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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