Forgiveness may be the greatest of our life’s work, and it is work because it requires the diligent, difficult effort of remembering, revisiting, and then releasing. But the work of forgiveness is not like ordinary work of our hands. Forgiving is not like writing an essay, carving a table, or preparing a savory soup. There is not the finished product of forgiveness from which we stand back, lean on our elbows, and admire. There is not often any real sense of completion and accomplishment for the toil involved.
Which is why it may be more true to say, “I am forgiving,” rather than “I have forgiven.” We don’t finish with forgiveness (although there was one who did that. It is finished.) Rather, we keep at it. The work. And the daily deciding.
I am learning this. I am learning that I need not will today to forgive forever. I need only to, today, decide that I am forgiving. And if you want to get grammatical about it, forgiveness is a present participle, not a completed past action. Begun in the past, continuing presently: this is forgiveness. We cannot decide tomorrow’s forgiveness. Only today, let us forgive – and become a forgiving people.
Becoming a forgiving person and leading a forgiving life is an idea that comes to me from recently reading Leslie Leyland Field’s book, Forgiving Our Fathers and Our Mothers. Fields has undertaken to write a book that does not prescribe how to forgive so much as to describe what forgiveness, in practice, really looks like. Its stories are tender and tragic, hopeful and hard. It is every man and every woman’s story, for we’ve all grown up in human families. And human families fail.
Field’s own story is more tragic than most: hers was a distant father. He was often absent and out of work. There wasn’t enough food. There wasn’t enough love. And years later, after having left her childhood home, she realized that her father had sexually abused her sister.
How to forgive that man? That monster? And of course there was infinite reason not to. Fields describes the busyness of her life, the thousands of miles of convenient distance between them, the inexcusable sins that she cannot justify excusing. “We’ve all run,” she describes, “fugitives from our own stories, our pasts.” Only in her mid-thirties does she, moved by the Spirit, slow enough: to remember, revisit, and finally release.
We read of Field’s last years and days with her father, of her reaching across the divide of her father’s indifference to love and to honor him. This is a story of her life, and of her journey into forgiveness. But it is also a story of his death. And I am coming to cherish books like this one.
No one is teaching me to love my mother, my step-father, my mother- and father-in-law as they grow old and frail and potentially return to an infantile state of dependence. I have no examples, no mentors for the end-of-life scenarios that I cannot now imagine for my parents, much less for my husband and for me. Where are my daily reminders of death, so necessary according to St. Benedict? Because if he’s right, I need them to live.
This book is a good read, and Fields is a humble guide—into forgiveness and life and even unto death.
“I am just beginning,” she admits near the end of the book. “I am just learning to live a forgiving life.”