Forgiveness and Contemplation in Prayer
One obstacle to beginning to pray and living within is the struggle to forgive. Whenever someone hurts us in a serious way, there is a spiritual wound that remains. As we begin to pray, we commonly find ourselves going back over these wounds again and again. What is most frustrating is that many times we thought we had already forgiven the person who hurt us. But when the memory comes back, we can sometimes feel the anger and the pain all over again.
What do we do with the wounds so that they no longer impede our ability to pray? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming hurt into intercession” (CCC 2843).
To pray for those who have hurt us is difficult. In scriptural terms, those who hurt us are our enemies, and this is true even when they are friends and close family members. Christ commands us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us. Betrayal, abandonment, indifference, scandal, abuse, scorn, sarcasm, ridicule, detraction, and insult — these are all bitter things to forgive. The Lord grieves with us and for us when we suffer these things. He has permitted us to suffer them for a profound reason.
The Lord explained to His disciples that those who hunger and thirst for the sake of justice, those who are merciful, and especially those who are persecuted for righteousness and for the Lord are blessed. Their mysterious beatitude makes sense only when we see through the eyes of faith the injustice and persecution they have endured. Somehow, trusting in God in the midst of such things makes them in the likeness of Christ. Trusting in God means to pray for those who harm us, to seek to return good for evil. When this act of trust is made, the power of God is released in humanity. For two thousand years, this is what every martyr for our faith has revealed to the Church.
Why God Permits the Persecution of Those He Loves
In his mysterious wisdom and profound love, when the Father allows someone to hurt or oppose us in some way, He is entrusting that person to our prayers. When our enemy causes us to suffer unjustly, our faith tells us that this was allowed to happen so that we might participate in the mystery of the Cross. Somehow, like those who offered their lives for our faith, the mystery of redemption is being renewed through our own sufferings.
We have a special authority over the soul of someone who causes us great sorrow. Their actions have bound them to us in the mercy of God. Mercy is love that suffers the evil of another to affirm his dignity so that he does not have to suffer alone.
Whenever someone hurts us physically or even emotionally, he has demeaned himself even more. He is even more in need of mercy.
From this perspective, the injury our enemies have caused us can be a gateway for us to embrace the even greater sufferings with which their hearts are burdened. Because of this relationship, our prayers on their behalf have a particular power. The Father hears these prayers because prayer for our enemies enters deep into the mystery of the Cross. But how do we begin to pray for our enemies when the very thought of them and what they have done stirs our hearts with bitterness and resentment?
Here we must ask what it means to repent for our lack of mercy. The first step is the hardest. Whether they are living or dead, we need to forgive those who have hurt us. This is the hardest because forgiveness involves more than intellectually assenting to the fact that we ought to forgive.
We know that we get some pleasure out of our grievances. The irrational pleasure we can sometimes take in these distracts us from what God Himself desires us to do. What happens when all that pleasure is gone, when all we have left is the Cross? Saint John of the Cross sees our poverty in the midst of great affliction as the greatest union with Christ crucified possible in this life: “When they are reduced to nothing, the highest degree of humility, the spiritual union between their souls and God will be an accomplished fact. This union is most noble and sublime state attainable in this life.” In the face of our grievances we must realize this solidarity with Christ and cleave to His example with all our strength.
Living by the Cross means choosing, over and over, whenever angry and resentful memories come up, not to hold a debt against someone who has hurt us. It means renouncing secret vows of revenge to which we have bound ourselves. It means avoiding indulging in self-pity or thinking ill of those who have sinned against us. It means begging God to show us the truth about our enemy’s plight.
The Work of the Holy Spirit
Here, human effort alone cannot provide the healing such ongoing choices demand. Only the Lord’s mercy can dissolve our hardness of heart toward those who have harmed us. We have to surrender our grievances to the Holy Spirit, who turns “injury into compassion” and transforms “hurt into intercession” (CCC 2849).
As with every Christian who has tried to follow Him, the Cross terrified Jesus. He sweat blood in the face of it. We believe that it was out of the most profound love for us and for His Father that He embraced this suffering. Because of this love, He would not have it any other way. Overcoming His own fear, He accepted death for our sake and, in accepting it, sanctified it so that it might become the pathway to new life.
Precisely because Jesus has made death a pathway of life, Christians are also called to take up their crosses and follow Him. They must offer up their resentment to God and allow their bitterness to die. Offering the gift of our grievances to God is especially pleasing to Him. It is part of our misery, and our misery is the only thing we really have to offer God that He wants.
This effort is spiritual, the work of the Holy Spirit. In order to forgive, we must pray, and sometimes we must devote many hours, days, and even years to prayer for this purpose. It is a difficult part of our life-long conversion. Yet we cannot dwell very deep in our hearts, we cannot live with ourselves, if we do not find mercy for those who have offended us. Living with ourselves, living within ourselves, is impossible without mercy.
There are moments in such prayer when we suddenly realize we must not only forgive but must also ask for forgiveness. A transformation takes place when our attention shifts from the evil done to us to the plight of the person who inflicted it. Every time we submit resentment to the Lord, every time we renounce a vengeful thought, every time we offer the Lord the deep pain in our heart, even if we do not feel or understand it, we have made room for the gentle action of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit does not take the wounds away. They remain like the wounds in the hands and side of Christ. The wounds of Christ are a pathway into the heart of every man and woman. This is because the hostility of each one of us toward Him caused those wounds. Similarly when someone wounds us, the wound can become a pathway into that person’s heart. Wounds bind us to those who have hurt us, especially those who have become our enemies, because whenever someone hurts us, he has allowed us to share in his misery, to know the lack of love he suffers. With the Holy Spirit, this knowledge is a powerful gift.
Once the Holy Spirit shows us this truth, we have a choice. We can choose to suffer this misery with the one who hurt us in prayer so that God might restore that person’s dignity. When we choose this, our wounds, like the wounds of Christ, no longer dehumanize as long as we do not backslide. Instead, the Holy Spirit transforms such wounds into founts of grace. Those who have experienced this will tell you that with the grace of Christ there is no room for bitterness. There is only great compassion and sober prayerfulness.
Saint Thomas Aquinas on Mercy and the Gift of Counsel
As we go further into the discussion of Saint Thomas Aquinas on mercy, he explains that the Holy Spirit’s gift of counsel is a special prompting, or impetus, in the heart that brings every act of mercy to perfection. The gift of counsel, explains Saint Thomas, allows us to know and to understand the misery in the hearts of others. Once we know and understand their misery, we can bind ourselves to them in prayer so that those who have hurt us might feel the mercy of God in their misery, that they might find a reason to hope, a pathway out of the hell in which they are imprisoned.
It is by this same gift that Christ knew our hostility to God and allowed Himself to be wounded unto death by it. He wanted to bear this dehumanizing force in our nature so that it might die with Him. This way, when He rose again, He could free from futility all that is good, noble, and true about each of us.
Likewise with us, this same gift allows us to extend Christ’s saving work into the hearts of others. In particular, the gift of counsel allows us to understand the dehumanizing hostility others have unleashed on us and by understanding it in faith, to offer it to God in love. When we do this, our mercy, perfected by the Holy Spirit, makes space in the hearts of those who have hurt us, space into which God’s love can flow. It is the saving mercy of God, His love suffering our misery, which is the only hope for humanity.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Dr. Lilles’ Fire From Above: Christian Contemplation and Mystical Wisdom, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.