Week 24 Ordinary Time, year a
Hildergard of Bingen- A prayer for awareness
Matthew 18: 21-35
Today’s gospel is one of those ones I grew up having some unarticulated discomfort with until I read something (I wish I remembered who) about how the Lord’s “forgiveness” is not very convincing since it is conditional and he can take it back the minute the forgiven one does not do the right thing.
That could be a productive area of reflection for me, but a lengthier one so I want to put my misgivings about the power inequalities portrayed in this story to one side and instead work rhizomatically with one theme from the gospel-forgiveness- which also crops up in the first reading as a sort of best practice (again if we ignore the threatening and belittling language).
I remember many years ago I decided to admit to my spiritual director that I had trouble forgiving some people in my life who were close to me. I did not want anything bad to happen to them but I struggled with guilt because I was still angry and at times I avoided situations where they would act the same way in the pattern that had hurt me so many times in the past. I put my inability to forgive next to today’s gospel but she said that was not right at all.
She told me it is a mistake to see forgiveness as an all or nothing, an instant decision, a switch you can flip. She said that God understands that some forgiveness is hard and some is not safe. She asked me if I would ever forgive the people. I said it was my intention to but it was really hard. She said “it’s a journey, it’s always a slow journey and the important thing is to walk in the right direction to hold back from revenge or escalation, to try not to turn bitter, to move toward forgiveness” and that it was possible for either side to do some of the work of reconciliation it should not be only up to the wronged party but both are on a journey, called by God to work on right relationship.
Hildegard of Bingen’s words filled this space of journeying for me. Life itself is this journeying and the work of forgiveness is work not just for the wronged party but also for the one who has done wrong. Thus I am on a journey of forgiveness with the earth which I have not always cared for. I am on a journey of forgiveness to discover my deep connections to Indigenous people and culture which I have been unaware of. I am on a journey as a flawed and sometimes abusive being, as a vulnerable and sometimes exploited being, as a wounded and defensive soul. If we forget to oversimplify Jesus’ story (and let’s remember that these are parables, they are meant to be complex and niggle at us) then we can take the part of any of the players in the story and try to unpick what right relationship would look like from each standpoint.
Can you see a way the Lord might have acted with more integrity? I suppose this sort of theme concerns me as a teacher as I have a fair bit of power over others and it would be easier and less exhausting if I would forget that I used to be a student…but it would not be right.
I remember a sermon I heard at an evening service I used to attend in the Anglican phase of my life. The preacher was someone who had had a fair bit of conflict with the archbishop, he was the sort of theologically exciting person who pushes boundaries and can be a thorn in the side of the establishment. I am very fortunate to have learned from a few people like that across denominations. But he was talking about what made him realise he needed to be more forgiving of the bishop (and other people he did not see eye to eye with) and he said it was not virtue in the end but self-care.
When we are angry with someone, we carry that person everywhere with us. The angrier we are the more we cling to them and keep them in our thoughts always. He said “I realised I did not want to shower with the bishop, I did not want him in the bedroom with me, I did not want him at family mealtimes. I had to let him go. I had to forgive him to get my own space back”. Anger to my mind is not always a negative feeling but the anger that we cling to, the impotent and smouldering wrath or the impulse to strike back is a problem for our own health.
I am reading Deleuze and Guattari at the moment and I really want to criticise their worldview. They portray the world of human societies as composed of two things only. One is the oppressive, exploitative and controlling State and the other is the war machine that comes to throw the state out of balance. I can’t disagree with Deleuze and Guattari’s portrayal of these as locked in a cycle where the State generates and captures the war machine and the war machine crystallises into state and everything is violence. We do see this pattern in our real world.
But it is not all there is. Part of me wonders if it is my feminist world view that thinks the act of hanging laundry on the line to risk bird poo and olive stains so that we can lay our cheeks on pillowcases that smell of fresh sunlight is qualitatively different than both state and war machine and is not owned by either. I don’t just mean laundry- but so much of life is feeding people or healing them, meaningful conversations, affirmations, listenings and seeking to include or connect. If I am nothing but a war machine against the state then I will (as Deleuze and Guattari suggest) become the next microfascism. But there are other things, there are fractals that do not follow the straight lines, that break off in unexpected directions and the act of forgiving is one such fractal that breaks the cycle of the state and the war machine.
God is all fractal, God is all unexpected lines of flight. We are elsewhere told that the Spirit is radically free in any and every direction. God is here to break our cycles of hurt and violence.
At the same time we should be very, very careful not to forgive a hurt we do not understand that is inflicted on another. When we try to force a reconciliation or tell someone to get over it before they are ready we are depriving both victim and perpetrator of their necessary and probably long walk of reconciliation. We are gaslighting and rewounding victims when we try to forgive great hurts like the holocaust or the stolen generations or the abuse of children in the church from the point of view of someone who was not personally the victim.
So as we grow in strength to be the fractal that breaks the line of violence, we also need to trust that all the field of fractals together, are God’s plane of action. We do not have to force a peace outside of our own lane. This may be my journey of forgiveness (or my journeys in the plural because I am wrong as often as I am wronged) and you have your own but God walks all of them.
Let us reflect a moment on our capacity to forgive and be forgiven.
Let us reflect on our capacity to step back from forcing forgiveness too fast on other wronged people. Let us connect with our neighbours to listen to someone who speaks outside of our own experien