Mercy Strewn, the Feathers Still Linger

Over at The Catholic Answer Magazine, my column dredges up the pain caused by gossip, and hints that mercy is always a good, if not-always-perfect, option.

Answering the phone, I was alarmed to hear only a deep, guttural sobbing on the other end. After a moment, the caller collected herself enough to say, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Who is this?” I asked, suspecting a wrong number.

In another second I recognized the voice; it belonged to someone who, 20 years earlier, had spread a serious falsehood about me, one that has damaged friendships and family relationships, in the long term. I had, at that time, quietly refuted the lie, confident that the truth would be obvious to anyone who really knew me. I had also determined that this woman’s own painful past was the impetus for her malice, and indeed this appeared to be the case; it seems her phone call was part of a sincere effort to work through a 12-step program, and to come to terms with her own suffering. I had prayed for this woman, and had already forgiven her in my heart, but now — for the first time — I finally said the words aloud: “You don’t need to think about this anymore,” I said. “I forgive you.”

The conversation was neither long, nor deep, and a friend of mine later said I should have asked this woman if she intended to call all the people to whom she had lied about me and take back her words. I couldn’t see the point. The people who had believed the lie, I reasoned, must have been willing to believe the worst of me, and for all I knew, such a predisposition was rooted in my own faults and failings — in what I had done; in what I had failed to do. I neither craved a renewed approval from them nor wished to track people down in order to determine which sins of my own had created space for them to accept the lie. Instead, I went to confession. I admitted once again that I am often an impatient, angry person; an intolerant person; a thoughtless and self-involved person who frequently misses social cues. When I prayed my penance that evening, I asked Christ to reign with His peace, between me and all of the people I had unknowingly or selfishly injured because of my meanness and my me-ness. It was frankly easier to forgive the woman who had lied about me than to contemplate what behavior of mine had made her words so believable, to anyone. My own mercy toward the woman, in order to be truly just, required that I face some penitential realities.

You can read the rest here. As Woodeene Koenig-Bricker’s feature piece makes plain, forgiveness doesn’t instantly make everything better:

Just because a sin is forgiven, the effects don’t disappear, either for the person doing the forgiving or the one being forgiven. To understand this better, think of the Cross. Jesus forgave those who crucified Him, but He still died on the cross. The mere act of forgiveness didn’t change the physical reality of the action.

This is precisely why Catholics believe in the concept of purgatory. We may be forgiven our sins, but that doesn’t mean that all the temporal effects are removed. We still have to live with and work through the cost of our trespasses. Neither extending or accepting forgiveness can change that reality. In fact, sometimes we have to live a lifetime with the consequences of our actions, a constant and painful reminder of what we have done.

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About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Tracey Seth

    This perfectly illustrates a situation that I found myself in last spring and summer, where someone who I thought was a close friend, gossiped about me behind my back in a particularly damaging way that caused me to lose a number of mutual friends and to cut off my relationship with other mutual friends because of their traffic with her. I just wanted her out of my life so she could do no further damage to me. I reasoned that there was no use in trying to refute what she said about me behind my back and that anyone who knew me would trust that what she said wasn’t all together true. I was confident that the ones who were my friends would let me know this.

    They didn’t. They didn’t ask for clarification or ask me what happened from my perspective. I found myself being cut off from ones who were content with taking her word as golden and not bothering to think that maybe the one “talking smack” wasn’t being fair to me.

    In the meantime, I’m not quite to the point of forgiveness, but at the same time I’ve managed to keep things fairly quiet from my end and that has turned out to be a wise choice. I found out pretty quickly who my friends really were and there weren’t very many of them. I’ve also found myself clinging a bit more to family who are stuck with me for life,

    Thanks for these words as they have really resonated with me today.

  • Corita

    I predict many people commenting to share the pain of being the target of gossip. I myself had a co-worker who gossiped to students about me! But I loved the metaphor of sin’s effects in the material world. I talk to students about sin in this way: When hammering nails into a fence, you can pull out the nails later, but you have still made a hole. The wood of the fence is altered permanently.

    I just finished the second book of the Kristin Lavransatter trilogy and I think that Undset has magnificently explored the material fallout of sin in our lives, sins “large” and “small”….the negotiations with this mortal existence that, even after we have turned back to G-d, we have to then make.

  • Victor

    Welcome back Anchoress!

    Because of what Jesus did for me, I’ve no choice but to forgive everyone for ever and a day. Because GOD loved me first so my heart has no choice but to try and love others which as most know is not always easy. Then again, we still have purgatory to help U>S (usual sinners) out if we fail here on earth but who really knows for sure cause where we’re going might not be so bad after all if we belive in a GOD (Good Old Dad)? :)


  • Nancy

    So true that even though forgiveness is obtained, the consequences of our sins remain.

    Also, enjoyed your post on Sigrid Undset…Kristin Lavransatter is one of my favorite books of all time!!!

  • karen

    I would like to know– as i have reached a point of forgiveness (and say an Our Father and then some for my in-laws if i catch myself even going down that road of how unfair i think everything is)– how can any relationship begin again? Especially when the others who have lied about you deny and continue their lies? Especially when the sight o the people that hurt you makes you shrink back in distrust and even fear? Do i have to like them, even when i have to love them?

    I know i have to seek the advice of a priest on this matter. I know that i have done nothing to deserve these slanderous words against me and i know that the people that are close to me know the real me, & the truth of this situation.

    Yet, when a MinL tells her DinL to” get over it, nothing happened” when there have been commandments broken and no contrition on the part of the ones spreading rumors– how can balance be reached again? Is it ok to ignore the people who hurt you while still praying for them and the Truth after having forgiven them? Or, do i confront them and tell them, yes- i have forgiven them, but want nothing to do w/them?

    My husband, OTOH- has been betrayed so deeply that he is searching for a way to even see the path to forgiveness. Your post, A– was a timely gift to us. Grace we must pray for.

  • karen

    As Tracey, above, mentioned– no one has even suggested that there are rumors out there, affecting my character, my reputation- even when i know they know. I wonder, if i hard something so devastating about a friend, would i have the guts to say– holy cow, friend– this is what’s being said– what’s up w/that?

    I would hope that i could be a good friend.