For your penance, I want you to pray for the intentions of one person who has hurt you and one person you have hurt, and make your communion at mass with that in mind.
My morning Lenten devotion had suggested confession as penance that Friday morning. Having been relatively recently, I quickly talked myself out of following through despite my personal promise of obedience to the program I had set out for myself. Still, I found myself engaging in a reluctant but insistent examination of conscience in the down moments of that day, spent at a meeting where I was literally surrounded by Roman collars. I had determined not to ask a sacramental favor of any of the priests there out of utter shyness and fear of imposition, but God, having other plans, put a joking invitation in the mouth of one of them when I dropped by to talk about another matter. One of these days I am going to learn (1) that bringing the sacraments is never an imposition to a priest and (2) trying to outrun God doesn’t work very well. If He has something to say, best stay put and listen. And where does He speak more directly and personally than in the sacrament of penance?
As I sat waiting for mass to begin the next morning, I cast my mind back over those two possibilities in my assigned penance Someone who has injured me….no name came to mind. For a brief and shining second I patted myself on the back. For a woman of Irish-German heritage for whom the family sport is bearing grudges while nursing spite, the fact that no villain immediately surfaced seemed something of a minor conquest, gaining at least a little ground in the battle to loosen my death-grip on pride and self importance. The slightest growth in learning the lessons of charity, perhaps?
My confidence lasted only as long as it took for me to reflect on those I had hurt, for no names came to mind there either. It’s true enough that I don’t go about seeking opportunity for gratuitous meanness, but the utter inability to name anyone whom I have injured bespeaks a pronounced inclination to bury my faults which probably meant I was burying my resentments as well. I gave up for the moment and made my intentions for the ever popular Ida Know—on both sides of the penance.
Over the next few days I chewed on that uncomfortable fact in my quiet moments and kept coming back to two ridiculously minor annoyances, so trivial that to characterize them as personal hurts required the elasticity of an emotional Gumby: the first, a religious sister who complained that I misspelled her (difficult, foreign) name on a birthday card one year and the next, when I redoubled my efforts to be correct , wrote again to complain that the card had arrived a few days early. (The expression in the South is she’d complain if they hung her with a new rope). The second a man whom I see regularly in daily mass who visited injury on a friend of mine, made worse by the fact that this man brushed the whole matter off as nothing personal, you know, just business.
I have developed a rule that, if I encounter something three times in a short span of time, it’s probably worth paying attention to. When this odd couple of folk overtook my mind for the third time in as many days, unbidden, I decided to dust off the half-done penance and do a little soul searching. Imagine my surprise to finally realize that these were not just people who had injured me—they were people I had injured as well. Ida Know on both sides of the penance, indeed.
Not more than a few days ago, I had stood, huddled in the privacy of a corner of a hotel meeting room, talking to Jesus, stuttering out an (always) imperfect confession and asking Him not to judge me on the basis of my lapses, seeking the assurance of His love in spite of them. More than anything, I wanted Him to see me not as the sum total of my stupid, selfish mistakes but as the reflection of His love.
Like the ungrateful and forgiven servant of the parable, I then found myself unwilling to extend the same grace to those who in my narrow vision had wronged me, and so failed to see that I had compounded injury with insult. Desperate not to be defined by my worst moments, I still held others bound by theirs, long, long after the fact. I went from not having a clear fix on those I have injured to not having enough fingers and toes to count them all.
Those two. The partner who refused to take call for me because his golf game was more important than visiting my father on Fathers’ Day. The guy in the big, black truck who cut me off in traffic this morning. The roommate who never cleaned up her messes. The child I accused of “always” or “never” when the truth of the matter was “just now…” The colleague whose fastidiousness drives the rest of us crazy. The smelly, muttering man with dreadlocks who stands on the corner at the post office and shouts at passersby. It seems that part and parcel of being broken in a broken world is the great tendency to hold people fast in whatever limited dimensions in which I see them, forgetting that there is much more to them than either fault or virtue; there is the love of our mutual Father and that is the greatest commonality of all.
To fail to recognize that reality is to deny a person his dignity in the moment. To do it over and over again so that a moment becomes hardened into an opinion, or worse yet, a bias, is to do real injury, not just to the other, but to myself. For sin, I have begun to realize, is not about breaking rules so much as it is about breaking relationships. If I cannot see God in His image and likeness before me, and respond accordingly, how can I hold Him in my heart? How will I hear His voice if not through the mouths of others? My priest, my neighbor...
Still considering the magnitude and pervasiveness of this newfound sin of mine, I happened to pay closer attention to a hymn by John Donne, which plays daily on my Lenten playlist. Donne says it better than I—there need be no other commentary except that of thanksgiving for graces received, which far exceed my simple, awkward attempts to ask for them and far outweigh the frustrating and wonderful knowledge that I’ll always need them again, and again…and again. And that grace will always be there and He who gives it will always be ready to make whole my broken relationships once again in His good way and in His good time. Even when I have no clue what those broken pieces really are.
Wilt thou forgive the sin where I begun,
Which is my sin though it was done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, the sin through which I run
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou has done, Thou hast not done
For I have more.
Wilt thou forgive that sin through which I have won
Others to sin and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two and wallowed in a score?
When thou hast done, Thou hast not done
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore
But swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as He shines now and heretofore
And having done that, Thou hast done
I fear no more.