The practice of contemplation, especially a maturing practice, gives great insight into one of life’s great mysteries: the mystery of how to forgive and what forgiveness means and does not mean. Because sitting in stillness on a regular basis gives us plenty of opportunity to look into our thoughts, we soon come to see that we often make a category error when it comes to forgiveness. Many people who think they are struggling to forgive are actually struggling with pain. We keep certain defenses up to protect ourselves from being hurt again, and we interpret this defense as the unwillingness or inability to forgive.
We talk to ourselves far too much about an offense that has happened. A cultivated practice of contemplation helps us become aware of this inner chatter and return to our practice or at the very least not attend to this aspect of our minds that talks incessantly about what happened. Sometimes the offending behavior is entirely unremarkable. Sometimes it is incredibly remarkable. In either case, we should be able to distinguish what is pain management and what is a real need to offer or receive forgiveness. Often this takes time.
The old saying “forgive and forget” is unhelpful, even unsafe. What if the offending person is in a drunken state and happens to throw a chair across the kitchen at you? Is it safe or wise to forget that this can happen? There is an implicit understanding that to forgive means that the offending behavior is somehow acceptable. This is not a fair assumption; it is never okay to throw a chair, literally or metaphorically, at someone. Moreover, many of us think we need to wait for the offending person to apologize to us before we can forgive (often by saying “Oh, that’s okay”). Sometimes the offender is himself or herself too defended or stupid to realize the damage done.
Saint Diadochos has some helpful advice when it comes to moving into the arena of forgiveness when the other person does not desire reconciliation, or is not even aware of the need for it. He says, “When spiritual knowledge is active within us to a limited degree, it makes us feel acute remorse if, because of sudden irritation, we insult someone and make an enemy of him. It never stops prodding our conscience until, with a full apology, we have restored in the person we have insulted the feelings he had towards us before.” The problem with this unresolved state is that it keeps us from moving deeper into prayer, or, as St. Diadochos puts it, it does not “allow the mind to expand.” Anger and unresolved conflict can get in the way. Anger leaves awareness tight and narrow, whereas the way of compassion and contemplation expands the mind.
Saint Diadochos would prod us to pursue forgiveness for our own good as well. But it is not always possible to bring the other person into the circle of forgiveness. They may, for reasons we do not understand, quite simply refuse. Saint Diadochos urges us not to let this get in the way. He offers an exercise where we ourselves can cultivate loving-kindness toward the person, even without the person’s cooperation: “If he refuses to lay aside this anger or avoids the places we ourselves frequent, then spiritual knowledge bids us visualize his person with an overflowing of compassion in our soul and so fulfill the law of love in the depths of our heart. For it is said that if we wish to have knowledge of God we must bring our mind to look without anger even on persons who are angry with us for no reason.”
It is important to remember that “compassion” does not mean sweet sentiment toward a person. Especially if wounds are still fresh, attempts to manufacture positive feelings toward the offender, feelings we do not happen to have, will be counterproductive. Literally “compassion” means to feel with. The word betokens more a felt solidarity with a person than positive feelings for a particular person. We may wish for the well-being of the offender in whom God dwells even while our feelings still hurt. The two are not mutually exclusive. If we lead with compassion, the sentiment and appropriate amount of personal contact will come in due course. As Pauline Matarasso puts it:
Between us we built a bridge
Of small fidelities.
Not all relationships get resolved in an ideal manner. This is saddening, to say the least. Saint Diadochos perhaps knows this from his own experience and so extends to us this wisdom for handling a difficulty that besets many relationships
~Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation