Forgiveness is one of the highest forms of love; one that all of us need, and yet which most of us find difficult to offer. We can often get stuck when it comes to forgiveness if our attention is on the sin rather than the sinner, and it is often necessary to first cultivate compassion in order to draw forgiveness naturally from the depths of our hearts. I remember seeing this in someone I befriended through our works of mercy.
I used to talk every week with Henry Keats, a man who served for two years on the front lines during World War II. He had been a machine gunner, and he had purposefully not kept count of how many men he shot. He would tell stories from the war, and would without fail bring up his brother George, who had been killed in the war soon after Mr. Keats had been drafted. He never talked about George without getting choked up, and always lowered his voice as he told me, “You know, I lost my mind when I got the news.” Though he had suffered many losses in his life—his older sister had died suddenly the night of her high school graduation, and a number of his younger siblings had died from illnesses—George’s death had the most significant impact on him. George was a year older than he, and was in a tank in France that was blown up. He would go on to explain how after that, he coped with the loss by fighting against the Germans with more intensity than ever.
One day when I came to visit him, he seemed subdued and withdrawn. He didn’t go into his usual stories, which hardly ever varied in progression or details, and when every attempt on my part to start a conversation with him failed, I asked if he was feeling alright, or if there was anything wrong?
He looked up with tear-filled eyes, barely able to restrain his trembling mouth and said, “I was just thinking about all those Germans I killed . . . Maybe they had been drafted, just like me. I always told myself that I was killing them because they had killed George, but they weren’t the ones who killed George—George was in France! And all those men had families, just like I did . . . ”
During his last years, Mr. Keats often wondered why he was still alive. He outlived three successive wives, and survived the war that most of his friends hadn’t, and had no remaining family. I personally think God mercifully extended his life in order for him to reach that moment of revelation in which he saw the Germans with compassion, and through it, no longer held the death of his brother against them. Mr. Keats died a few months after reaching the realization he did, and I can’t help but think that, given how easy it was for me to feel compassion for him in that moment of distress and regret, it seems all the more likely that God’s far surpassing compassion would extend forgiveness to that externally preserved but internally wounded machine gunner of WWII.
We learned in formation that, if we find ourselves struggling to forgive someone, it is helpful to first cultivate compassion for that person. Mother Teresa once said, “To understand everything is to forgive everything.” If we can imagine what it would be like to be the person who hurt us, or what suffering he or she experiences both socially and internally, compassion and forgiveness will be much easier to reach.
But how do we cultivate compassion for someone who is not suffering, or the person who is proud of what he has done? Just as it is far harder to forgive someone who is not sorry, it is also extremely difficult to have compassion for those who seem to be benefiting personally from doing what they want and getting what they want at the cost of others. They make others suffer but they themselves don’t seem to be suffering at all.
That is when it is important to transcend our ordinary perspective and cultivate compassion by looking beyond their human satisfaction to their spiritual state. As easy as it is to have compassion when we see someone on the street who is physically blind, far more worthy of compassion are those who have become blind spiritually, and cannot see the truth or their own moral dysfunction. Our hearts naturally go out to those in wheelchairs, to someone crying, to a person that is lonely or poor, and yet how much more unfortunate is the spiritual poverty of those who are selfish, proud, insensitive and cynical? Whether it takes place in this life or the next, they will at some point be confronted with the reality they do not yet feel or see. Being humbled by the consideration of how painful it will be for us some day to be confronted with how we have hurt others and our own areas of blindness, will cultivate compassion for those who most need it. And from heartfelt compassion, there will arise from our hearts that most difficult and beautiful of Christian acts—forgiveness.
—Sr. Maria, Servant of Abba Father