has been so for decades. I
used to pester my mother and grandmother about why the two ladies
didn’t speak, but they answered vaguely, and I knew it was
a secret. At the church suppers—turkey in the fall
and fried chicken in the spring—Mrs. Williams ruled the
kitchen with martial authority, her merest glance securing compliance
from immense men brandishing potato mashers. Her steaming plates
poured forth from the kitchen; the exquisite smell summoned the
countryside for acres around the church. Mrs
Ralston ruled the dining room. That is where we girls worked: serving
the diners, taking pie orders from among the breathtaking array
on the pie table—peach, apple, pumpkin, coconut custard,
blueberry, lemon meringue, chocolate, butterscotch, pecan, banana
cream. And we would trot to the biscuit table, where Mrs. Thompson
mixed feathery biscuits and baked them in a small covered oven
right on the spot, so they were steaming and fresh when we laid
them in baskets on the tables. And we would fetch glasses of sweet
iced tea, sweet being the only kind they made. The older ladies
would stand beside empty seats and hold up two and three and four
fingers to signify the presence of vacancies, and Mrs. Ralston
reigned over it all.
was an economy that could only have worked in a tiny country
church like that one, I suppose: two parish leaders who never
communicated with each other. It had been like this for so long
that everyone had long since learned how to manage the little
cold war, and nobody gave it much thought.
Nobody but the rector. He was new to the parish, his first cure, and full of
a true goodness that would last the entire forty years he served that little
church and a smaller one ten miles north. It was a terrible thing to him that
these two ladies should have carried on a grudge for all those years, and a
terrible thing that the church had let them. He made inquiries as to the origins
of the estrangement, and got nowhere: small towns
do not yield up their secrets quickly. This, too, was annoying. But
there was one more thing he could try.
knew from his study of the Prayer Book that there was
a provision in it allowing the minister to refuse communion to
those in his parish
whom he perceiveth malice and hatred to reign; not suffering
them to be partakers of the Lord’s Table, until he
know them to be reconciled.
(From "General Rubrics for Holy
Communion," The Book of Common Prayer, ©1928,
so he spoke to each of the ladies privately. They would not be
admitted to Communion the next Sunday unless they spoke to each
was in church the following week. Even my mother and grandmother
(who usually arrived just in the knick of time) got there early,
and they had told me that I must always be above gossip in the
parish. Mrs. Williams, of course, was already seated. One of
the minks caught my eye with a malicious amber gleam, and I quickly
looked away. Stuart fretted over his leaflets with more than
the usual melancholy.
Mrs. Ralston. Her process down the aisle was as always, stopping
here and there to accept somebody’s hand. And then she
turned and spoke.
morning, Mrs. Williams."
"Good morning, Mrs. Ralston."
then she sat down in her pew. The rector, half hidden in the
sacristy doorway, heard the exchange. And the silence after
it. He thought a moment and then signaled the organist to begin
was not all he had hoped. Still, they had spoken.
was not until twenty years later that my mother finally told
me why Mrs. Williams and Mrs. Ralston never spoke. They had grown
up together in that little town, two girls about the same age.
They had gone to the same school and the same church. In her
teens, Mrs. Ralston had become pregnant out of wedlock. In a
plan that may seem strange and even cruel to us now but was not
uncommon then, she and her mother remained at home in seclusion
until the baby was born, whereupon her mother presented the child
to the world as her own and they resumed their lives as if nothing
had happened. The little girl reached adulthood never knowing
that the woman she thought to be her sister was really her mother. These
facts were known by almost everyone. But by silent common consent,
they were never discussed.
along the line, though, Mrs. Williams had made a snide remark
to someone about Mrs. Ralston’s secret, and Mrs. Ralston
had heard about it. I think of the shame of the young girl in
her embarrassing situation, of her strange loss of what the world
considers honor, of her daily proximity to her child without
a mother’s place in that child’s history. Even after
she married Mr. Ralston, she never had another child. How cruel
a thing it must have been to hear that a friend had gossiped
maliciously about her. I believe that, except for the exchange
in the church aisle that Sunday morning, they never spoke again
in this life.
a long time to carry a grudge.
here it is: I have to forgive others if I wish, myself, to feel
forgiven and free. Those two ladies in the little old church
lived long and productive lives, and were good to many people.
Those turkey dinners! Those chicken dinners! But there was a
piece missing out of each of them that cannot have done either
of them any good. They could not find a way to forgive. More
than anything else, this fact stops people cold in the project
of finding reconciliation, with God and with other human beings.
It sounds to them as if they are being asked to do something
they know they cannot do: somehow come up with a great rush of
warm, friendly feelings toward someone who has hurt them terribly.
It sounds as if any forgiveness God might have for them will
be hostage to the improbable completion of this task; as if the
one who has hurt them must somehow be allowed to get away with
it—his crime erased and forgotten; as if they must somehow
learn to adopt an oh-what-the-heck-that’s-okay attitude
toward people who have injured them grievously. But that’s
not what forgiveness is.
aren’t okay. By definition, they’re not okay; if
they were okay; they wouldn’t be sins, would they? There
would be no need for forgiveness. What we would be talking about
if sins were okay would be acquittal, not forgiveness. Acquittal
means the guy didn’t do it. He walks. He’s innocent.
But when we forgive, that’s not the judgment we’re
making. We’re not exonerating. We’re just electing
to move on. Forgiveness turns
out to be much more about you than about the one who has hurt
a curious way—curious and offensive to many people, I might
add—the distinction between the victim of a wrong and its
perpetrator is not as central to the problem of forgiveness as
it always seems. This thought runs so counter to the way almost
all of us feel that it sounds like nonsense, especially to the
victim of a grave injury.
a minute! . . . you’re saying that there’s no difference
between me and the one who betrayed my trust so completely that
I don’t think I can ever trust again?
I committed the sin or someone else committed it against me is
not as important to my eventual freedom as is ejecting it from
its inappropriate place in the spotlight on my spiritual landscape.
Whoever did it—if it is obsessing me—I am the one
who must act to change things. As
fascinated as we cannot help but be with the question, “Who
started it?” the more urgent and more useful question is, “Who
can end it?” The first is a question about the past,
and we cannot change the past. But the second is about the present
and the future, and these are things we can affect by our own
don’t be so disgusted by the last paragraph that you stop
reading. I have not said there is no such thing as right or wrong.
Of course there is. Certainly there are such things as aggression,
as dishonesty, as faithlessness. There are also degrees of injury:
failing to RSVP and burglary are not of equal gravity. From the
viewpoint of my soul’s health, though, my inability to
move on from a wrong that has been done me may be much more troublesome,
over a much longer stretch of time, than the original wrong ever
was. Whether I did it or had it done to me, I am the only one
who can offer it to God to be removed from its hurtful place
in my heart. In that sense, and in that sense alone, sins against
me can function in my heart as if they were my own.
have known someone, I’am sure, who nourished a grudge for
decades. Perhaps you have even been someone who nourished a grudge
for decades—in utter estrangement from someone with whom
you once were close. Often, it is a former spouse who occupies
that Siberia. I’ve known many divorced people who, ten
or fifteen years after the breakup, describe it at almost every
social gathering with as fresh a hurt and anger as if it had
happened the previous week. Over and over they review their own
innocence and the perfidy of the former husband or wife for anyone
who will still listen. Their tragedy has become liturgical: it
has chronology and cause—credal and immutable—that
must not be altered. It has only one allowable meaning.
who knows? Maybe she is right, the wounded innocent. The fault
may be completely and utterly his, and she may have been totally
without blame in the breakup of their marriage. This would be
rare, but it is conceivable. She may be innocent. But she is
far from free. She is probably much more imprisoned by the sin
of her ex than he has ever been. He may have sinned grievously
against her twenty years ago, but it is she who carries the heavy
baggage of his sin with her still, she who still nurses the ongoing
bitterness of an ancient betrayal. It’s hard work, carrying
someone else’s load like that.
can she ever get free?
pretty sure she won’t get free by putting forth an enormous
effort of will to forgive. If this could have been done through
an exercise of her will, it probably would have been. Her will
is crippled, at present, by many things—her anger, her
hurt, her embarrassment.
might as well be honest here and admit that forgiveness does
not come naturally to us. We are not forgiving by nature. We
are vengeful. We tend to hang onto things, not let go of them.
By ourselves, we are not good at this.
we are not by ourselves.
life of faith is not about becoming a better and better person
through a superhuman effort of will. It is about connecting with
the power of a loving God. Is forgiveness beyond you? Of course
it is: it’s beyond all of us. But it is not beyond the
one who looked down upon his tormentors from the cross and understood
them. And because that one lives in us, we can lay hold of this
loving power and move beyond terrible things, if we must. With
the power that comes from our loving creator through a loving
redeemer, we can do things we otherwise could not do.
begin to forgive by deciding, not by feeling. It
is a theological decision, not one guided by the human limitations
we must ordinarily take into consideration when we decide about
many other things, like which school to attend or which car to
buy. We make the decision to forgive knowing that we lack the
power to carry it out, and so we make it asking for that power
to be given to us as God wills. Our feelings don’t lead
us to forgiveness; they usually lead us in the opposite direction.
We begin by deciding to allow God to enter into our process of
dealing with our feelings and their continuing grip on us. God
understands our feelings and their great power over us very well.
God knows us. In making this beginning, we have nothing to fear:
God is gentle with us and knows full well that our feelings of
terrible anger mark the moment in our history when something
terrible happened to us. God is not in the business of explaining
it all away or insisting that we do that. God does not brainwash
us or demand that we brainwash ourselves.
Part of deciding to forgive may involve bringing your inability to do so to
confession. How might you do this? "The Office of Compline" on page
127 of The Book of Common Prayer contains one prayer of confession;
it’s the only one of the Daily Offices in which the confession is not
optional, on the sensible theory that the end of the day is a good time to
take inventory, and that, in doing so, most of us will be able to unearth at
least one thing in the course of the day just past that we wish we hadn’t
done. So maybe you could start there, for a night or two, and see what happens.
maybe this is a matter better suited to a sacramental confession.
Maybe you need the accountability of having another person in
the room to help you make yourself accountable to God. This can
be a frightening prospect: I’m supposed to expose this
to another human being? What if he gives me a lecture about turning
the other cheek and sends me on my way with a pat on the head?
What if he thinks I’m selfish and mean-spirited? What if
he tells me I have no right to feel as I do?
for heaven’s sake, choose your confessor with care. Don’t
go to someone you already know to be a grown-up hall monitor,
or to someone who routinely ignores other people’s feelings
and concerns. Go to someone with whom you have a good rapport
and whose probity is beyond question.
confession of being unable to forgive is only that: it is not
a reopening of the case against the one who has injured you to
determine, yet again, his guilt or innocence. It is only an honest
admission that your experience of that hurt has taken over more
of your life than is healthy. It is not nearly as much about
the original injury as it is about how your life has been since
then. It is not so much about a stubborn refusal to forgive as
about a lamentable inability to do so, an inability even to begin.
It’s not so much about your willful “I won’t!” as
it is about your sorrowful “I can’t; can you help
me?” There are rocks we
can’t lift. There are lots of them. We shouldn’t
try to lift them ourselves. We should ask for the help we need.
Confessing our weakness opens us to this help.
we ask God for help in our weakness, we get help. Ordinarily
it is not immediate, a melting away of decades of hostility in
an instant. Often—usually—it doesn’t look much
like our expectation or our plan. But in the act of asking, we
it can begin to make sense to talk about a “theological
decision” to forgive. Now we remember that our feelings
often lag behind our decisions. Now we understand that the decision
to forgive is not certified by the sudden blossoming of good
feelings. The theological decision to forgive does not need certification
as real; if you have said it to God, it has already begun to
happen. In deciding to forgive, in some sense, you have done
so. And this is true even if you’re just as mad as you
ever were. You may still be mad, but you are not alone. You have
asked God into the mix of your feelings and your decision, and
now you have a power much greater than your own at work in you,
sorting things out. Right here, right now, the process of easing
your burden has begun.
and forget” is nothing but an alliterative illusion. Forgiveness
does not erase history or exonerate. History has happened, and
nobody can revise its content or many of its consequences. And
feelings are not the barometer of forgiveness in its early stages,
although with the passage of time they heal powerfully in a person
who has turned to God for help in living a forgiving and forgiven
Mrs. Williams. Poor Mrs. Ralston. Gone to their graves years
ago, now, those frozen dead places still locked in their hearts.
No doubt they are friends again. But it could have happened while
they still lived here. The dead places could have filled with
light and life and love in this life.
We'll Gather at the River by Barbara Cawthorne Crafton.
Copyright© 2001 Barbara Cawthorne Crafton.
Used by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated, New
York, New York. www.churchpublishing.org.
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