TUESDAYS WITH TERESA: Beyond forgiveness into mercy and compassion

I feel the need to begin this week’s message with the Gospel from John (14:15-21) for the Sixth Sunday of Easter where John speaks of Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus says:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday last week, I attended the Catholic Mission Conference, Mission – one heart many voices. I am sure I will break open some aspects of the conference over the next few weeks. More than 400 people attended with great speakers and workshops.

So why did I feel the need to begin this week’s message with the reading from John’s gospel? It was because of the way in which the conference opened. It spoke powerfully to me of this reading and our capacity as humans to be in Jesus, and in the Father, and being that in the world. It is through us that God’s mission is revealed. We are indeed an expression of the Trinity, present now.

The conference began with an experiential simulation of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which six people sat around a table as participants in the simulation of a Commission dialogue regarding the murder of a group of people in a tavern in Heidelberg, Cape Town, in 1993.  One of the original Commission participants was Ginn Fourie, whose daughter Lyndi, aged 23, was killed in that massacre. Also at the Commission’s table was Letlapa Mphalele the former Director of Operations of the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA), the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), who ordered the killing as a consequence of the killing of black African school students.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered amnesty to many who were participants in the bloodshed of apartheid. An immense need which faced those who attended the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to understand why the violence, which destroyed so many innocent lives, had occurred. These acts of war had damaged individuals, families, communities and indeed South Africa itself. The words of those who were around this table spoke of the need for peace, healing, forgiveness and hope. It seemed very clear to me that without a way to heal the brokenness, then everyone is left struggling, angry and suffering.

To our surprise, Ginn Fourie was then announced as being with us at the conference. She stood before us and spoke to us bravely of her experience. She stood as a proud woman who told her story of despair and courage. She spoke of the need for restorative justice as a way of restoring each other’s humanity, rather than retributive justice which is destructive of the human spirit, and which provides no healing or hope for a future. As part of her story, she spoke of attending Letlapa’s homecoming in 2002 where she and Letlapa met eye to eye.  With that meeting of each other, and their sharing of their respective stories, began their travelling around the world inviting others to have the courage to seek forgiveness. As Ginn proclaimed, it is a movement from victim to survivor to wounded healer. In her words:

Many could not countenance my forgiveness for Lyndi’s killers, but as a Christian, I cherished the memory of Christ forgiving his murderers. Since then I have come to understand forgiveness as a process which involves the principled decision to give up your justifiable right to revenge. Because to accept violation is a devaluation of the self.

Restorative Justice is about the desire for reconciliation, to forgive and repair harm so as to begin to heal and restore and rebuild right relationships. It is about building bridges of peace and hope, bridges that mend the gap of difference. Its aim is constructive, not destructive. It certainly requires people to be brave and to be led by the Spirit. Ginn spoke several times about “forgiving the unforgivable”. It is in the processes of forgiveness that transformation begins, and the revolution of tenderness, of which Pope Francis speaks, can enter into our humanity.

At the end of the conference, Ginn spoke again with words about beginning each day and moment with gratitude.

I then stumbled across the following passage in last week’s reflections by Richard Rohr who had been writing about the Apostle Paul. He finishes his week’s reflections with a Practice Guide. Here it is from Saturday 20 May:

Philippians is probably my favourite of Paul’s letters because it describes how we need to work with the rebellious, angry and dualistic mind. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians during one of his many imprisonments. He even mentioned being “in chains,” and yet ironically this is the most positive and joy-filled of all of his letters.

In a most succinct and perfect summary, Paul says that you should, “Pray with gratitude, and the peace of God which is beyond all knowledge, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). First, you must begin with the positive, with gratitude (which might take your whole prayer time). Second, you need to pray as long it takes you to find “peace,” to get to a place beyond agitation (whether five minutes or five hours or five days). Third, note that he says this is a place beyond “knowledge,” beyond processing information or ideas. Fourth, you must learn how to stand guard, which is what many call “creating the inner witness” or the witnessing presence that calmly watches your flow of thoughts (mind) and feelings (heart). Finally, you must know what the goal is: your egoic thoughts can actually be replaced with living inside the very mind of Christ (en Christo). This is not self-generated knowing, but knowing by participation—consciousness itself (con-scire, to know with).

Paul then goes on to suggest that we fill our minds “with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good, everything that we love and honour, everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8). Norman Vincent Peale called this “the power of positive thinking.” I call it “replacement therapy.” If we don’t choose love and compassion, the human mind naturally goes in the other direction, and we risk joining a vast majority of people who live their later years trapped in a sense of victimhood, entitlement, and bitterness.

We are not free until we are free from our own compulsiveness, our own resentments, our own complaining, and our own obsessive patterns of thinking. We have to catch these patterns early in their development and nip them in the bud. And where’s the bud? It’s in the mind. That’s the primary place where we sin, as Jesus himself says (Matthew 5:21-48). Any later behaviours are just a response to the way our minds work. We can’t walk around all day writing negative, hateful mental commentaries about other people, or we will become hate itself.

What an apt way to conclude this message inspired by Ginn Fourie and her capacity not to be defined by being a victim! As a wounded healer she bears a prophetic witness to being God’s dwelling place. I felt like I was in the midst of a real holy person who witnessed God’s capacity to forgive and be healed.

Restorative Justice is the courage to go beyond forgiveness into mercy and compassion.

Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is Director Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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