Prayer as the Key to Forgiveness

                      The Return of the Prodigal Son by Lionello Spada (16th c. Italian)

At times, the word “unforgiven” can be terrifying, especially if someone does not forgive us. We do not know what to think or what to do. Evil is all around us, and within us, and can easily magnify when forgiving is not practiced. However, evil will be overcome by good. How do we participate in the prevalence of goodness through forgiveness?

Forgiveness is one of our greatest weapons against evil. We must ask God to help us in the giving and the receiving of forgiveness. How often have we hurt, or have been hurt by, a loved one? We can often withhold forgiveness for silly and prideful reasons. Were we being arrogant in assuming that what was done to us was truly evil? Because anger, pain, and tension are often within us due to hurt, we must strive to elevate our way of thinking to a higher level: We must employ a continuous forgiveness of our family, friends, coworkers, enemies, and most of all, ourselves. We also need to forgive races, cultures, societies, governments, and nations. This tall order is not easy. However, forgiveness is necessary for the care of our soul. Daily forgiveness is a golden rule for a holy life.

Loving forgiveness is a major requirement for good soul care. If we examine the health of our soul, what do we find? An external sign of love for God, and for the common good, is to keep his commandments. Thomas More wrote: “If our love for something causes us to break God’s commandment, then we love it better than we love God, and that is a love both deadly and damnable.” Sin can be deadly, and can freeze people within the ice of their egos. Bitterness toward people unforgiven is a common ego disturbance. Augustine said sin is a state of being caved-in on oneself. Sins remain sins no matter how attractive society, or cultural mores, define them. Shouting at our loved ones, or using abusive or condescending language, is evidence of our sinfulness. When we engage in sin, we pollute our souls. A word, deed, or desire that is in opposition to God’s law and, therefore, his love, is a sin. Sins cannot be diminished to minor faults, softened by modernity, or rationalized by clever phrases. A sin remains a sin no matter what it is calle or how often it is done. Striving for holiness mandates being honest about our sins, and fully confessing them. Through the act of contrition, we say to God that we are deeply sorry for our sins, and ask him to give us strength to resist tempting situations. We do the penance the priest gives us. We even do additional acts of reparation to make amends for our sins, and the sins of others. To receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation is good for the soul, a sacred privilege, and a great blessing. Confession generates an inner peace that calms our external environment. Indeed, words of contrition infuse peace into our living spaces.

It is easier to love and be loved when we practice forgiving others, and ourselves, every day. If forgiveness is a daily habit, it keeps us from dwelling on revenge, grudges, and other destructive thoughts. We surrender the desire to hurt those who hurt us. We need to forgive without measure, and without count. The grace we receive from God’s forgiveness is in proportion to the grace we offer by forgiving people who have hurt us. If we are to grow spiritually, forgiving others is a constant, because we ourselves are forever in need of forgiveness.

A major part of forgiveness is letting go of negative “mind tapes.” The more they are repeated, the more destructive they become. When we have been hurt by a person, we forgive him or her as a prayerful act of faith. We live this act by no longer reliving the hurt by ruminating about it, or retelling it. Each one of us has had the experience of being hurt. True forgiveness brings us out of the dark cave of resentment, and into the fresh clear dawn and light of a new day. It is a real lifesaver in terms of clearing the air, breathing easier, and decreasing stress. The more we forgive people, the more we experience the graces of hope. Our greatest hope is to get to heaven.

As we grow in virtue, we move closer to Christ. Resisting temptation is one way to grow in virtue. We experience different temptations throughout life. Temptations at middle age are different from the temptations of a teenager. We can also develop different virtues throughout life. Patience can be more prominent in old age than as a young adult. At any age, it takes courage to pray for those who have hurt us. However, we hear the clarion call to rise above our negative, subjective feelings, and do what Jesus said on the cross: “Father forgive them.”

Forgiveness of others is easier when we dwell on how often God forgives us. When Jesus taught us how to pray, he said: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Sincere Christians take these words seriously. If someone betrayed us, we can easily have negative desires toward him or her. One way to lesson negative desires is to slowly recite the Our Father, and place the name of the person who has harmed us in different places of this prayer. Let us say the person who hurt us was named “Jane.” Appropriate placement of Jane’s name can diminish negative feelings toward her. Jane’s Father who art in heaven. Hallowed by thy name in Jane. Thy kingdom come in Jane, Thy will be done in Jane, on earth as it is in heaven. Give her daily bread and all she needs to sustain her life. Forgive Jane, help her to forgive others, and help me to forgive her. Do not put Jane to the test, she is weak like me, and deliver her from evil. It takes a lot of grit to pray in this way, but in doing so, it is easier to imagine Christ working within the person. With perseverance, we learn to focus on the good qualities of the person, instead of what he or she has done to hurt us. Treating mean-spirited people with respect sobers them, and some of them may even become bewildered by our respect, and recognize their erring ways.

How can we stop thinking about the hurts we received in the past? First, we ask God to help us because we cannot do it alone. We need his grace. We must recognize his loving concern. God wants to share his life with us, but we must open the door and welcome him into our lives. John of the Cross wrote: “Consider that God reigns only in the peaceful and disinterested.” We all want to be at peace, especially with ourselves. “Disinterested,” as John uses this term, does not mean not caring. “Disinterested” means not being overly concerned about the future, about being successful, or reaching our goals. It also means not dwelling in the past; rethinking negative events that happened ages ago. In Matthew 5:24, we are exhorted to “Leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother, and then come and present your offering.” We live with a relaxed grasp on the past and future, and hold a healthy balance in the “here and now” of today. Instead of holding onto positive or negative events for any length of time, we experience them, and let them go. John’s words make good sense whenever we think about people who have hurt us in the past, or our plans to get even with them in the future. Often we do not see the hand of God during dark times. Perhaps, the person who hurt us had problems that blocked his understanding of hurting us. We all know people who think negatively, and say stupid things. They are “worst case scenario” specialists. Pray for them. Practice “disinterest.” Let most things go, and trust that even bad situations can turn out to be blessings in disguise.

A story illustrates this point:

An old man, whom villagers trusted and revered, was often sought out for his wisdom. A farmer came to him and said, “Wise man, I need your help. A terrible thing has happened. My old horse died and I have no animal to help me plow my field. Is this not the worst thing that could possibly happen?” The old man said “Maybe so, maybe not.” The farmer got a younger horse, and couldn’t wait to tell the old man. “Isn’t this the best thing that ever happened?” The wise man said “Maybe so, maybe not.” The lively young horse threw the farmer’s son, causing the son to break his leg. “Isn’t this the worst thing that could happen to my son?” the farmer told the man. “Maybe so, maybe not” the wise man replied. The next day soldiers came and conscripted every young man but the farmer’s son for the army.

At the Cross
The cross is the ultimate symbol of forgiveness. The passion of Jesus is like an ocean of love and mercy in which all the wickedness within us is washed away. Mary shows us how forgiveness is based on love. Teresa of Avila wrote: “All that should be sought for in the exercise of prayer is conformity of our will and the divine will, in which consists the highest perfection.” Mary is our foremost example in prayer, and in conforming one’s will to God‘s will. When Jesus was on the cross, Mary gazed upon his face as his agony pierced her heart. From the foot of the cross, Mary mirrored the forgiveness of her son. She never turned to resentment, or had hard feelings against those who were responsible for Jesus’ death. At the foot of the cross, Mary accepted universal motherhood, she gathers all of us in her sword pierced heart. Many women will share in her suffering, but no woman will equal the depths of her pain. Mary knows the agonies of all her children. She knows that forgiveness is difficult, but without true forgiveness, we cannot move forward. Mary teaches us to look and overlook, forget ourselves, give without strings, listen and be patient, forgive and be forgiven. She shows us how love sees beyond the faults and failures of others to the goodness and strength (that may be unknown to them) in their hearts. Love extends beyond self-interest to the needs of others. We find our true selves when we give to others. Being self-preoccupied doesn’t do it. We are challenged to rise above our self-absorbed tendencies, and focus on those around us who need assistance. Mary knows the burdens we carry, and the tears we shed, in our hearts. She looks at each one of us with tenderness and love as she teaches us and guides us to her son.

Forgiveness involves action. When we release that which causes us bondage, gentleness springs up within us, and blossoms in our environment. Forgiving others results in an amazing grace. We forgive the hurt, and when it is remembered, it is done so without recrimination, bitterness, or revenge. We bury the hatchet, and do not dig it up for display during future altercations. Children are naturals, and can teach us about forgiveness. They fight, and three minutes later, they are friends again. Some grown ups hold on to grudges for dear life. They clutch their slights and hurts as if they were treasures, markers of their identity, or signs of membership in the “Plum” Club (“Poor Little Unfortunate Me”).

If we cannot forgive, we destroy the path that leads to Jesus. There is no movement on the path to him when we sit in our pity bog, and ruminate about our grievances. Forgiveness is manifest when the evil that has been done is no longer a barrier between us and the person who hurt us. Have we forgiven the irritating people in our lives: the annoying neighbor, the obnoxious in-law, the abusive parent who has been dead for ten years? Grudges drag us into a dark pit by perpetuating negative thoughts, so what is the use of stewing about them? How often do destructive thoughts about the wrongs done to us replay in our mind? Are we a captive of our grudges, bitterness, or desire for revenge? This only wears us down. We must look past our retributions, and leave vengeance to God. Teresa of Avila wrote: “The saints rejoiced at injuries and persecutions, because in forgiving them, they had something to present to God when they prayed to him.”

One way the Church parents us is by guidelines that keep us out of trouble. Even when we do not understand her teachings, we know that, in the long haul of life, the Church is wise. With courage, we honestly face our choices in the light of God’s love. How do we live what the Church teaches? Are our preferences more important to us than a good conscience? How would we rate ourselves in our faithfulness to daily prayer, in keeping our word, in carrying out our responsibilities, or in forgiving others? How often do we make superficial excuses for not doing something that needs to be done, participate in disparaging chatter, or in diversions that are not inspiring? We can build up, or tear down, society, and ourselves by our words and behavior. We are neither fully human nor fully alive when we are domineering, deceptive, divisive, or demeaning. We develop our humanity when we look at, and are thankful for, our strong points: our talents, gifts, positive attributes, abilities, and good traits that make us unique. Family, and others, benefit from them, even if they do not acknowledge and, perhaps, are unable to understand them.

The more we know about ourselves the easier it is to forgive. Self-knowledge decreases confusion, and corrects flawed thinking. It is such a blessing when simplicity and respect take the place of bewilderment and pessimism. It is more beneficial to admire and be grateful for the things of God than to be harsh and critical of the human condition. Life becomes uncomplicated when forgiveness comes easy and often. Holiness is a manifestation of personal authenticity, and a God-centered existence. Colossians 3:12-14 reads:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another … Forgive each other … Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Prayer is being receptive to love working within ourselves. We are made for reverent love. It is the greatest gift to give or receive. Beautiful graces come from love. It is liberation from many damaging negative traits. It gives strength and courage to do things never thought possible. It is being thankful for God’s, and other’s, love for us. It impels us to love others. Love is ever calling us to understand people who hurt us, and to trust they will become what God intends them to be. It is a great and continual challenge to trust with unwavering hope, and unflinching love.

Perseverance in prayer supports a habit of straightforward forgiveness. Because there is no limit to the number of times God forgives us, there should be no limit to the number of times we forgive others and ourselves. This is a thought to ponder especially when it seems we cannot forgive someone. In addition to healing fractured individual relationships, forgiveness sanctifies, reconciles, and strengthens the whole body of Christ.

Prayer opens the door to frequent forgiveness. Forgiveness lays the foundation for mercy. The graces we receive from God’s loving mercy are lived out by the mercy we show to others. Mercy is a treasure from God that must be passed on because mercy toward others shows God is alive and with us today. Forgiveness is the foundation stone on which merciful service is built, so we forgive wherever we are: at home, work, church, or organizations. Easy- going forgiveness is the oil that keeps our tasks with others running smoothly, and small daily works of mercy possible. The more we understand that we are conduits of God’s beauty, goodness, and truth to others, the more opportunities for showing God’s mercy unfold before us.

Mercy is as attractive as it is difficult. Johann von Schiller wrote: “As freely as the firmament embraces the world, so mercy must encircle friend and foe.” As an illustration, President Lincoln was asked how he was going to treat the rebellious Southerners after they were defeated, and returned to the Union of the United States. The president said: “I would treat them as if they had never been away.” To let go of evils that have been done is hard. However, Jesus calls us to always forgive and be merciful. This way of life keeps us looking up in hope, and moving forward in faith. Jesus’ forgiveness and mercy is always available to us. Our ability to forgive, and to be merciful, bonds us with the benevolence of God, and serves as signs of his love to others.

Mercy is a word to live by, a clarion call to hard tasks. In his book, High Wind at Noon, Allan Knight Chalmers writes about the extraordinary story of Peer Holm, who was a world famous engineer. He built great bridges, railroads, and tunnels in many parts of the world; and gained wealth, success, and fame. Later, he experienced failure, poverty, and sickness. He returned to the little village where he was born and, together with his wife and little girl, eked out a meager living.

Peer Holm had a neighbor who owned a fierce dog. Peer warned him that the dog was dangerous, but the old man contemptuously replied, “Hold your tongue, you cursed pauper.” One day, Peer Holm came home to find the dog at the throat of his little girl. He tore the dog away, but the dog’s teeth had gone too deeply, and the little girl was dead.

The sheriff shot the dog, and the neighbors were bitter against his owner. When sowing time came, they refused to sell him any grain. His fields were plowed but bare. He could neither beg, borrow, nor buy seed. Whenever he walked down the road, the people of the village sneered at him. But not Peer Holm. He could not sleep at night for thinking of his neighbor.

Very early one morning he rose, went to his shed, and got his last half bushel of barley. He climbed the fence, and sowed his neighbor’s field. The fields themselves told the story. When the seeds came up, it was revealed what Peer had done, because part of his own field remained bare while the field of his neighbor was green.

Mercy requires that we sow good seed in our enemy’s field, even though it means that part of our own field will be left bare. It is not easy. It is the hardest possible action, but it is our key to God’s kingdom.
-God’s Psychiatry, by Charles L. Allen, (Fleming H. Revell Co., Westwood NJ) pp. 146-147.

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS About Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS, OTR, is a discalced Carmelite, secular, and a registered occupational therapist. She is the author of the books: From Ash to Fire: A Contemporary Journey through the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila, Carmel Land of the Soul: Living Contemplatively in Today’s World, Mystics in the Making: Lay Women in Today's Church, and Living Through Cancer, A Practical Guide to Cancer Related Concerns. Her latest book is Everyday Holiness: A Guide to Living Here and Getting to Eternity. You can find her reflections online at