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Pursuing reconciliation

It's been pointed out how frequently and insistently St. Augustine stressed the need for Christians to forgive. For example, he urged forgiveness as the chief almsgiving they should perform during Lent. Someone has remarked that he was deliberately setting himself against a kind of culture of revenge characteristic of certain Mediterranean cultures. Here are the paragraphs that immediately follow the one cited yesterday and that set out more dimensions of the reconciliation that Christ commands his disciples to pursue.

People are quick to inflict injuries, but reluctant to seek reconciliation. Seek, he says, pardon from the one whom youve offended, from the one youve injured. He replies, I will not lower myself. If you so despise your brother, at least listen to your God: Whoever lowers himself will be lifted up (Lk 14:11). You who have already fallen dont want to lower yourself? Theres a big difference between lowering yourself and lying on the ground. Youre already lying on the ground and you dont want to lower yourself? You could well say, I wont go down, if you hadnt already been willing to fall.This is what the person who committed the injury ought to do. What should the person do who suffered the injury? What weve heard today: If your brother sins against you, correct him between you and him alone. If you neglect to do this, you are worse than he. He injured you and by doing so he gravely wounded himself. Do you not care about your brothers wound? You see him perishing, or already dead, and you dont care? You're worse by your silence than he by his insults. When someone sins against us, then, let us take great care, but not for ourselves: it is a glorious thing to forget injuries. But forget your injury, not your brothers wound. So correct him between you and him alone," intending his correction but sparing him shame. From shame he might begin to defend his sin, and you make him worse whom you want to correct. Correct him, then, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother, because he would have perished if you had not done so. But if he will not listen to you, that is, if he tries to defend his sin as something right, take two or three with you, because in the mouth of two or three every word is established. But if he wont listen to them also, refer it to the Church, and if he wont listen to the Church, let him be to you like a heathen and a publican (Mt 18:16-17) Dont consider him any longer in the number of your brothers but don't neglect his salvation for that reason. For we dont include heathens, that is, Gentiles and pagans, among our brothers, but we still are always seeking their salvation.This, then, we have heard the Lord so advising and with such great care commanding that he added this immediately: Amen I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound also in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, will be loosed also in heaven. You begin to consider your brother as a publican, you are binding him on earth; but make sure you bind him justly, for justice bursts apart unjust bonds. But when you have corrected him, and been reconciled with your brother, you have loosed him on earth. When you loose him on earth, he will be loosed in heaven. You have done a great thing, not to yourself, but to him, because he had done great injury, not to you, but to himself. (Augustine, Sermon 82, 6-7; PL 38, 508509)


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These insights need to be better incorporated into the theology and practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is too often treated as a way to "get right with God" without regard to the real damage our sins may have done to the fellow creatures we have offended. What bothers many non-Christians about Christians isn't so much their self-righteousness as their spiritual self-centeredness, their preoccupation with how their sins threaten their personal salvation rather than how they affect others. It isn't enough to say that this is a misunderstanding of what the church teaches. Non-Christians know Christianity not by the church's official teachings but by the fruit Christian faith bears in the lives of real Christians. What they know of the Christian God is a reflection of what they see in the actions and attitudes of Christians. I think Nietzsche speaks for many non-Christiansand maybe a few embittered Christianswhen he writes in The Gay Science:

Every sin is a slight to [God's] honor, a crimen laesae majestatis divinaeand no more. Contrition, degradation, rolling in the dustall this is the first and last condition of his grace: in sum, the restoration of his divine honor. Whether the sin has done any other harm, whether it has set in motion some profound calamity that will grow and seize one person after another like a disease and strangle themthis honor-craving Oriental in heaven could not care less! Sin is an offense against him, not against humanity. Those who are granted his grace are also granted this carelessness regarding the natural consequences of sin. God and humanity are separated so completely that a sin against humanity is really unthinkable: every deed is to be considered solely with respect to its supernatural consequences...

This may be trivializing the message, but I like that Augustine seems to address the one who has been wronged here. We don't live in a vengeance culture so much as one in which we are expected to blow off slights and injuries, suck it up, and move on. That attitude adds weight of the grudge list we all carry around, gives us a sense of victimhood, makes us feel like patsies ... I think that before it's possible to forgive, you have to tell someone, "You hurt me." Not in a way that invites an argument or a fight, but in a way that admits your own vulnerability. Then you ask for God's grace to accept whatever response you get.

Has one forgiven if one has not also forgotten?

Jimmy, that's such an interesting question. Down Here, I don't think we can always afford to forget. Maybe that makes our forgiving less perfect, but also less dangerous. In forgiving an addict, for instance, can you ever forget the dangers they pose to themselves and others? And wouldn't it be dangerous if you did?I've always assumed that in heaven our memories get wiped. There's nothing bad, no dangers there. And there's no time. Everything just stays the same forever. So we don't need to carry memories around that make us wary and safe.

Jean --Why would Heaven stay the same forever? I think of it as getting better and better as the blessed get to know more and more of the Goodness that is Infinite.

Ann, isn't change a function of development, which requires time? And if there is no time in heaven, then how can things change? At least in the earthly sense that we understand it? I see Purgatory as the place where, if there's anything left for God to work with, you get better and better.

Any time you start talking about different sorts of time, you get into philosophical tangles, I think. For one thing, notions of different times are involved with the notion of infinity, and that always seems to run us into contradictions. But as usual, I see philosophical contradictions as grounded in our inadequate concepts, so I just ignore them and wait for more clarification of them, which may or may not appear..In the meantime, I think of eternal things by using my concepts of this world and see how far those concepts can take us. In the case of Heaven, God's instantaneous eternity is not the same thing as aeveternity -- the sort of duration had by us human beings in our next world. Our time there (or so the scholastics believed) is somehow between our earthly time and God's eternity. And, because of my other theological beliefs, especially my belief in the communion of saints, I can't help but think that we'll make new friends in Heaven, and that will take time of some sort. Also it seems to me that the Kingdom will actually exist in this (revolutionized) world as well as in the aeveternity we seem to be promised. All this raises the question: what is time? As I remember, St. Augustine was fascinating on the subject (in his Confessions), but I don't remember just what he said about it. Add to that Einstein's shaking up of the meaning of "simultaneous", and I suspect that the modern mathematicians and logicians could help with some of the puzzles of many-dimensioned realities. Augustine would no doubt have loved them.

The Israeli philosopher, Avishai Margalit, has a wonderful book,The Ethics of Memory. One of his topics is to explore the circumstances under wish we ought to remember and those under which we ought to forget. This seems to me central to the question of how we interact with both our fellow humans (and also, perhaps, with our Lord) in matters of forgiveness. Margalit treats the questions in terms of both individual interactions and also in matters across political/social tribulations. He considerations are very acute and rich, and although not at all drawn in a Catholic or even a Christian context, very much worth consideration. Mark

For me and for many, the Prodigal Son is the near perfect model of forgiveness and reconciliation, whether the father is seen as Our Father in heaven or as any human being who has been wronged.As a human, he did not refuse his son's demand for his inheritance, although he must have sensed that nothing good would come of it. He did not pursue his son to argue against his folly or try to mitigate the harm he was doing to himself. He remained quietly at home, knowing that his dear son must endure the consequences of his actions before there was any real hope of a return.Did the father forget his son? Surely not. For he saw him when he was still a long way off, as if he had been watching every day, and came running to embrace him and kiss him. What the father had plainly put out of his mind was the injury done to himself. The story doesn't tell us explicitly, but I think that may have been a long, slow, fully conscious process. There's no denying that fresh injuries sting, and left to themselves they linger, hardening into resentment and constantly popping out of their hiding places in the mind to tell us how much we are aggrieved and how that ungrateful ________ deserves payback. They can't be overcome head-on. They need to be forgotten by patiently, even tediously turning away to better thoughts. I like to remember at such times that, for all my "troubles," I am in some ways one of the most fortunate people who have ever lived (keeping in mind, of course, Solon's advice to call no man blessed until he is dead).So the father kept his estate prosperous, cared for his workers, loved his dutiful but less forgetful elder son, and carried on in peace, until he was able to rejoice with an undarkened joy on the great day.

Ann, the Voyage of St. Brendan has long been a fascination of mine. It includes some interesting ideas about earthly and heavenly time. Mark, I find memory interesting. So much of the oral tradition before literacy was about not forgetting. You were told important stories that underscored your culture's norms and values, and you conformed to those stories. My theory is that now we can capture any amount of ephemera, important or not, and it all becomes "material" for our selective memories that we tailor to suit our own view of reality. Can we really forget things at will because it's ethical to do so? It seems to me that memory recedes over time (there's time again), and we can either let it do so or keep it alive actively. Anyway, apologies for taking the thread too far afield.

What should the person do who suffered the injury? What weve heard today: If your brother sins against you, correct him between you and him alone. If you neglect to do this, you are worse than he. He injured you and by doing so he gravely wounded himself. Do you not care about your brothers wound? You see him perishing, or already dead, and you dont care? Your worse by your silence than he by his insults.It seems pretty clear to me that Augustine is telling us that the victim is the lesser aggrieved party compared to the perpetrator. In other words, the sinners are damaging themselves more than anyone else. That is completely contrary to the US culture where society is focused on exacting 'justice' on the perpetrator; and where a typical response to societal evils is 'Its not hurting you'. Both are exactly the opposite of Augustine's prescription.Also, there is no admonition to forget, but rather to act.

"the Prodigal Son is the near perfect model of forgiveness and reconciliation"Was that yesterday's Gospel? (I ask, because at the Mass I went to I heard about separating out the sheep and the goats, and I thought it was supposed to be the Prodigal Son). And last week, when everyone else heard about the woman at the well, at the Mass I went to it was about destroying the barren fig tree.I like the Gospel readings I'm missing much more than the ones I'm hearing, so I 'm wondering what's going on.I think when you forgive (not necessarily forget), you do it more for your own sake than anyone else's. Life is so much better when you shed some of your grudges.And I think forgiveness is especially important in a family context. I know a few different people who have spent years angry at their parents (mostly for good reason); those who were able to put it aside were glad they did so (especially after some of those parents passed away).

Irene, there are two possible sets of readings this Lent. We are in year C so the readings should be the barren fig tree last week, the prodigal son yesterday, and the adulterous woman next week; unless there are some adults preparing to be baptized on the Easter vigil, in which case you would be hearing the readings of year A, that are more appropriate for RCIA candidates (and I don't remember what they are, except that, I think, the Samaritan woman is one of them.)

Not sure about why you would have heard about sheep and goats. Maybe yesterday there was a special occasion at your parish? Sometimes presiders may deviate from the normal readings when there is a good reason for it. (For example, tomorrow in Rome the cardinals are hearing some readings tailored to the occasion.)

Thanks Clare- I haven't been at my parish the past couple of weeks. (the barren fig tree one was actually a pretty nice Mass: that Sunday was also the Feast of Katherine Drexel and I went to Mass at her shrine in Philly). The sheep-and-goats was at a special Girl Scouts mass; I do hope all the little Brownies one day end up with the sheepI guess its good there's flexibility with the readings.

Just confirming Claire's info from 3/11 10:37. The Cycle A reading for yesterday would have been the story of the man born blind.I suppose many folks know this already: the US bishops' website has a pretty convenient calendar that shows the appointed lectionary readings - including all the options when there are options - for every day of the year.This URL is to the landing page for this past Sunday's readings, with links to the two sets of readings. You'll see the calendar for all of March on the right side of the page. That calendar also appears on the USCCB home page (

Since the issue of forgiveness has come on this thread also, I'm reposting what I sent to Ann Olivier on the previous thread of mine:Ann: In a tribute to your insistence on linguistic usage, I checked the OED and found these three descriptions pertinent to your question:

2. To give up, cease to harbour (resentment, wrath). Also, to give up ones resolve (to do something). Obs.3. To remit (a debt); to give up resentment or claim to requital for, pardon (an offence)4. To give up resentment against, pardon (an offender). Also (now rarely) to abandon ones claim against (a debtor).

Matthew Boudway's comment is deserving of a lot of consideration and conversation. Not to bore everyone with personal spiritual testimony, but figuring out this element of reconciliation - that I, the sinner, have responsibility not only to myself and to God, but also to the one who has been injured - has been one of the big turning points in my spiritual development. And, if I may say so, as an adult.The sacrament of reconciliation isn't a series of intermittent points on the timelines of our lives - it is a way of life. There are opportunities for reconciliation every day in our lives, either as the injurer or the injuree, or, not infrequently, both at the same time.Here is an article from America Magazine, written by Avery Dulles, SJ (I think before he became Cardinal Dulles) that is a pretty readable exposition of the sacrament and its dimensions.

One of the best treatments of asking for forgiveness as part of growth in maturity is in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. After playing a trick on Jim, and realizing the impact that it had, Huck apologizes to Jim. Huck grew up in a culture where dehumanizing a black man was part of the norm and his apology is an implicit recognition of the dignity of Jim.Asking forgiveness, and showing sorrow for hurting another, is a very, very difficult task but is most important. Forgiving, is also an act of grace and freeing from bondage.This section on forgiveness is very good and I will copy it for future reference. Forgiveness is so challenging for many people and the way Augustine explains it here is free of any sentimentality. I like how he links it to justice and that is important.Good reflection for the week. Thanks for posting it.

Again, and apparently I'm the only one, who finds this pretty radical and difficult to wrestle with:"What should the person do who suffered the injury? What weve heard today: 'If your brother sins against you, correct him between you and him alone.' If you neglect to do this, you are worse than he. He injured you and by doing so he gravely wounded himself. Do you not care about your brothers wound? You see him perishing, or already dead, and you dont care? Your [sic] worse by your silence than he by his insults."Augustine seems to make the victim responsible in some way for the offender. I can think of times when victims have duties to other to say something, e.g., failing to report a crime--say a sex offense that might be humiliating--which allows the offender to persist in his behavior.But to say that the victim who fails to remonstrate with the sinner is worse than the sinner? In all cases? That takes some thinking about.

Jean: Thanks for the "sic"; I've fixed the typo. I don't think that Augustine was legislating for "all cases."

Jean, I have certainly barely touched the large body of work by Augustine. But it really seems that in some cases his thinking was a bit off-key. This is especially true in his ideas about women, his ideas about marriage and sexuality. (and, for me, his definition of original sin). Some of his other conclusions might also reflect certain biases, perhaps arising from his life and his community and his time in history. I wonder sometimes why some of the ancients, great though they may be, and great especially for their time in history, are so often quoted as if they were stating a "gospel" truth. They were men - men who lived in a certain time in history, in confined communities and certainly influenced by the cultural contexts of their period of history, of their communities and of their generation. No one questions that Augustine was a great thinker, but he was not infallible. Certainly there is nothing wrong in challenging some of his ideas when they don't seem to make sense. Perhaps further study of his notions of forgiveness and reconciliation might clarify matters. On the other hand, perhaps this is it and some would agree that if this is all there is, he was wrong.

Anne, I don't think any one of the Church's fathers or doctors is infallible, but they do offer insights about the faith that may afford new ways to think about it. As above.Yes, I sometimes think St. Augustine can be off-putting about some things, and he takes quite a radical line on some things (as noted above). But I'm not sure temperance in faith is a virtue. At least that's worth thinking about.Father, with my reputation for typo's I've got no business [sic]ing anyone, really.

Jean and Anne --Yes, sometimes Augustine can be off-putting. But I think that it is at least partly because he exaggerates to make a point, to jog us into changing our ways. Even Jesus sometimes did the same thing -- the pluck-out-thine-eye thing that seems to have been a kind of rhetoric that doesn't work these days.

JAK --Thanks for the definitions. They're a help. I find forgiveness so complex that it's hard to even begin to analyse the meaning(s)/concept(s). But it's also hard because it is psychologically so difficult to confront it == we so often really, really don't want to forgive, what we really, really want is revenge, and even to think of ourselves as vengeful is extremely off-putting. What??? Sweet me vengeful? No way!!! But it's true nevertheless. So I want to avoid the subject even though it is central to Christian belief and practice.

I'm not sure about confronting the sinner, either. I've heard some pretty self-righteous people say really rotten things about others' behavior and then try and pass it off as "fraternal correction". I don't know what that means, but I don't usually see anything fraternal in the tone or comment of the person offering the "correction".And didn't Jesus have a whole lot to say about not judging other people, and worrying about the log in your own eye, not the speck in someone elses?

Perhaps we can all stipulate that none of this should be done self-righteously. But is that the only way in which it could be done? And what are we to make of Matthew 18:15-18, which begins: "If your brother offend you, go and rebuke him between you and him...."? Jesus also said this, and it was this text that Augustine was commenting on.

Ann: While looking for something else, I discovered that five years ago on this blog I initiated a thread on the philosopher Griswold's book on forgiveness. You'll find it here:

On the theme of asking for forgiveness and giving and its relation to gender, allow me to offer a brief anecdote.I manage a court program for people with mental health issues and low to medium offenses. People have the opportunity to have their criminal charge withdrawn if they do certain specific things in a designated period. In cases of theft or simple assault, this involves a letter of apology. This seems like a fairly minor, reasonable thing to do. Surprise!For men, this is usually not a problem but for women this is hugely complicated and takes a lot of discussion, etc. The act of putting on a piece of paper and owning their side of the problem is a huge obstacle to overcome. Usually, the conversation is around well "they did x, y and z so why should I have to be the one to apologize...and on and on.."So our workers have to explain that they were the ones who were charged which in turns gets into a debate around justice, etc. Yes, their views are validated is the present situation.The apology is usually written (albeit insincerely) but the act of doing that seemingly minor task is very, very difficult.

Fr. Komonchak said: Perhaps we can all stipulate that none of this should be done self-righteously. But is that the only way in which it could be done? And what are we to make of Matthew 18:15-18, which begins: If your brother offend you, go and rebuke him between you and him.? Jesus also said this, and it was this text that Augustine was commenting on.Jean responds: Worth thinking about whether the emphasis should be on "rebuke"? Or on "between you and him"?

George D, interesting observation. Is what you're observing a function of gender? Or of mental illness? Do your female co-workers notice the same thing? How do they explain it?

I don't think I should be rebuking people of whom I disapprove or who have somehow disappointed me; it just seems very self-indulgent and I'm not seeing it going anywhere good. What are some concrete examples of where this would be a useful exercise?

Jesus speaks of one who has "committed some wrong against you," which doesn't strike me as a matter merely of disapproval or disappointment. Examples: a co-worker who has told a lie about you; a sibling who has made a decision that concerns you without consulting you; the executor of an estate who does not tell you what you have coming to. Recent posts remind me of a description I heard of a class given by the famous Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., on fraternal correction. After citing the words of Jesus in Mt 18:16-18, he said that this authoritative word of the Lord states a positive command. But positive commands, unlike the negative ones, bind only under certain conditions. He mentioned two conditions: 1) that the fraternal correction be done out of love and not out of anger or for some low motive; and 2) that there be some spes fructus, some hope of success. He concluded, "Gentlemen, these two conditions are hardly ever both realized." Which, of course, meant that we could safely ignore the word of the Lord that it be the person offended who initiates the effort at reconciliation.

HI Jean:it is a function of gender. I am not in a direct service capacity. It is the female staff who are working with the female clients.It is not a result of mental health issue either.The clients that we work are all be considered "fit to stand trial" and "criminally responsible" (meaning even if they have a mental health issue that issue in and of itself did not have an impact on their conduct). Up here, we do not have not guilty by reason of insanity but an assessment by a forensic psychiatric facility that a person is not criminally responsible. It is ultimately up to the judge and not the psychiatrist to make that finding although, obviously, in almost all cases the judge relies on the assessment of the psychiatrist.All of our clients are fit and criminally responsible although if there is a question mark around that or if the offense is more serious, they can be referred or ordered for a fitness and criminal responsibility assessment which is a different process.Long story short, it does not have a lot to do with mental illness. The clients all have capacity and can make decisions (not always good ones, but decisions nonetheless). Most of the presenting mental health issues are in the mood disorder category coupled with some personality disorder. But what they are claiming is not always totally irrational. There are all kinds of situations that lead up to an action. But bottom line, even though that is true, you cannot say or do certain things and you have to be responsible for that.I agree it is an interesting anecdote that we observe from some but not all women (generally of course many men are the same and it is not uncommon across the board for clients to come up with all kinds of rationalizations or blaming others and so on). But I don't think that is unique to mental health either. Recognizing wrong doing and asking for pardon is difficult for all of us.

PSI came across an interesting article that found that in cases of divorce, women are statistically far more likely to blame their spouse for the dissolution of the marriage than vice versa. Men are more likely to take some blame themselves or other factors.Not making a judgement right or wrong about that.....just a finding I came across but cannot find the article at the moment.

"He mentioned two conditions: 1) that the fraternal correction be done out of love and not out of anger or for some low motive; and 2) that there be some spes fructus, some hope of success. He concluded, 'Gentlemen, these two conditions are hardly ever both realized.' Which, of course, meant that we could safely ignore the word of the Lord that it be the person offended who initiates the effort at reconciliation."Nobody's paying attention to this thread anymore b/c of the new pope, but I think that those who have been harmed by family members who are addicts often meet both conditions above.


About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.