“…and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…”
Years ago I watched an extensive interview with a high ranking Catholic figure who explained that true repentance and acceptance of Jesus basically meant forgiveness of all sins. Now I don’t know about you, but I had a serious problem with this concept. There was just no way someone who deliberately hurt others and committed you-name-what atrocities could one day just repent, be forgiven and be on the same ‘level’ spiritually as another person who lived an average life while trying to do as much good as possible. To use extreme examples, there is no way a Hitler could possibly end up sitting next to a Mother Theresa, I don’t care what depth and sincerity of repentance on his part. No way. Ever.
Fast forward many years later, a man who was accused of masterminding a terrible crime that killed thousands was caught and killed. Given my personal experience with and memory of the tragedy he was responsible for, I confess I was glad to hear of his death. Not glad for death, but glad for some measure of justice… in my mind, and in the minds of those who lost family members and friends because of this man.
And then I thought of Gandhi, and his famous quote “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind”. He was right. Even if we condemn people’s actions and choices, even if there is punishment as a consequence, there MUST be compassion and forgiveness. Yet honestly, I could find none. Not for the man who was killed, not for the men who arrested, beat and killed the grandfather I never knew, not for the officers and soldiers my mother remembers taking Jewish people out of their homes in Russia and leaving them to freeze and die in the streets overnight, not for those who ran gulags and concentration camps, not for the barbarians who terrorized the country where I was born, or those who profited from it or supported them. No forgiveness. No compassion.
I remember sitting in my kitchen coloring eggs and thinking how sad it is that some people in this world will only be remembered by something horrible that they did; that their names would forever summon only anger and condemnation. I wondered how I and the average person are different from these ‘monsters’. ARE we that different? Is there really a way to weigh the many mistakes everyone makes, the suffering that everyone inevitably causes in the average lifetime, those countless small acts of un-kindness versus one or more horrific acts of massive proportions? How do we measure the suffering caused? Is it in numbers of people hurt, or killed…in hours or days or weeks of overall suffering, in gallons of tears or blood?
I had no answers. And the words of the Dalai Lama about compassion and kindness seemed suddenly useless, as I could not apply them where they seemed to be needed most…towards those people who in my mind did not deserve ANY compassion, kindness or forgiveness whatsoever.
For a few days I struggled with all this, trying really hard to find some redeeming quality for those I condemn in the extreme. I thought of them as babies, I tried to imagine friends or family members who maybe loved them, or whom they loved. It was in vain. All I found inside me was stone cold anger.
And then Easter came. As usual, I lit candles and bought flowers and thought about how I can be a better person. That one year, I was not happy. My heart was very heavy for many reasons, and the idea that I was incapable of true compassion and forgiveness for others troubled me deeply. So on Saturday night very late, I lit another candle and went to sit outside by the pool. I prayed. I asked for forgiveness. I gave thanks. I allowed myself to feel cleansed and grateful that my sins were, well, rather small compared to those of mass murdering maniacs.
But then I suddenly shuddered. Who was I to judge how my mistakes and hurtful actions affected others? What made me the ‘lesser sinner’? How could I ever know how much suffering I have, knowingly or unknowingly, actually caused? Who was I to sit there and think that just because I lit a pretty candle and sat by a pool, a woman privileged with education, a loving and supportive family, and a sheltered life was more deserving of compassion and forgiveness than anyone else?
The miracle of grace, of course, revealed itself. And I smiled then as I do now because it was always there, I just needed to be ready to see it.
In my tradition, Easter is celebrated according to the Julian calendar. In the late evening on Saturday, people gather in and around the church with an unlit candle in hand. Immediately after midnight, Christ is risen, and so there is finally light. The priest lights the first candle and then shares its tiny flame. It all happens in waves, people reaching towards each other, walking over and ‘giving’ light to each other, until everyone standing holds a candle lit from that one initial source. It’s quite something to witness how one tiny flame creates so much light all around it without being diminished…just as it is with love, with compassion, with forgiveness.
And so I finally understood why I celebrate Easter. Because compassion, forgiveness and light belong to all. Because everyone is deserving. Maybe not in human eyes, maybe not in the context of necessary human laws and justice, but in the eyes of our higher selves, in the eyes of the Oneness that connects us all, regardless of what name we use to call it, or what rituals we use to celebrate it.
What could be more amazing than to imagine that there exists somewhere inside all of us the capacity for complete forgiveness, cleansing, and peace? That it is possible for all of us be equally free, equally restored, loved and connected because our higher selves and the Oneness that connects us can see beyond our mistakes and shortcomings…see us as we truly are, equally luminous beings, part of the same miracle and mystery of existence?