by Ken Rolheiser
Forgiving after seventy-seven times

After the French Revolution a world-weary elderly man was begging at the church doors. A young priest approached him, gave him a cloak and invited him to his home.

After receiving the hospitality of his new friend the man decided to come back to the church, tearfully confessing to the priest that he had betrayed the family he had worked for as a young man, handing them over to the authorities. All but the youngest child were sent to the guillotine.

After telling his story, the man lifted his eyes and saw a portrait of the very family he had betrayed. He asked where the painting came from, and the young priest tearfully said that this was his family. Everyone else had been executed during the Revolution. Uttering the words of absolution, the priest added, “and I forgive you as well. Be at peace.”

Peter asks Jesus if he must forgive as many as seven times. Jesus says, “seventy-seven times”. That comes strangely close to how often we would like to inflict revenge on those who wrong us. Sometimes our hearts are very “Old Testament”.

There is no wiggle room! Let’s face it; most of us have not been wronged as grievously as the young priest in the above story. With God’s help we can forgive. The great thing about forgiveness is that it brings life. It also brings life to the one who forgives.

Ira Byock’s book The Four Things that Matter gives us his main point in the opening sentence: “The four most important things you will ever say are: Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.” These are words people tend to utter on their deathbeds. Byock urges, it is best to start saying them long before our loved ones gather round our deathbed. The saddest words we say? “It might have been!”

Do not take for granted that your children know you love them, or that brother or sister knows that you have forgiven them. “Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you. These four simple statements … carry the core wisdom of what people who are dying have taught me about what matters most in life,” Byock says.

We live with certain limitations imposed upon us by our family experiences as we grow up. We learn about relationships and how to interact with others from our parents and siblings. Byock’s book helps the reader move beyond the limitations our early environment might have imposed on us.

 Byock assures us that in his twenty-five years as a palliative care worker he has lost count of the times family members or friends have expressed deep regret about the things they should have said before a loved one died.

There is a whole other side to forgiveness that brings us even more peace than forgiving others and that is being forgiven by God. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. We can ask God to forgive us more than seventy-seven times and he will.

“Forgiveness is the greatest miracle, which along with everlasting life, is the real meaning of the resurrection of Jesus. There’s nothing more miraculous than a moment of reconciliation, a moment of forgiveness.” (Author Father Ron Rolheiser).

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