By Sister Mary-Paula Cancienne
In this year’s Lenten reflection series, seven sisters offer their personal stories and insights on each of the Spiritual Works of Mercy and how acts of mercy can have a profound impact on the lives of our sisters and brothers. Accompanying these reflections are line drawings by Sister Mary Clare Agnew, a contemporary of our founder Catherine McAuley, which illustrate the Sisters of Mercy in ministry in 1830s Ireland.
There is nothing like a good grudge to make us feel embodied, alive, determined, clear-eyed, single-minded, and on a mission of revenge. Often, of course, we keep our sensibilities subterranean, submerged under a cloak of niceties and false appearances. Sometimes, however, we let our grudges bloom in all their righteousness and indignation, which can be quite a show, a bit of drama.
However, the Spiritual Work of Mercy, “forgive offenses willingly,” is anything but drama. This virtue practice focuses on a fundamental relational way of being with one another that helps to keep us moving towards positive, creative dynamics, and away from pettiness and stagnation where we can find our hearts and minds frozen in hurtful feedback loops, unable to hear, see, learn or grow, locked into crusted bubbles of narrow thought and blame.
Some years ago, I was working at a long-term shelter for women who suffered from mental illnesses. Most of the women had experienced severe trauma and abuse over the course of their lives.
It was an old building with lots of steps, drafts, stories and charm. The hope was to have a homey setting where people would feel like they belonged, wanted to stay, and then be motivated to take part in their wellness programs. The aroma of homecooked meals often wafted through the building.
She was wonderful with everyone and gave special attention to the presentation of the meals and the set-up of the dining room. The only problem was her menu did not quite connect with the clientele. Her kind, positive intention was to supply healthy meals and quantities, but it came across as an affront to their preferences and taste. And residents often had physical cravings for familiar comfort foods as they dealt with the many stressful ups and downs of their journey. It would take some cooking creativity to satisfy everyone and to do so in a healthy way.
No one wanted to hurt the cook’s feelings. A few words of direction were said to her and there was a “townhall meeting” to elicit menu suggestions. But the situation continued downhill between the cook and the community. It moved from everyone feeling they were “bearing wrongs willingly,” to where a hefty dish of the balm of willing forgiveness was ripely needed.
People who have lost everything, including their home, families, jobs, health, and dreams are often the most generous and forgiving. This community was very patient with the cook, and the cook was bending and learning as fast as she could, but the two did not meet in the middle until there were a few clashes, including flying saucers.
But then as soon as it festered and bloomed, it was over. It was just over. In an afternoon of honest, calm, vulnerable dialogue the cook and the community came to recognize our common humanity, together. The community and the cook quickly embraced a spirit of forgiveness, as this attitude was so much a part of them anyway. They moved past the bare practice of forgiving offenses willingly, for the community came to love the cook and she them.
Forgiveness opened the door to lovingkindness. The residents could tease the cook, and she could take it, and offer it back. They had taken her on a journey into a new dimension of herself, and to discerning if she really wanted to be a cook.
There was no ill-will ever intended, only positive intention by all concerned.
Forgiving offenses willingly is essential to good relationships, and as one ministry motto goes, “assume positive intent,” as we might not know all that is involved and since we are each probably playing from different playbooks, with different needs and duties. A charitable, merciful, and open decorum can go a long, long way to growing peace, and getting that meal on the table.