval that I was looking for in complications or with others appreciation, and the effect is oh so much more authentic. Knowing that I’m loved by God unconditionally and even despite all my actions, words or thoughts, which in theory should disqualify me from this love, transforms the previously inconceivable idea of loving myself into an obvious one: him loving me despite everything he sees in me through his perfect knowledge, shows me that I should not seek to deserve his love or that of anyone, but rather that I deserve to be loved by anyone, and it starts with myself. Here it is no longer about that muted pride that, like an ersatz of love, helped me to endure the lack of love by making me consider myself better than others through disguised means: to be the kindest in the eyes of all, to pass for the humblest, to appear the most generous. No, it’s called living through the eyes of others. It can help to endure, but not to fill the gap. The lack, I managed to fill it with Jesus Christ and his limitless love.
As Blaise Pascal said: « There was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.” In the end, I who was apparently lacking in love for myself, I am now overflowing. And unlike narcissists or simple egocentrics, this surplus of love did not lead me to focus on myself, it rather turns my gaze towards others, towards my neighbor. It is true that it first contributed to me, finally allowing myself complete well-being, comfort, pleasure and even luxury, which I once excluded from my life. But this powerful remedy has had even more beneficial side effects than simply healing my love of myself. Indeed, above I quoted one of the founding principles of the Christian faith: « love your neighbor as yourself ». This biblical principle, like most others, is based on Love. And it is even doubly relying on it because it is divided into two parts: a first turn towards others, « love your neighbor », and a second centered on oneself, « like yourself ». This is the power of the love of Jesus Christ, the one who cannot leave indifferent, which itself does not change but that changes everything it touches. It does not only come to touch us, splash us, it floods us, to the extent that we have only one option left to us: first to let us fill, that is to say to love ourselves because he loves us, then to overflow all around us like a river in flood, that is to say to love others and even the world around us – the living or not living beings of the nature created by the hand of God as well as the many and varied creations of man. Much more precious than luxury, I have gained something of inestimable value, the Love that changes us and with which we can change the world.
My pastor is often saying that he is like an unfinished house. Out of context, it may sound a little weird, but it deserves to be looked at with more depth. To better understand, it is necessary to visualize the image he uses and clarify a few things. This is certainly a quite seldom phenomenon in some Western countries, but in my country of origin, Côte d’Ivoire, constructions are likely to stop and remain interrupted for years and even in the middle of the city. It is already very particular in itself but what is even more surprising is that in most cases the work resumes after a relatively long time and as if nothing ever happened, once the necessary funds have been raised, the initial project redesigned, or even once the ownership of the land has been « returned » to its true owner.
Once these few prerequisites are established, I think it is already a little easier to grasp this idea of an unfinished house. Indeed, the concept showcased by my spiritual father with this image, and with which I agree myself, is the fact that whatever appearances, no matter how long it takes, what we are called to, God’s plan for each of us will come to pass. Automatically, a whole bunch of questions, even criticisms, rise together like the shields of a Roman legion in front of the barbaric invasion that this concept represents for some people.
« Fate? But what is fate and if there is any, what about our free will?”, or, « If there is a god, and he lets so many tragedies happen on Earth, why hoping in his plan without even knowing if it is good or bad for me? », and even, “That is where all the problems of our society lie! Preference for passivity and alienation of our very real life to an imaginary god, instead of perseverance and rational thought to make things happen”. Maybe none of these sentences crossed your mind but believe me this is the case for many others: I have heard them often enough to confirm this to you.
The first thing I can say while facing such questioning is that once we put aside the idea of an almighty God who loves us above all, it is impossible to understand what I am talking about. It is like two people striking up a conversation in different languages, without one being able to speak the other’s own. In the present case, this language is the language of love, the one that is spoken throughout the Bible, in its darkest passages as its most enlightened, in its most boring chapters as its most thrilling ones. I can always be told that it is easy and usual for Christians to sweep away the question of the existence of our God by this kind of condition. For my part I just consider that this is another issue to which I am not the most qualified to answer and for which I consider having the chance that faith allows me to answer it, perhaps not rationally yet to answer it anyway. In the present days some have chosen to do it rationally, or at least to try, just as many others have done it before. Blaise Pascal, in the 17th century, proposed with his Wager an interesting reflection, based on a probabilistic approach, even related to the gambling register, which allows anyone to get an idea of what one loses and what one gains to believe or not to believe. Indeed, quite plainly, and perhaps even a bit too much, Pascal tried to show that we all have an interest in believing in God, whether God exists or not. For him, if God does not exist, the believer and the non-believer draw. However, if God exists, the believer is victorious because he accesses paradise for eternity, while the non-believer as for him loses because he is excluded from it, also for eternity. Simple but effective, and very questionable. But let’s go back to the main topic, because my idea was precisely not to get involved in that issue, but only to specify that others have done it, in case you are interested.
Indeed, as for me, I rather accepted to give in, without any rational proof or scientific guaranty and despite my rather formal professional background and personality, to this God who according to his word has always loved me and that even before I came into this world. People often speak about a leap of faith; I would rather call it a love story. Even though it is comparable in some aspects, I don’t think of it much as a romance but rather as a filial love, this for different reasons that we can mainly find in the Bible. Indeed, there we can read a definition of faith that is both precise and disconcerting: « Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see ». For a long time, those few words disturbed me, blocked me, even lost me, yet it is something altogether quite simple, and it is still in the same book, a few pages before, that Jesus gives one of the most important clues that allows to unravel the mystery of this sentence. « Let the little children come unto me, and do not prevent them from doing so; for the kingdom of God is for those who are like them. I tell you in truth, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a small child will not enter it, » he firmly said to his disciples. It is when we finally accept, to return to this infant state of trust, dependence and even vulnerability that we can embrace all the meaning of this definition and at the same time begin the wonderful journey that God proposes us to do with him. The one through which he actually makes us stronger, less dependent on the things of this world, and ever more assured of his benevolent presence.
Nevertheless, a journey is maybe not the right name because journey means a point of origin and a destination, while here both the point of origin and the destination are the same: God. It is more about a project in fact, the project of a lifetime, even a construction project. A construction where the work, the building, is each of us. The client, the original contracting authority and the one who will receive the finished project, is God. The general contractor, who carries out this project, is still God. Far from being at the center of this endeavor, we are only its material, which may seem somewhat simplistic and frustrating at first. It is no longer a question of the absolute importance of our choices, our desires, our will, but of something greater – and much more beautiful. Yes, when we understand that it is indeed God who is at the center, both for his greatest glory but also for our greatest happiness, we enter into all the power and beauty of this simple idea proposed by my pastor, that of a house under construction that will inevitably be completed to become a perfect, unique and priceless home; even if in the present moment it is far from resembling it, even if the obstacles and circumstances sometimes play all together against its realization. Once again, the key to this project, its starting point, is this love story, between a child, the one who can be found in each of us, and a Father, who has been waiting so long for us to let him build us up, to let him be with us, to let him love us.
Sunshine, lots of sunshine, the most beautiful landscapes, love, perhaps, but most importantly, myself: it was my ambitious checklist of things to find in a few days off in Italy. Apulia, alone with my camping bag and my rented Fiat, but also with my wounds still too fresh from a difficult break. I was expecting a nice holiday, but this express stay in the South had much more in store for me.
To get some reading, I took a book with me — well two since I never travel without my Bible. It was Happiness: a philosopher’s guide, by Frédéric Lenoir. Despite all the good I could hear from this writer; I had a hard time opening this book after my ex offered it to me with great kindness. And I had even more trouble taking it with me during this vacation where I was definitely trying to be alone in front of myself, and not one-on-one with a philosopher, who according to the fourth cover, wanted to help me find well-being through a watered-down remix of concepts about happiness and spirituality.
Okay, I am a little hard on him. As I am with so many others, who, according to critics, are the Avengers of the pursuit of happiness, or the Justice League of the fight against depression. In fact, it’s even unfair on my part since I find his book — and many others of this much popular genre — well written and above all rich in references, ideas, examples, which can surely inspire us, guide and enlighten us at any stage of our lives. But what actually bothers me is the promise, of the author, sometimes, or the publisher, too often. The promise that « this time he solved the equation of happiness, » or « that’s it, she solved the mystery of the human spirit, » or even better « they really discovered what you always wanted to know about yourself. » For me, it feels like being served with unisex and ready-to-wear answers to millennia of complex and profound questions.
In short, let us go back to this Italian holiday! I finally took my ex’s book, and above all, I read it, despite a journey of more than 1000km punctuated by dazzling images: the green reliefs of Gargano National Park, along a winding coastal road linking towns and villages, such as the picturesque Vieste; Lecce’s baroque decorations, whose harmoniously arranged monuments around Piazza Sant’Oronzo are designed with the warm and blonde stone, typical of the city; the idyllic panorama of Polignano a Mare, with its turquoise water that timidly offers coolness via a narrow cliff-side pebble beach; the bowels of the Canyon in which legends such as those of the beautiful Massafra and its green ravine still resonate, dotted with medicinal herbs and « magical » caves. All these roads, these landscapes, gave me the illusion that my painful and guilty memories were gradually moving away, I felt that they gave way to peace and well-being, although they were circumstantial: gastronomy, music and Italian beauty helping.
But on a stormy evening, stuck in my tent, a sentence from the famous book had shaken up this bliss of a time. A definition, in a few words, clearly stated. The author, I admit with courage and pedagogy, proposed nothing more or less than a definition of happiness, « happiness is the consciousness of a state of global and lasting satisfaction in a meaningful existence based on truth. » Taken out of context, this sentence even as I write it seems to sound hollow. Yet Frédéric Lenoir, through references and illustrations, proposes a definition of happiness that is both tangible and accessible. It even proposes different ways of practical application arising from it, in the light of ancient concepts such as stoicism, Taoism or skepticism. Oddly enough, even if I remained admiring of the rich and ambitious approach of this book, crystallized in this definition, what destabilized me that night was not my admiration but rather my disappointment. A fascinating disappointment not to find myself in this definition, not to find myself in his definition. Indeed, the more I read and reread this sentence as a magic formula, the more I realized that it had no effect on me. I understood it, it was well-crafted, it held up and probably had to speak to a lot of people, but I could turn it around, upside-down, it did not work for me. I wanted to be alone for my vacation, I was served! Certainly, the book, this definition, led me to an interesting question about an item that was not on my checklist: what is happiness? But it also left me in front of a great void that I had never been careful of before: am I happy? It was hard, even brutal. Struck by the pleasures for the senses of my journey, such an existential question that arose without warning had the effect of a cold shower. The rain pouring outside was probably a factor. Precisely downcast but not resigned, that evening I prayed a little longer than usual, a little louder than usual. I needed help, answers, happiness, if possible.
The next morning, my tent had survived, the storm had passed, but it had left behind a greyness and a damp cold that did not come to settle my concerns. As I used to do frequently at that time, I read the daily mail of the Christian newsletter A Miracle Every Day, to which I had recently subscribed. This daily message of hope often did me good, and mostly brought me a salutary perspective on the hassles of everyday life. And it started well, the first sentence of the mail reminded me strangely of my last evening: « Have you ever read these magazine titles… « Finally become yourself! », « Find harmony »… ». However, that day it was not really the message itself that was supposed to light up my day, there was a link to the music video of a song that the author was recommending. Out of curiosity I clicked, and suddenly found myself drawn into an unlikely chain reaction of emotions and inspirations. The beauty and originality of the clip made of a succession of speedpainting sequences, the singer’s suave and hypnotizing voice accompanied by an effective piano melody, the lyrics that seemed to just come straight from heaven: this combination was enough to make me go back and forth between laughter and tears, and to make me aware of a certainty, I was happy. Not only was I happy, I was convinced of it, but above all I knew why I was happy: because I had just chosen to be happy.
It was as simple as that and I had just realized it. I had found my happiness without looking for it, deciding to live it. This song, in addition to having moved me, had brought back to my mind many passages of the Bible about happiness. From the Beatitudes in the new testament to the Ten Commandments in the old one, a multitude of phrases that until then had remained rather mysterious to me, finally seemed evident to me with this new perspective that was open to me. Happiness is not achieved, it is not reached, it is decided and lived. The only notion of pursuit of happiness is a heavy lie that we have created ourselves, or at least a misunderstanding— if fortuitous. In the Bible, God says that he gives us the choice between life and death, happiness and unhappiness, but he also says that he has plans for us of happiness and not of unhappiness. Therefore we merely have to want to be happy, to make the choice of happiness in all good conscience and all that it implies, in particular, to follow God on his path, to be guided by him with blind confidence. What is powerful about this approach is that instead of pursuing happiness we finally find ourselves looking for God, who leads him to find ourselves, to find our true aspirations, our deep hopes. And God is committed to fulfilling them, to letting us fulfilling ourselves, because that’s what he wants, and by putting everything in action at our level for that, we accept a very simple but super profitable deal: « you want happiness, I give it to you, just do what I tell you to make it work ».
As I write this article, it has been more than 2 years since I had this memorable experience, that I found my definition of happiness. Ironically, I am in Italy but in the North, in winter and moreover for business. Looking behind me, during these 2 years, I had time to heal from my wounds but to experience new ones, to see radiant summers and dark storms. And what I can testify to today is that whatever events I have been through in this short period of my life, my happiness, this chosen state of trust and hope in a good God who actually brings me closer to him every day, closer to myself, and to my well-being, that very happiness, it works for me and it has never failed me.
This article refers to the newsletter A Miracle Every Day, available freely on this website https://unmiraclechaquejour.topchretien.com/ and the music video of Peggy Polito’s song « Viens dans ma vie », available on YouTube here.
It is amazing what a simple picture can communicate, without any words yet with so many emotions. More than 5 years ago this sculpture of the Burning Man festival challenged me while I was just looking for a nice background photo for my phone. More than 5 years ago, again, this is partly about my ex or rather the period of my life that I shared with her. It is becoming a habit; my articles often talk about it. Some might see it as a ghost breakup, which still haunts me after all these years, or an unspoken (and unspeakable?) love, to a person I have chosen to remove from my life.
Yet the questions raised by my references to this painful past are far from those of a masochistic and nostalgic gaze, turned towards a time that has certainly brought many tears but also so many bursts of laughter, or those of an illusory hope of the « what if? », which knows how to replay in our minds just like a genius director the best — and theworst, with more passion, better lighting and, always, the happy-end that goes well.
No, those questions are resolutely looking forward, more than ever in my life. This lust for life that I have recently discovered in me calls me to jump with all my strength towards my future, but for this I need to take all the necessary support on my past, in order to go as far, as high as possible.
Why this picture? What does it show? What did it tell me at the time? Love, this work by Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Milov (photo credit: thestevenjames), depicts two adults of metal back to back, two adults with apparently nothing more to say to each other. But the two children in them, shining with a bright light, turned towards each other, seem to still have everything to say to each other. The welded metal bar structures that make up the adults were certainly not chosen randomly. Like prisons, they lock up in them these children who, if they could, would go towards each other, throw themselves into each other’s arms.
Even if at the time I discovered this picture it was still going rather well in my couple, like a bad omen, it showed me the drama that plays out every day in the lives of so many couples, families or even friendships, the drama that would play out a few years later between my ex and me.
For me this picture, before talking about love, as the name of the sculpture indicates it, speaks of forgiveness, a forgiveness that we cannot give each other when we should, when we would like to. It speaks of the fact that in us there is this child’s soul who just wants to forget those arguments, those grudges, those wounds, just to return to our games, to our laughter, to our happiness. And it also speaks of the fact that on the outside there is this carcass, this heavy framework of our rigidized habits, our structured — and structuring — attitudes, which prevent us from taking the first step, from opening the door to new possibilities.
I literally lived this picture, not only in my couple, but in various relationships and at various levels of affection. But every time, while I believed that the only memory of this sculpture, like a totem, could give me the strength not to let the drama happen again, not to let the child be imprisoned in the adult, I found myself — just like the other in front — trapped in the mechanism of conflict, in the machinery of resentment, the quicksand of apprehension, in which every second that passes seems to drive us ineluctably from all hope of pacification.
Forgiveness, the word is said. This word that fascinates, that makes both dreaming and trembling. This word that we idealize, elevates in chimera, above our too sordid realities. Or for others, this word that we submit to our will, that we censor, that we frame with meticulously drawn and marked borders. Indeed, here we mainly have two schools: those who believe in the power of forgiveness but do not do it, as an unspeakable superstition, a shameful belief, to which one cannot abandon himself completely, for fear of disappointment after being turned down flat by the opposing side – the friends of « I would love to forgive him, but I don’t know if I’m able to »-; and those who, failing to believe or even understand its power, choose to tame forgiveness, to tolerate it, but according to their own rules of the game, a game in which of course they never lose —the defenders of « I have forgiven, but I have not forgotten ».
But what about unconditional forgiveness, palpable forgiveness? If we push to extremes, we must ask ourselves the question of the forgiveness that allows us to hear still today incredible testimonies of fathers forgiving the murderer of their child, of women forgiving their rapist, of entire communities forgiving their oppressor of a whole century. Is it fake? Is there a trick? I’ve been looking for it, so far I haven’t found the transparent threads that an illusionist would be drawing behind the scenes of those shattered lives, the special effects that a prodigious director would be using to magnify these tragic miscellaneous news items. Finally, the only magician I was able to discover during my personal and existential questioning about forgiveness, it is Jesus. His subversive doctrine in his time but still revolutionary today has brought to light a power in the human being that is still too often unsuspected or even unknown nowadays. Indeed most of the time we are wrong about forgiveness, and doubly. Not only because we underestimate its effectiveness and reality in our lives, but also because we mistakenly believe that the first beneficiary of forgiveness – if not the only one – is the forgiven.
A sentence I heard one day during a sermon completely reversed my mindset and opened my spirit to the true potential of forgiveness. « Forgiveness is the most selfish act that can be committed, for it has the power to completely free us exclusively from the evil that the Other has done to us, while leaving the latter to his own guilt ».
I found it extremely powerful! To realize this, we need to remember what a conflict is. Etymology helps here because conflict could be translated by » the act of fighting together. » Together! As we hear it, it sounds implausible. When the origin of a conflict is the break that will turn two people into enemies opposing each other, and even in many cases breaking up emotionally or diplomatically, we learn here that in the end the first thing that this break creates is an object in common, an unwanted but indeed present offspring: the conflict itself. That is, as long as a conflict can last, the two people he opposes will bind, grow attached to each other, even sometimes love to hate each other. Once this notion was clarified, I could understand more easily how forgiveness is an exclusive privilege: it allows me, to preserve my peace and my well-being by unilaterally denying the other his right to conflict, his invitation to fight together.
Today, I imagine the number of times in my life where I could have used that power. I think of the time I would have won, the headaches that I could have spared myself — in the end all this is not so selfish because the other would realize at some point what he also has to gain, and my past couple experience which, even if not saved, could at least have been paced and ended more peacefully.
In the gospels it can be read how Jesus replied to Peter asking him how many times he should forgive the one who would harm him: « you will forgive him 70 times 7 times. » Put into context, his answer evokes the infinity of the power of forgiveness once our mind opens to it, and not a heavy and almost inhuman burden imposed by God on humans. Indeed, forgiveness is a gain, an overpowering gift that allows us to get rid of the chains of grief and resentment, while creating in the other a possibility, for him also, to get out of the trap mixed with guilt and pride that would close slowly but steadily on him without ever undoing its embrace. From the moment we understand it, we can then enter a hugely different reality, where peace is cultivated and harvested at hand, like a child’s play.
I was also able to discover, that the first step of forgiveness, as simple as it may seem, is vital, not only for the relationship that is at stake but also for oneself. This first step is to forgive yourself. It is sometimes obvious, and sometimes much more complex, but in a conflict there is very often some guilt on both sides. Even those who consider themselves aggrieved may either regret actions or words that could have hurt the other one and possibly led to the reaction of the latter that ultimately hurt them in turn; or outright conclude through convoluted psychological mechanisms that they are ultimately solely responsible for the harm that has been done to them. Whether you’re the responsible for the wound or the wounded, forgiving yourself seems to be something quite easy when it is just said, but I’ve had the opportunity to realize more than once that the collateral damages created in a conflict, that second wound that consist in guilt, is actually much harder to heal than we think. In any case, it all starts there: in the same way that I think we can’t love the other one without learning to love ourselves first, we can only win the war against hate with the power of forgiveness if we let the latter win its first battle inside us.
I am far from being a saint, and the picture still taunts me regularly today. Emotions, habits, instinct of defense – or attack, there are so many things in us that make us miss wonderful moments, or even entire blocks of life. But what helps me is to think about what I missed, what I would miss without forgiveness: so many laughs, so many sharing, so much love. Forgiveness is real, I am convinced about it today. I saw its power in action: in the Bible, in History, in lives like of Kim Phuc, survivor of a Napalm attack in south Vietnam, that of Pope John Paul II, seriously wounded during an attempted murder in Rome, that of the Amish community, bereaved by the West Nickel Mines School killing, those of the Tutsis and The Hutus, who after civil war and the genocide of the former by the latter are now living in peace in Rwanda.
Yes it is real, and I also want to enjoy it maybe alone or, I hope, with all those who, if they wish to, if they forgive themselves first and forgive me then, will be able to use with me this power that can change the world.