US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Day 15. Frederica Mathewes-Green: Asking and giving forgiveness

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Each day of Lent (minus Sundays) we'll bring you words of wisdom from spiritual guides.

15. Frederica Mathewes-Green: Asking and giving forgiveness
One evening recently the members of my parish formed a big circle inside the church. The ends of the circle overlapped and my husband, the priest, faced a subdeacon. He bowed to touch the floor, then said, "Please forgive me, my brother, for any way I have sinned against you." Greg responded, "I forgive you," then bowed and asked forgiveness in turn. When my husband gave it, the two embraced, then each moved on to the next person in line.

As the circle advanced, every person had a turn to stand face to face with every other person, asking and giving forgiveness. Joy mingled with tears. A woman I'd quarreled with opened her arms wide and said with a smile, "C'mere. This is going to take awhile."

We do this every year at the beginning of Lent, just as Orthodox Christians do all over the world. But when I described it to a non-Orthodox friend she wondered how we could give forgiveness without discussion and negotiation. The other person might hurt you again. You might even suspect their repentance is phony.

How can you give forgiveness? By remembering how much God has to forgive you. It's that simple. Forgiveness is never what a person deserves--if we got what we deserved, it wouldn't be forgiveness. When we forgive, we give a costly gift, just as God gives us, and we can't control whether the other person will use that gift well or badly. But we can refuse to go on being chained to their past behavior through bonds of anger and judgment. Anger is an acid that destroys its container. We give forgiveness every year because we need to do that to stay healthy. We ask for forgiveness, because we need that even more.

Mathewes-Green is an Eastern Orthodox writer.

Find spiritual advice for Lent from other guides in 40 days to a new you.