Shall I Forgive Him?April 17, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 24 Comments
One of the ways I spend my time here in New York is participating in the NY region of Pax Christi, the international Catholic peace movement. In March, for example, I attended the annual Pax Christi retreat out at the Sisters of St. Joseph Renewal Center in Brentwood, Long Island.
The retreat leader this year was spiritual director Judy Schiavo. The subject of the retreat was forgiveness. Judy is a lovely human being and I found much of what she said about forgiveness, reconciliation and peace quite moving. And others clearly did, too. The small group conversations after Judy’s talks were thoughtful and animated.
But I have to confess, there’s something about forgiveness I don’t get. I am the first to acknowledge that Jesus, and Paul after him, call us, unambiguously and often, to forgive those who have harmed us, if we are to have any hope of being forgiven for the harm we do. That part I get. But when it comes down to forgiving specific people, especially when they seem to have no interest in being forgiven, I don’t always understand how to do it. Doubtless a lot of people are more generous than I. But just because I believe I should forgive somebody doesn’t mean I find it easy, or even possible, to do.
Let me be specific here. I think a fair amount about my great-grandmother, Hannah Kelly (or Kelly, depending on which document you consult). Hannah was an Irish Catholic domestic, the daughter of Irish immigrants. By what could be perceived as a stroke of luck, she married one of her employers, John Osler Turner, an Episcopalian, and the superintendent of an iron works. They had five children.
Unfortunately, something went wrong. At some point, Great-grandfather Turner took to going to the bar after work at noontime on Saturday, drinking we know not how much, returning home and beating my great-grandmother. The story is that while he was doing so, he would say, or maybe shout, ”Hannah, you have the brains of an oyster.” Their two youngest daughters, my great-aunts Helen and Essie, would attempt to hide her in a closet so their more or less drunk father wouldn’t find her. “The aunts,” as we called them, never married–you can see why–and lived with and cared for their parents until they died. Great-grandfather Turner also, I have heard, required his four daughters to drop out of high-school and do factory work, while his only son, John Turner, Jr, remained in school and graduated.
I wonder if I should forgive my great-grandfather–someone I never met–for all this. This may sound like a theoretical question, but it’s not. When my own mother died, a year ago last December, I found, when going through her things, two historical documents, great-grandmother Hannah’s baptismal certificate from the Catholic cathedral in Wilmington, dated 1859, and the certificate of her marriage to John Turner in an Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1878. I also found a snapshot of my great-grandparents, taken when they were quite old, standing about a foot apart.
I am thinking about having Great-grandmother’s baptismal certificate archivally framed, along with the part of the snapshot in which she appears, cutting out the wife-beating great-grandfather, and hanging it on the wall behind my desk. I think my great-grandmother might enjoy looking down on her smarter than an oyster great-granddaughter as she blogs. Perhaps this will offset the large framed photograph of Great-grandfather Turner that stood on top of the my mother’s tv at the time of her death.
So here’s my question: shall I cut this guy out of the photograph? Or shall I leave him there to raise the question of forgiveness again and again as the years go on? What do you think?