-- How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?
-- Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
-- Matthew 18:21-22 (NRSV)
Victor was a fashion model: he was young, slim, handsome, eloquent, ironic, British. I thought his green scrubs, mandatory in this lockdown unit, would not be his favorite outfit. He found this comment tearfully hilarious. His marriage was dead. His businesses were “in the crapper.” He had been a high-functioning alcoholic, and now he crashed on toxic doses of vodka. He told of his passion for this woman, his lawyer wife who now was suing him for every penny he didn’t have. And he told his grief at the death of love. He wanted to be with her again, and he wanted again to be the father of his children.
I don’t see this kind of person often, a person in the prime of life, unlikely to die unless by force of his own self-loathing. He was surrounded by therapists, but he asked as well for a chaplain. Not just any chaplain – a Protestant one (and this particular Unitarian, raised in Protestant Christianity, could take that portfolio). He had been a regular Anglican – which is to say, an indifferent one. So what did he want from me?
That’s the question that came up later, as I presented the case to colleagues. I had asked the question (“how can I help you?”), but not insistently enough. My question had lacked teeth.
“Did he want absolution?”
I said to my colleague that, if he wanted absolution, I was in no position to give it.
I had been quick to say it. I had to think why.
I do not have Catholic authority to bind and loose. My absolvo te would be empty words and so, says the Protestant conscience, would any churchly person’s be.
Victor can’t reconcile with me because he didn’t offend me. Some might say he had offended God; but if so, God ought not to absolve him until he faces up to his wife and kids. Only they can absolve him. And their blessing should mark the completion of a process: a penitent moves from contrition to confession, and then to satisfaction. The satisfaction will have to be intentional, and will take time. Victor will have to name not only the sins but whom they had hurt and how. He will have to discern what can – and cannot – be put right. He’ll have to make amends where possible, knowing that he can’t compel forgiveness. This was not going to happen today. If it ever happens, I’ll never know.
So I can’t say it will be all right. I can’t say te absolvo. I can say, you’ve died, and I feel your grief. I can say, the old life is gone forever, but a new life is possible. I can say, it starts today, and it won’t be easy. I can say, everything changes and nothing is certain, including your damnation. You can’t really leave her: she’s the mother of your children and there’s no door you can slam shut on her. She may never love you again, and if she loves you again, and you her, it will be a new love that has not been born yet. It won’t be the same; it will be something else that you won’t understand until later.
How many times has she forgiven you? How many times ought she to? When does forgiveness become complicity?
And what’s your stake in this? What do you gain by assaulting yourself with booze? Is the ruin of your income a consummation that you obscurely though devoutly wish? Are you putting your businesses in the crapper for revenge? As Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that working for you?”
Are those the lines he had written for me? Maybe he wanted me to read him the riot act, and I was supposed to bring not the mercy but the judgment of God. If he knew my suspicions were right but couldn’t say it, then he didn’t need a friend; he needed a disciplinarian.
I might have probed his pain more deeply, encouraged him to name the sins that dimly he discerned. I was perhaps too charmed by him. I didn’t read him the riot act. He liked my jokes too much. I didn’t play the disciplinarian. He said it was good to “get it off my chest.” But I suspect it’s still there. Still on his chest.