Brian Lennon’s “So You Can’t Forgive …?”

Brian Lennon is an Irish Jesuit, committed to the Northern Ireland peace process and involved in many grassroots processes. He has recently published a very interesting little book that I had the occasion to read today: So You Can’t Forgive …? Moving Towards Freedom (Dublin: The Columba Press, 2009, 84 pp.). He concentrates on and analyses the processes of forgiving in a wronged person, stresses the importance of separating from the wrongdoer before, in a Christian movement as illustrated by many biblical references, moving beyond the separation. Brian synthetically summarizes the process of forgiving (he doesn’t want to use the word “forgiviness” or “reconciliation” as he concentrates on the processes in the wronged person alone) in four steps, the latter two reflecting the move into a Christian attitude and its call to forgiving:

  1. Recognizing my anger and accepting it as legitimate.
  2. Letting go of the desire for revenge by separating myself from the wrongdoer.
  3. Developing a degree of empathy with the wrongdoer by distinguishing between the bad act and the person who did it.
  4. Wishing the perpetrator well.

The use of the “I” person involves the reader as if it were in the process of a challenging workshop and, indeed, the book offers insights which are grasped with more depth when readers become involved with their own histories of being called to forgiving, when the book begins to tickle one’s own life.

I am really impressed by this book as it unknots what I could call the “compulsive Christian” in me, who feels guilty while having to fathom patiently all the diverse aspects of a process of forgiving, thereby unlocking many possible pitfalls that I would have liked to avoid, but that I am called to address if I desire to heal in freedom. I allow myself to quote a passage from the book, on p. 27, that is profoundly compassionate, full of humor and encouragement:

Another trap, for Christians, is to compare ourselves to Our Lord: he did it, so why can’t we? One answer is because we are not Our Lord!
Yes, we are called to follow Our Lord. Yes, he did say ‘Be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect.’ But nowhere in the gospels does it say that we have to achieve this overnight.
We have to be patient with ourselves. One old, old trap is to set ourselves a goal, e.g. giving up drink, then beat ourselves up for not achieving it, and then because we are fed up on account of this we go back on the drink!
It can be the same with forgiving: we can set ourselves impossible goals, and then when we fail we give up the whole idea.

Brian invites us to engage into forgiving as a life process of growing in freedom and of following God, unfolding patiently the rich complexity of a love that heals us by allowing us to explore our depths.


2 responses to “Brian Lennon’s “So You Can’t Forgive …?”

  1. Kris Vanspauwen

    J, thanks for sharing your comments on this little book. I found it interesting when you coined the term “compulsive Christian”. It seems that forgiving is not simply walking through these 4 steps and then to take them for granted… It’s about integrating them into your life, and then to deal with them again when you got stuck…

    • Thanks for the comment, Kris. It’s fully in line with what BL wants to say, I think. I used the expression “compulsive Christianity”, because sometimes I, as a Christian, would jump immediately to what should be the end result of a spiritual commitment, without due respect for the way I have to go to reach there. The Christian experience of forgiveness is a process and has its own rhythms (plural, as each situation and each person and context are different). It reminds me a bit of Adorno’s claim “keine vorschnelle Versöhnung” and of the attention the early Christian church paid to the process of becoming a Christian, a gradual process of becoming acquainted with the Christian mysteries. I find the same reflection made in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison: he emphasizes the disciplina arcani, sometimes translated as “secret discipline” or “discipline of the secret”, translations that I do not really like. What is meant is that we cannot fathom a mystery of life to its full depth, and that we have to allow for the continuous growing into the mystery. On this journey, there may be key moments (such are the celebrations of the sacraments in the Christian perspective), but these are markers of the journey, not its end point. Thanks for the comment, Kris.

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