The Unfolding of Forgiveness

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“The Prodigal Son,” Max Slevogt

The air stuck to my skin, humid enough to hang suspended and thinly substantial. Like a veil. A torturous, hot, stifling veil. It was a typical late Spring day in the Midwest, and I found myself back in Milwaukee for work and for family. And for a friend. I hadn’t planned it that way, but it turned into the most important thing.

My friend was a former friend, and we had once been very close. I admired her still, though I had lost that thought for a time. I lost a lot of thoughts for a long time. Cracking at the seams after my dissertation, I struggled to stitch myself together. Every relationship in my life shifted under the strain, and I – a mess of threads – often forced the change. I withdrew, lashing out when threatened, and I felt very threatened indeed. So I hurt people, deliberately and accidentally. Always, always reacting to the stress as if I were scrabbling at rocks at the edge of a cliff. Desperate, shivering. Angry.

I endured some kind of subterranean implosion, an upsetting of the farthest reaches of me in a catastrophic  supernova. Everything scattered, no longer intelligible. I clutched together what fragments I could, collapsing inward like a neutron star.

One of the casualties of this event was my friendship with this woman. A fiercely warm and nurturing person, cleverly intelligent and intensely energetic. I pushed away her nurturing in particular. Raw on the cliff edge, fighting for autonomy by fighting to be left alone. And I did so viciously. The lick of flames over a collapsing bridge.

It wasn’t fair to her. It wasn’t at all. I understood that a little at the time, and better later.

In the present, we walked together down a serene sidewalk in an old Milwaukee neighborhood. Green grass and bright sun. Sticky air. I clasped my hands behind my back to hide their trembling. She was all lean edges of muscle and bone, striking and beautiful in a clever outfit – always clever – and I felt miserable by comparison. She resplendent and I a collection of scars.

I apologized. I tried to review what I had done, and tried to describe the ways I was sorry. Trauma and all that stuff explained my actions, sure, but it did not excuse them. I stumbled in the middle of my confession, needing to gather my thoughts as if they had scattered to the ground.

Her voice came strong at my side: “I forgive you.”

She proceeded to explain why. Incomprehensible things like how she loved me and missed me. How she could see my unbearable pain.

My invisible mental notecards dropped from my shaking hands again. I blinked, heart suddenly pierced by a strange hurt that bloomed warm. “I’m… I’m not done yet. I wanted to say more. You can’t just instantly forgive me.” I paused. “Goddamn Christians,” I added, acting grumpy to hide soft and vulnerable wonderment. Probably unsuccessfully. She’s not an idiot.

She laughed. I smiled.

Then I finished my confession, and she repeated her forgiveness, and we cried.

I do not know when she felt ready to forgive me. It took me a couple of years to grow into an existence that could bear to miss her. Two years to unfurl again, unsteady and different and the same. Long days spent learning how to mourn, how to forgive. How to live with the very, very sad things that had happened to me, and how I made it worse.

It arrives to me unevenly and in fragments.

My friend is this mystery to me. This frail human being is able to be broader than the fracture, arms poised outward to embrace the all of me: the one who hurt her and the one who loves her.

It hurt to be forgiven, and I barely understand why. And I don’t understand how the sting became comforting.

But I cherish these things I don’t understand. And I cherish the memory. And my friend.

 

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Mary Is Brave: In Honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe

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“The Annunciation,” Domenico Ghirlandaio

Tonight, I am speaking to some of our students as they celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe. This is a copy of what I will read.

Advent has just begun. This is a period of time that marks the beginning of the Catholic year, and it marks a time of preparation for the birth of Christ. Adventus in Latin means “coming” or in better English we might say, “arriving.” God is arriving among us in Christ. We are preparing.

Catholics have a strange understanding of time. Strange is good: here it means that, for Catholics, every year is a time when the Incarnation – the Word (God) becoming flesh; that is, Jesus’ whole life – happens all over again. Even though it took place thousands of years ago, it happens again. Year after year, we celebrate what happened and it lives in us again. This is why we prepare for Christmas again and again: it is happening in our hearts.

I bring up Advent for us right now because Our Lady is fundamental to it. She is the first person that Jesus comes to, arriving to her as her very own child, carried in the secret darkness of her own body. Mary knows what it means for God to arrive, and she still knows. She teaches us how to know. Among many other things, her life teaches us this: God asks us to be fiercely brave. Incredibly brave.

When I think about Our Lady, the first thing I remember about her is her fiat, her “let it be,” her Yes. I imagine her in the dark of her room – I always picture this event in the dead of night even though Luke never says what time of day it was, but I think of the dark because the mystics of the Church say that God is a brilliant darkness – and I imagine Mary whispering her agreement to the angel Gabriel. I think she said it softly. Softly because many of the most wonderful and daring things in the world are soft. And what a world-shifting moment this is! Such simple words, and they are enough to change everything. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a whole prayer to Mary about this moment. He begs her to say Yes, trembling in that breath between when she listened and when she spoke: “Answer, then, quickly to the angel yes.” Her words are simple, simple action, but they require a tenacity that sometimes frightens me. I do not know if I can be that fierce.

Think about it: how much she gave in that moment! Not only did Mary give her very body to the task, but she also offered much more. Her faith, her life. Her reputation probably collapsed. Everyone in her small town probably figured that she’d had some kind of affair. This is what Joseph thought before his dream (Mt 1:18-25).

Mary’s life was transfigured in that moment, in her Yes in the brilliant dark, and it reveals the presence of God in a fearsome light. Surrendering deep and human things for God seems so hard, and even if she wasn’t thinking of all that at the time, Mary still agreed. This is why God loves her so much: when she acted, she threw everything she had into the action, even her own flesh. The early Fathers of the Church loved to talk about this, about how important her very flesh was. She gave of her own flesh! This is what she gives to her Son! I don’t imagine that she really understood what she was doing – what teenager would? – but that makes her more daring.

Did she even try to defend herself? The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar takes her silence in the Gospels to be a real silence: she left it up to God to defend her. She did not explain what had happened. This might seem like an offensive idea, like a timid response. For Balthasar, though, Mary chooses silence, and she does so because she is brave enough to trust God. Mary does the one thing that is so hard for everyone in the Old Testament to do, so hard for us now: she trusts. She is willing to be vulnerable, willing to open herself to the possibility of being hurt – very much hurt – knowing that she will be protected under God’s wings. Here is a woman who knows when to speak, and when not to speak. When to act, and when not to act. “Where words are many,” says Proverbs, “sin is not wanting; but those who restrain their lips do well” (10:19). This understanding of how to act and when to act is an important theme in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, especially Proverbs. Much later in history, around 1200 A.D., Mary came to be associated with wisdom. She is called the “Seat of Wisdom” because she held Christ, because she agreed to God’s wisdom, and because she understood the mystery of acting and of letting be.

Mary goes to her cousin, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. She goes to be with someone who needs help, which is always where God goes too. In fact, she brings God with her to Elizabeth. That is, she brings Jesus with her. I always imagine that Mary went alone, though this probably isn’t true. I imagine her alone because I am trying to find some way to understand her solitude: it is lonely when you do something people don’t understand. So I imagine Mary walking fearless and alone on an open road under a starry sky.

Mary is powerful because she isn’t powerful. This is a Christian mystery. All she has is her Yes, and even that is given to her. But she offers everything and she moves quickly to where God needs to be, and in her everything she offers God. God has made this possible to her because she made room for God’s infinite possibility. Saint Irenaeus says, “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by Mary.” Mary trusted that God can do anything and everything.

Mary’s song, the one she sings after Elizabeth greets her, emphasizes her powerful trust. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” she says, “the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Lk 1:46, 49). She even talks about how God throws rulers from their thrones, scatters the arrogant, and keeps his promises (v. 51-55). Mary in some way grasps that God’s entrance into the world always upsets world order, always challenges. God’s entrance into her life upset every expectation, after all, and challenged her profoundly. But here in the Gospel of Luke, she’s singing and she’s happy because she knows that God never does anything without making it new and wonderful again. I do not know how a vulnerable teenaged girl can stand torn from regular society and be able to see that, but she does. I cannot imagine the strength that takes.

In the East, Mary is called “All Holy,” and I am fond of this title because it stresses her active holiness. Holiness is not just a lack of sin: it is something positive, something good. Something to sing about; something to topple kingdoms. Mary angers the dragon in the Book of Revelation, threatening the dark order of things, and she continues to do so when upsets expectations in the Americas. She appears to a simple peasant, Juan Diego, someone like her, and blesses a persecuted people. Our Lady is the patron of the Americas because she chose to appear here, because she wanted to lift up the native people rather than the powerful.

Mary is, for us, a blend of powerful symbols and youthful simplicity. I try to remember both when I remember her, though I think her poverty and youth are often forgotten. But without these, you see, her courage is forgotten too. The incredible power Mary has is found in her willing vulnerability. In her very smallness. In how she didn’t know everything that was happening, but trusted God anyway. I try to remember this, especially during Advent, as everything happens all over again. Think of what it is like to lift our empty hands and open our empty mouths to God when we receive the Eucharist. Here is a moment where our smallness and fragility are made obvious: we have so little. But if we say “Amen” – which means Yes – and give everything to God, he will give everything to us. He is everything. He gives himself.

So let us prepare.

Let us be brave.

Thank you.

“Assumpta Maria” by Francis Thompson

“Coroação da Virgem,” Domingos António de Sequeira

Thou needst not sing new songs, but say the old.’—Cowley.

Mortals, that behold a Woman,
Rising ’twixt the Moon and Sun;
Who am I the heavens assume? an
All am I, and I am one.

Multitudinous ascend I,
Dreadful as a battle arrayed,
For I bear you whither tend I;
Ye are I: be undismayed!
I, the Ark that for the graven
Tables of the Law was made;
Man’s own heart was one, one Heaven,
Both within my womb were laid.
For there Anteros with Eros
Heaven with man conjoinèd was,—
Twin-stone of the Law, Ischyros,
Agios Athanatos.

I, the flesh-girt Paradises
Gardenered by the Adam new,
Daintied o’er with sweet devices
Which He loveth, for He grew.
I, the boundless strict savannah
Which God’s leaping feet go through;
I, the heaven whence the Manna,
Weary Israel, slid on you!
He the Anteros and Eros,
I the body, He the Cross;
He upbeareth me, Ischyros,
Agios Athanatos!

I am Daniel’s mystic Mountain,
Whence the mighty stone was rolled;
I am the four Rivers’ fountain,
Watering Paradise of old;
Cloud down-raining the Just One am,
Danae of the Shower of Gold;
I the Hostel of the Sun am;
He the Lamb, and I the Fold.
He the Anteros and Eros,
I the body, He the Cross;
He is fast to me, Ischyros,
Agios Athanatos!

I the presence-hall where Angels
Do enwheel their placèd King—
Even my thoughts which, without change else,
Cyclic burn and cyclic sing.
To the hollow of Heaven transplanted,
I a breathing Eden spring,
Where with venom all outpanted
Lies the slimed Curse shrivelling.
For the brazen Serpent clear on
That old fangèd knowledge shone;
I to Wisdom rise, Ischyron,
Agion Athanaton!

See in highest heaven pavilioned
Now the maiden Heaven rest,
The many-breasted sky out-millioned
By the splendours of her vest.
Lo, the Ark this holy tide is
The un-handmade Temple’s guest,
And the dark Egyptian bride is
Whitely to the Spouse-Heart prest!
He the Anteros and Eros,
Nail me to Thee, sweetest Cross!
He is fast to me, Ischyros,
Agios Athanatos!

‘Tell me, tell me, O Belovèd,
Where Thou dost in mid-day feed!
For my wanderings are reprovèd,
And my heart is salt with need.’
‘Thine own self not spellest God in,
Nor the lisping papyrus reed?
Follow where the flocks have trodden,
Follow where the shepherds lead.’
He, the Anteros and Eros,
Mounts me in Ægyptic car,
Twin-yoked; leading me, Ischyros,
Trembling to the untempted Far.

‘Make me chainlets, silvern, golden,
I that sow shall surely reap;
While as yet my Spouse is holden
Like a Lion in mountained sleep.’
‘Make her chainlets, silvern, golden,
She hath sown and she shall reap;
Look up to the mountains olden,
Whence help comes with lioned leap.’
By what gushed the bitter Spear on,
Pain, which sundered, maketh one;
Crucified to Him, Ischyron,
Agion Athanaton!

Then commanded and spake to me
He who framed all things that be;
And my Maker entered through me,
In my tent His rest took He.
Lo! He standeth, Spouse and Brother;
I to Him, and He to me,
Who upraised me where my mother
Fell, beneath the apple-tree.
Risen ’twixt Anteros and Eros,
Blood and Water, Moon and Sun,
He upbears me, He Ischyros,
I bear Him, the Athanaton!

Where is laid the Lord arisen?
In the light we walk in gloom;
Though the sun has burst his prison,
We know not his biding-room.
Tell us where the Lord sojourneth,
For we find an empty tomb.
‘Whence He sprung, there He returneth,
Mystic Sun,—the Virgin’s Womb.’
Hidden Sun, His beams so near us,
Cloud enpillared as He was
From of old, there He, Ischyros,
Waits our search, Athanatos.

Who will give Him me for brother,
Counted of my family,
Sucking the sweet breasts of my Mother?—
I His flesh, and mine is He;
To my Bread myself the bread is,
And my Wine doth drink me: see,
His left hand beneath my head is,
His right hand embraceth me!
Sweetest Anteros and Eros,
Lo, her arms He leans across;
Dead that we die not, stooped to rear us,
Thanatos Athanatos.

Who is She, in candid vesture,
Rushing up from out the brine?
Treading with resilient gesture
Air, and with that Cup divine?
She in us and we in her are,
Beating Godward: all that pine,
Lo, a wonder and a terror!
The Sun hath blushed the Sea to Wine!
He the Anteros and Eros,
She the Bride and Spirit; for
Now the days of promise near us,
And the Sea shall be no more.

Open wide thy gates, O Virgin,
That the King may enter thee!
At all gates the clangours gurge in,
God’s paludament lightens, see!
Camp of Angels!  Well we even
Of this thing may doubtful be,—
If thou art assumed to Heaven,
Or is Heaven assumed to thee!
Consummatum.  Christ the promised,
Thy maiden realm is won, O Strong!
Since to such sweet Kingdom comest,
Remember me, poor Thief of Song!

Cadent fails the stars along:—
Mortals, that behold a woman
Rising ’twixt the Moon and Sun;
Who am I the heavens assume? an
All am I, and I am one.

—-

Francis Thomspon

Posted on the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, August 15, 2015

“Stabat Mater” (poem)

la pieta

Did you mourn him, mother?
Did you cry?
When they took him down,
or after – borne away
by half a dozen hands.
Were your hands one of them?
Or could you not bear to touch?

Did you cling, or
did you stand apart –
silent, or
directing their touch –
hold his head that hangs
and hold his arms
and lift his feet that drag
and place a cloth over his cool face,
place a cloth: he used to like that
when he was small.

Did they have to wrest him from you,
gently,
wrest him from your arms
as they laid him down?
Or did you watch the silent descent,
gentle,
silent descent down to the cool stone,
wrapped white in the figure of a man
who was once your son.

And no longer.
The outline of a face
marked here and there with blood.
Once a face now covered over,
limp and seeping crimson
against white.
You saw a lamb like that once,
mauled by a wolf in the wild.

Did the apostle carry you home,
or did you carry him?
A dozen ashen faces staring
at you in the dusk.
Minus one.

Did they touch you,
perhaps for comfort – or their own?
Hands and fingers at your cloak:
what now, mother?
Now that your son is gone?

And you alone in your silent room:
Did you cry then, or was it too much?
A sob half-caught in your throat,
a howl seeping into darkness with a moan.
Did you fall to your knees, or
topple a chair –
rage the friend of ragged despair.
Head in your hands, and
tears flattened against palms,
shaking, or
absolutely still. Were you?
Absolutely wordless and absolutely
still?

What words anyway,
and what prayers?
A single phrase building
in your chest like burning sand,
choking away the sound:
prayer of the barren desert,
prayer hot and stretched to endless borders,
prayer of Rachel, who refuses to be comforted,
because her children are dead.

Did you mourn him, mother?
In the dark with a single candle,
soft orange tinting edges gold,
a devastated sanctuary
with unguarded doors.

Did you stand in the night, mother,
strained face guilded at shifting angles,
motionless yet taut?
Keeping watch.
Like long ago with the angel –
mother, what were you waiting for?

Anne M. Carpenter

N.B. – Originally posted June 17, 2014