[Breaker quote: Forgiveness for the asking]
Reports of some criminals in the news media fill me with furtive delight
and admiration: the clever embezzler who bilks a huge corporation,
the gifted swindler who passes off his forgery as a Picasso. I can
almost excuse a crime that requires talent or wit, as long as nobody
gets seriously hurt. Part of me whispers enviously, "Why didn't
I think of that?"
But now and then a reported crime will move me to murderous indignation.
Today I remembered one I'd nearly forgotten: a generation ago a man
who was engaged in a bitter custody fight with his estranged wife tried
to hurt her by burning their young son to death. But the boy survived,
This was the kind of diabolic act you can't chalk off to a tough childhood
or unfavorable socioeconomic conditions. Hell is not hot enough for
the man who would do such a thing. I couldn't begin to imagine a normal
human being doing it. It wouldn't cross the mind of a savage, a cannibal,
By now that boy must be middle-aged. I wonder if he has forgiven his
Modern warfare results in equally horrifying injuries to children,
but they are typically unintentional and the perpetrators can say, "We
were defending freedom" (as at Hiroshima or Dresden?). A couple
of years ago an American rocket struck a house in Baghdad, killing
six children and both of their parents; the only survivor was one of
their brothers, both of whose hands and forearms were burned off. And,
of course, the U.S. government has enough weapons to kill and maim
a billion kids. Defense.
But wars are not quite everyday occurrences.
Divorces are. Fights between spouses are. Jesus said that murder can
be implicit in angry words, just as adultery can be implicit in a mere
look. Children can be hurt, deeply and lastingly, by a parent's anger,
whether it is directed at them or at the other parent.
It took me a remarkably long time — many years, in fact — to realize
how badly I had wounded people close to me with my cruel words. The
wonder is that so many of them forgave me, God bless them. Now I try
to give them a little less to forgive.
After all, we can be in the wrong even when we're technically right.
And what we think is a little needling may feel, to our target, like
a poisoned dart or a harpoon. I have to keep reminding myself of the
wise words of old Gonzalo in The Tempest:
My Lord Sebastian,
The truth you speak doth lack some gentleness,
And time to speak it in.
Maybe I'm not quite as different from that
cruel father as I'd like to think.
Our merciful Lord will forgive anyone who really asks forgiveness
and is willing to forgive others. When I ponder the harm I've done,
that's a deal I have to snatch while I can. I'm amazed at how much
he's already pardoned me for, given all he knows about me. But I certainly
don't want to leave the impression that there is anything glamorous
about my sins; they may be as numerous as grains of sand in the Sahara,
but most are embarrassingly petty — childish things one is ashamed
to confess to a priest.
Once, during my teens, I made my confession to a dour old Scottish
priest, who reacted with shock to the secrets I whispered to him through
the screen. Looking back, I'm sure he heard similar confessions from
boys my age all the time; but you'd have thought from his manner that
I had just owned up to a notoriously gruesome murder he'd read about
in the morning paper.
Exaggerated or not, his response reminded me of the essential horror
of sin, which I'm sure was his intent; but at the time I was stung.
I didn't realize how charitable his severity was. He was a saint trying
to turn me into a saint. If I ever get to heaven, it will be partly
thanks to him.
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