The Secret of Forgiveness
The question is, What should we forgive and how do we do it?
An ancient monastic story gives a flash of an answer, so subtle, so swift that its meaning is easy to miss. A young woman, the story goes who is heavy with child and terrified of being executed for dishonoring the family name, accuses a revered old monk, who prayed daily at the city gates, of assaulting her and fathering the child. The people confronted the old man with the accusation. But the old man’s only response to the frenzy of the crowd was a laconic, “Is that so?” As he gazed into space and went on fingering his beads, the townspeople became even more infuriated and drove the culprit out of town.
Years later, the woman, exhausted by her guilt and wanting to relieve her burden and make restitution, finally admitted that it was her young lover, not the old monk, who fathered the child. In fear for his life as well as her own, she had lied about the attack. Stricken with compunction, the townspeople rushed to the hermitage in the hills where the old man was still saying his prayers and leading his simple life. “The girl has admitted that you did not assault her,” the people shouted. “What are you going to do about that?” But all the old monk answered was, “Is that so?” and went right on fingering his beads.
It’s a disturbing story for those who want justice. It’s an even more disturbing story for those who feel that they have not been given it. But I have come to believe the story has a great deal to tell us about forgiveness: What other people do to us may have little or nothing to do with forgiveness. The fact is that there is nothing to forgive in life if and when we manage to create an interior life that has more to do with what we are than with what other people do to us. What we are inside ourselves determines how we react to others — no matter what they do. What we cannot forgive is what we have not supplied for ourselves independent of the responses of those around us. We’ve all heard people say, “You can’t hurt me.” Often, we’ve even said it ourselves. The problem is that few of us mean it.
Forgiveness is a gift that says two things. First, I am just as weak as everyone else in the human race and I know it. And, second, my inner life is too rich to be destroyed by anything outside of it.
-from God’s Tender Mercy: Reflections on Forgiveness by Joan Chittester