The Unfolding of Forgiveness


“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.



A prelude to forgiveness.

“The Church doorway,” Grant Wood

“They don’t understand,” she said, soft on the phone. I sighed and closed my eyes. She meant our vast shared family. She meant mental illness. “No, they don’t,” I said, voice just as soft. “It isn’t their fault.”

I have an enormous network of family members, there are a million, or close to that, and I remember in kindergarten figuring out that when the other kids said “family,” they didn’t mean all their cousins and aunts and uncles and second cousins and so on. Everyone in my family is wildly different, whatever branch of the family tree I imagine.

I have loved and hated that tree. Every inch of it. With all of my being. Loved. Hated.

The side of the family in question, in that phone conversation – well. I won’t name it. The story would wander through different details to arrive at the same destination. Let us leave some things to rest.

Either way, I do not… It has been very hard to face what no one noticed when I was young. The awful things. I do not know how to mourn the horrible, the shameful things – that no one knew. Not really. They didn’t. They couldn’t. My God, they would’ve stopped it. Right? If they just knew. And why didn’t they? It hurts. Why didn’t they know?

My keen awareness of how little others could do for me slices me apart inside, like I’d swallowed razor blades.

I hurt. All I did was hurt. It still hurts.

It has made me angry, this question about the past. Sometimes I thought I’d burn alive right where I stood, consumed by a rage so powerful I feared I wouldn’t survive it. I hated every soul who’d ever known me as a child. Fuck them for never rescuing me. I had never felt such anger. Or, I should correct: I had never realized how angry I was inside. Very, very angry. Burning up.

Sometimes it comes up again, the howling rage. It terrifies me every time, though I do remember I’ll survive it. That it doesn’t make me evil, or a monster, or unredeemable to feel it. For a long time, I worried that I had betrayed my family, and that was the one thing I knew I should never, ever do – betray them. I needed to love them, not hate their guts. Why couldn’t I do it? Why couldn’t I stop hating them so much? I was the worst, the worst human being, to hate them so much.


Strangely, I have learned that love can survive hatred. Anger, too. It just…doesn’t burn.

That is a mystery to me, that strange quality of love. It has a way of redeeming even an anger so fierce it eats everything else alive. All red and orange claws, all breathless heat. Snarling.

I hear their voices on the phone, and I know. I still love them. I do. Even when it hurts all over again.

It is the case that no one understood what happened to me, or in any case very few did, and definitely no one did anything. It doesn’t matter: I was alone with those feelings. They are painfully difficult even now. It is also the case that no one understood as I fell apart with those feelings and many, many more. I was alone with those feelings, too, hurting in a different way.


It isn’t their fault. Not understanding, whenever they don’t understand. There is much, so much, underneath all that lack. Like some darkly crystalline cave beneath the floorboards. They don’t do it on purpose, not knowing. It’s a twisted history under there, carefully unspoken. They still love me as much as they know how, even when there is so little to hold onto in the dark. Love has a strange way of surviving…really goddamn demented family histories, and gut-wrenching blindnesses, and secret devastations. Not everything survives. Not happily. Even if none of it did: it isn’t their fault. How they are isn’t their fault. And they are still lovable, just the way they are.

Even when I hate them.

Even when I don’t understand them at all.

It isn’t their fault. Somehow. When I first said it on the phone, I did not expect the other voice to understand it, even as it seemed to echo in my ears all new and mysterious. I’d add that a weight was lifted from my shoulders, but really it wasn’t, and really I felt deep sorrow. Sadness at the strange blamelessness of guilt in the world, that saturated and surpassing guilt. The kind of shuddering thing that’s no one’s fault as everyone hurts under its power, as everyone hurts each other – which is their fault, that part.

Is it possible to forgive a strange mess of measureless guilt and (sort of) measurable responsibility?

I worried, sometimes, that to forgive would mean somehow voiding the past. Like it never happened. Like that hurt never cut. Someone once told me that when God forgives us, God doesn’t remember our sins at all. That’s not forgiveness, that’s forgetting. How much more real is it when the dark is there in plain view – and forgiven? In other words, forgiveness is for things that need forgiving – not things that go away. The remarkable turn isn’t so much that the hurt vanishes, but that it is relinquished as it is acknowledged. It is as if it never happened, but only because it did happen and it was forgiven, and somehow the wound itself is more precious because it became an experience of genuine mercy. Remembering the agony becomes a window to remembering that aching relief, that breathless happiness that strangely makes us cry. Why forget that?

“Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Romans 5:20).

I have things I need forgiveness for, too. After all. And I do hope that I can be forgiven, someday, for what I did and do. I hope that those people don’t have to forget what I did, or say it wasn’t real, but can know it in some new and precious way. For them. Not for me.

I need to forgive my young self, too. After all. For all that silence.

And… My family. I understand, a little, the jagged pathways of fault. They don’t understand, didn’t. I barely do. Must I keep waiting around for them to cry for my every tear before wiping them away from all of our eyes (Rev 21:4)? I don’t think forgiveness needs that. Not really. Though of course many other things must pass before grace finds its way through the wounds. It’s not easy. I’m not saying that. And maybe there are some things that wait for another time, a time beyond time, for forgiveness. Hell: it has taken me years to arrive to wherever it is I am. It is somewhere or something, though.

I wouldn’t call it forgiveness. Not from me. Not yet.

It is something like the shadow of forgiveness stretching across an open door.

All the Saints and All the Souls

“The Passover in the Holy Family Gathering Bitter Herbs,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti

My great-grandfather was an angry man. A drunken, racist misogynist. I hated him. And I’ll remember him, often, with my students. When they make Heaven all rather easy. “Really?” I’ll ask, eyebrows raised. “How about the man who scowled at me just for being a girl?” Not that I think he is in Hell. Only that not all souls are easy to think about, and not all mercies simple to imagine.

So, yes, I hated him. My great-grandfather. Not that I am proud to admit it. Nor was it the powerful hate of venom and spite, the hate of action and consequence. I felt the worse kind of hate: the fearful kind, which knows nothing but trembling inadequacy. It was hard, as a young teen, enduring his scowl. Watching him grin at my brother, the young man saddled with the family name. I did not feel that my brother was lucky. I imagined that it was difficult and painful for him in other ways.

I never heard anyone say anything nice about my great-grandfather. I never saw him smile, except at my brother, and that did not seem nice at all. (Though, naturally, I took it as an opportunity to ditch my brother and sprint out of the room. Because I was much more coward than saint.) And I never saw him without a drink.

Many people have stories like this about one person or another. Sometimes these are the only stories they have at all.

My great-grandfather’s funeral, which I remember in broken pieces, was awkward and sad in all the wrong places. He had lived to his mid-nineties, so most of the people he had known were already dead. The minister, of a Protestant sort, had not known him and struggled to find things to say. I remember asking my dad difficult questions about my great-grandfather, wrestling with what the death of such a man meant. I did not hate him so much anymore. I worried about him, even while I hurt deeply over the memories of him.

He was Irish-Protestant. He made bathtub gin during Prohibition. He worked on the mail cars for the railroads, and for that he had a switchblade and a gun – in case of robbery. I think he had a flask, too, but I’m no longer sure. He seemed like he had one, maybe, is what that almost-memory probably means.

I remember the last time I saw him, and this is really the point of writing him down. The point of the challenge of his being, which was so beleaguered by anger and bitterness.

He was in a home by then. My mom said we were going to see him. I did not want to, because he scared me. My brother was with us too, and I think my sister as well. We are all fuzzy. But I remember my mom said we should see him, that it was the right thing to do. I did not understand.

She bought some cards for him. One was of a cute puppy, and that is the only one I remember. We walked into his small room, and he was sitting at his old desk – a desk that rests now at my parents’ house, and which will be my brother’s someday. I have no idea when or where it is from, though I am sure someone knows. There were nice pens on its surface, and papers and envelopes neatly stacked. “He likes to write letters,” my mother whispered into my ear, “and it is hard, because so many people he knows have gone.”

That was the first stab of sympathy I had ever felt for him.

My mom stuck the cute puppy on his wall, and a few other things. All colorful and lively and so unlike him. She spoke to him cheerfully about how we had come to brighten up his room and to say hello. She ignored his scowl, and asked how he was doing. I can’t remember what he said in reply. I stuck close to my mom, both for protection and yet somehow determined to protect her right back. I can’t remember if I said anything, or if I had a real moment of gentle awareness. I wish I did, but I probably didn’t.

I was rather familiar with death by that age. All too familiar. I had seen it in faces at hospitals, had brushed close to it more than once myself. This kept me haunted, not brave. Not at all.

It should be obvious, you know: I was and I am in terrible need of mercy, too.

My mother said it was the right thing to do, and of course it was. I wonder sometimes if she was remembering the old Corporeal Works of Mercy, which we had memorized at Catholic school. One of them is to visit the sick, and another is to bury the dead. None of them say that we are to do these things only for the kind and good-hearted, for the people we like. We are supposed to care for everyone, in every way. My mother knew that, and I am glad she did. The memory remains with me with a curious sort of power: both my young weakness and my mother’s courage. She insisted that everyone should be cared for, perhaps especially the ones who make it very hard.

God makes no exceptions. Nor should we.

This is what is so very demanding about Christianity.

There is an ancient theme in Christian thought called apokatastasis, a theme both condemned and defended. It refers to the idea that all will be redeemed, even the fallen angels. While this latter portion has been firmly rejected, the genuine hope that mercy will reach all human flesh has remained with the Christian tradition – even as it remains controversial.

We still pray for the entire world in the liturgy. The whole world. For all time.

And why not?

Mercy, real mercy, has a deep cost. It is no easy or simple thing, as we too readily imagine nowadays. But I do not think it a cost God is incapable of paying. Or, if we must part ways with economics, I have a hard time imagining a place where God’s infinity does not reach. I have a hard time imagining the prayers of the Church as futile.

Surely my mother carried God’s own mercy with her when we walked into that dim and lonely room. Surely the prayers of the Church echoed in her very steps.

And, perhaps, God’s mercy found me, too, in my great-grandfather’s presence. Mercy gently goaded me. Through him, somehow, as well as through my mother. Why not? Who says that is impossible?

I do not imagine that my great-grandfather is in Hell. I am not able to know what that would mean. The mind cannot comprehend loss like that. I wonder instead what he might look like transfigured by mercy. Maybe I wouldn’t recognize him, since I knew him so little and since I only knew the bitter old man. I’d like to think I would recognize him, though. I’d like to think I’d be very happy to see him, God willing, and he me.