Somewhere near his 75th birthday, Morris West wrote a series of autobiographical essays entitled, A View from the Ridge. In the Prologue of that book he suggests that at age 75 you need to have only one word left in your spiritual vocabulary, gratitude, and that maturity is attained precisely at that moment when gratitude begins to drown out and cauterize the hurts in your life. As he describes it: Life has served me as it serves everyone, sometimes well and sometimes ill, but I have learned to be grateful for the gifts of it, for the love that began it and the other loves with which I have been so richly endowed.
I agree with West, though it necessary to add that the fruit of that maturity is forgiveness. Just as smoke follows fire, forgiveness follows gratitude. Gratitude ultimately undergirds and fuels all genuine virtue, is the real basis of holiness, and the source of love itself. And its major fruit is forgiveness. When we are grateful we more easily find the strength to forgive.
Moreover, just as gratitude undergirds genuine virtue, forgiveness undergirds genuine religion and morality. Thus, as we get older, we can trim our spiritual vocabulary down to three words: Forgive, forgive, forgive! To age into and then die with a forgiving heart is the ultimate moral and religious imperative. We shouldn’t delude ourselves on this. All the dogmatic and moral purity in the world does little for us if our hearts are bitter and incapable of forgiveness.
We see this, for instance, in the sad figure of the older brother of the prodigal son. He stands before his father protesting that he has never wandered, never been unfaithful, and that he has stayed home and done the family’s work. But, and this is the issue, he stands outside the father’s house, unable to enter into joy, celebration, the banquet, the dance. He’s done everything right, but a bitter heart prevents him from entering the father’s house just as much as the lustful wanderings of his younger brother took him out of that same house. Religious and moral fidelity, when not rooted inside of gratitude and forgiveness, are far from enough. They can leave us just as much outside the father’s house as sin and infidelity. As Jesus teaches forcefully in the Lord’s Prayer, a non-negotiable condition for going to heaven is forgiveness, especially our forgiving those who have hurt us.
But the struggle to forgive others is not easy and may never be trivialized or preached lightly. The struggle to forgive, I suspect, is our greatest psychological, moral, and religious struggle. It’s not easy to forgive. Most everything inside of us protests. When we have been wronged, when we have suffered an injustice, when someone or something has treated us unfairly, a thousand physical and psychological mechanisms inside of us begin clam-up, shut-down, freeze- over, self-protect, and scream-out in protest, anger, and rage. Forgiveness is not something we can simply will and make happen. The heart, as Pascal once said, has its reasons. It also has its rhythms, its paranoia, its cold bitter spots, and its need to seal itself off from whatever has wounded it.
Moreover, all of us have been wounded. No one comes to adulthood with his or her heart fully intact. In ways small or traumatic, we have all been treated unjustly, violated, hurt, ignored, not properly honored, and unfairly cast aside. We all carry wounds and, with those wounds, we all carry some angers, some bitterness, and some areas within which we have not forgiven.
The strength of Henri Nouwen’s greatest book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, was precisely to point out both the hidden cold places in our hearts and the mammoth struggle needed to bring warm and forgiveness to those places. So much of the lightness or heaviness in our hearts, most every nuance of our mood, is unconsciously dictated by either the forgiveness or the non-forgiveness inside us. Forgiveness is the deep secret to joy. It is also the ultimate imperative.
Andrew Greeley, writing a review of Frank McCourt’s book, Angela’s Ashes, praised McCourt for being brilliant, but challenged him for being unforgiving with words to this effect: Granted, your life has been unfair. Your father was an alcoholic, your mother didn’t protect you from the effects of that, you grew up in dire poverty, and you suffered a series of mini-injustices under the Irish social services, the Irish church, the Irish educational system, and the Irish weather! So, let me give you some advice: Before you die, forgive! Forgive your father for being an alcoholic, forgive your mother for not protecting you, forgive the church for wherever ways it failed you, forgive Ireland for the poverty, rain, and bad teachers it inflicted on you, forgive yourself for the failures of your own life, and then forgive God because life isn’t fair … so that you don’t die an angry and bitter man because that’s really the ultimate moral imperative.
How true and how challenging!