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?



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  1. Marian, of course leave him in. You need to be reminded that you had one ancestor who was not smarter than an oyster — him!


  2. Cut him out of the picture, and forgive as you cut and FORGET .
    Shirley Beaupre


  3. It seems that your mother forgave her grandfather, placing his picture prominently on her TV. Or maybe not. What can you learn from her? Did you ever ask her about her feelings toward John O.Turner?

    Bill Burrows’ references to causes of one’s pain and in turn inflicting pain are helpful, I think, and may help you find a way to forgiveness.


  4. This is very very good.
    Thank you.


  5. Keep him in as a conduit and reminder of the greatness you are called to, I value the opportunities I have had to forgive; for me forgiveness is the biggest expression of my love for God. I began forgiving( big huge stuff) for one reason and one reason alone: I love God and God asked me to. I began doing it for God and ended up doing it for myself because I discovered it is an essential pathway to becoming full human and fully divine it takes a truly great and generous spirit (the Holy Spirit?) to see beyond the behaviour to the neediness crying out for love and healing.


    • Judy, I appreciate your thoughtful way of respopnding to my question. I think that a lot of people on my mother’s side of the family, including her grandfather John Turner and a number of his children, really were hurt people, though it’s a great pity, too, when they try to avange such hurt via others. Ah, life.


  6. This is really poignant, Marian — and now I understand a bit more about your aversion to Episcopalians! I guess I do think of forgiveness as a spiritual discipline. And, like all discipline, it’s never easy or comfortable. It’s also a reminder of our own frailties. My own experience (for what it’s worth) is that my reluctance to forgive someone is more harmful and corrosive to me than to the person I should forgive.



  7. A lot of wisdom, it seems to me, in these earlier replies (even if the actions are different).

    In terms of what to do, I was thinking along these lines. I would have just the picture of your great grandmother above your desk (adjacent to the archivally framed baptismal certificate — what a nice idea!). If you have any qualms about it, remember how, for the photograph, she placed herself a foot apart from her husband. I think she’d enjoy having this sole, honored space above her appreciative and utterly, un-oyster-like- brained great granddaughter.

    But, I would also keep a copy of the joint photo, reduced in size, and placed in a nice frame near perhaps some religious iconography (a framed prayer of St. Francis maybe?). For a couple of reasons. After all, Great Grandfather Turner is a part of your family’s story. Moreover, glancing occasionally at the two of them will serve as a reminder of the love gifted you in your own life and marriage. A mysterious gift. Equal only, I suppose, to the mysterious power we humans have to forgive even the unforgivable.

    Happy birthday with love!



  8. I am a male descendant of an Irish family line from around Limerick that arrived in the United States in 1848. My forebears migrated to Iowa where three generations farmed in Tama Country from the 1870s till Grandpa Kearney died in about 1954. Drink was the curse and it caused violence and — I have solid but inconclusive evidence — incest. Two of my mothers’ brothers became alcoholics and one of her four sisters became a paranoid schizophrenic, spending almost 40 years in a VA Hospital (she had been an Army nurse during WW2); a second was emotionally fragile and obsessive compulsive. My mother and a fourth sister were relatively healthy. Their oldest brother died of a brain hemorrhage when he was just 40. One of the alcoholic brothers beat up my grandfather on a Saturday evening in the summer of 1938, walked off the farm, and did not return till my Grandma Kearney (née Hamill) died in 1953.

    She was a saint, but alcoholism was passed on to my generation. One of my brothers died of its ravages two years after he stopped drinking; a second died at 62, his health compromised by early heavy drinking; a third drinks too much and is underemployed. In January of 2012, I stood by my brother’s open grave and all I could feel was sadness that so much pathology could exist in a family I loved so dearly. Yet such pathology is not rare, neither is it confined to the Irish.

    Why mention all this? In part because if one goes back into Irish history, one finds the Irish being subjugated by the British and governed under increasingly intolerable conditions from the Twelfth Century into the Twentieth. You cannot blame everything that went wrong in Ireland or the English, nor can you say that Irish culture is totally sick. Nevertheless, when the Irish came to this country, they brought with the result of generation upon generation upon generation of the kind of pathologies that develop when you’re not allowed to reach your potential. The social-psychological results of oppression are not pretty … and they endure.

    And one of those pathologies, I’d like to suggest, is the evolution of Irish matriarchs into people who had to rule their families with iron hands because of what happened to their men. Men who felt inadequate because they could not support their families and lapsed into shame in the face of these strong women – whose love and respect they desired, women who were so exhausted from bearing burdens that they had little energy for anything else. Turning to drink, too many of the men beat wives and children. Why? To show that at least they had physical strength? I do not know.

    But if Marian cuts Great-Grandfather Turner out of the picture for acting as he saw many other men act, what does she do about the men who taught him it was okay to beat women? And what does one do about those who made her great-great-great Grandfathers hard men by stealing their land and the work of their hands? And what does one do about the English (who were in the 12th Century really Normans who began their Irish adventures as part of an attempt to subdue the Vikings who sought to subdue the Normans as the power of Rome erodes in the Fifth Century)? And to get behind that, one needs to deal with the movement of Frankish nations into Western Europe as Slavic nations were pressured by Mongol invaders.

    When one begins trying to find the roots of violence, eventually lapses into pseudo-science or arrives back at one or another cultural version the mythical Adam, whose story was told to give an answer to the question, “How did evil start?” The origins of evil and violence are a mystery. The reality is undeniable, though modern Westerners do their best to explain it away.

    His teaching on forgiving seven times seventy is Jesus’s way of saying that somewhere violence and grudges have to stop. He is saying in effect, “If you want to follow me, begin with stopping it in your own life.” Other religious sages say it in other ways, but the teaching is pretty universal. Following the teaching, however, is both difficult and spotty.

    The word “forgiveness” is used popularly as meaning “drop it”; “don’t blame the perpetrator any more”; or as synonymous with “forget.” The biblical roots, however, go back to releasing someone’s debts because one feels mercy toward that person. The deepest question is, How do we develop that sort of mercy without developing a counter-productive sense of superiority over the one who is forgiven? How does one develop a heart filled with what the Buddha calls compassion and Jesus calls forgiveness generated by mercy without giving up the struggle for justice?

    Buddhism talks about “desire” as seeking to “hold on” and considers it, along with mistakenness about what is truly to our good, the root of evil. Holding grudges is the worst and most damaging kind of holding on. It can be — again following both the Buddha and Jesus — the source of suffering and narrowing of the soul of the one who bears the grudge.

    Many of us caught up in the Catholic culture wars — among whom I number myself — have lost sight of what the center of the Gospel is in our zeal to purify the church. It’s accepting God’s forgiveness of one’s self and trying to become a person who radiates divine mercy and compassion.


  9. Jesus gave us a “mandate” not an “option” to forgive–even seventy times seven. Letting go of hurt–even hereditary hurt–is not easy. We can forgive this kind of hurt by asking God for this disposition to forgive and by the smaller forgivenesses we offer ourselves and those in our daily lives.


  10. Dearest Marian,
    I am not very good at this, because I just spent 15 minutes replying, and then everything went scrolling away, and I don’t know how to find it!!
    So, please accept my trying as part of your gift;;and I will try again!
    I will wait a little and see if it appears, so you won’t have to read it the beginning twice–and, in the meantime please know I wish you a glorious birthday week, and I will write your birthdate in the memory book of my heart.
    I love you.


  11. Today as I was driving in a beautiful area of CT I reflected on your words–and please know again, that I just love your words!– so,please accept this as your requested birthday gift–although it is my stream of consciouness reflections!
    I thought of what helped me about forgiveness…I love the quote of MLK that forgiving does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act…terrible indignities and injustices have been perpetrated…but,love is the redemptive, transforming power in the universe…love transforms with redemptive power…
    He also wrote that the evil someone does never quite expresses all that a person is.
    In my child care years, TWO former staff members were murdered-one by her former husband, and one by her former boyfriend. Their funerals were heartwrenching, and domestic violence has always weighed on my mind and heart.
    I often think of a woman from my parish whom I saw praying in church when I was a young girl, and we later worked together in CCD and became friends, who told me one time that forgiveness isn’t forgiveness until you forgive the unforgiveable.
    Then I think of our CCS Memorial Liturgy last Saturday. We invited Denise of “No Windows” to come and share her song “Let it Go” (I will send you the words). The verses are a story and end with bless it and let it go, bless them and let them go, bless me and let me go. Roberta had mentioned that she often uses this as prayer.Of course, we believe that it is important to deal with the feelings before you let it go, and that is implied throughout the song as well.
    Then I thought of the people who no longer speak to me–and it is not a mutual decision! One of these people was my closest friend on earth. i have drawn strength from Monica as it’s been 27 years! I am sometimes reminded of how deep the hurt still is.
    I had the tendency, too, to stop speaking for a while, and a friend once mentioned that was the Irish in us. Then I met Sue. From Sue (and her dogs!) I learned that everyday is a new day. i had to decide what kind of person I wanted to be- a grudge holder or a forgiver. In reading the Gospel, I knew there was only one decision.
    For people who have died who may have been mean, I try to say that they know the truth now-and I “bless them and let them go”
    So, dear Marian, as you are well aware, forgiveness is a journey-so I would say put the picture in a favorite book!
    I love you.


  12. Does forgiveness of your great-grandfather mean that he is automatically included in the honoring of your great-grandmother? I agree with those who have posted that forgiveness may be something that benefits the one who extends the forgiveness — ridding us of corrosive bitterness and as a spiritual practice that opens our hearts to greater compassion. But, while you may choose to forgive your great-grandfather in a practice of expanding compassion, this expanse doesn’t grant him free pass to the place your great-grandmother holds in your memory and your story. Let Hannah be remembered with her birth certificate framed.

    (Interesting that you don’t mention framing their marriage certificate — a more appropriate place to include the photo of the two of them together. If you want a real test of forgiveness, maybe its that. But then I’m not sure that’s the point, or practice, of forgiveness.)


  13. Marian you have such loving and thoughtful friends! (Hi, Marian’s friends!) I also gave your question a lot of thought. I had a friend whose parents divorced. Her mom cut out every image of her dad from every photo. !!!! it was remarkable how present that made him. This isn’t exactly what you are doing (but maybe you would if there were more photos…). However. I am thinking about Fairfield Porter a lot and he quotes Wittgenstein (really, he does) “Every sentence is in order as it is”. Porter adds “The truest order is what you already find there, or that will be given if you don’t try for it. When you arrange, you fail”.
    I agree with the suggestion of hanging an image of Hannah where you will see her, but leaving the original as it is. And having it somewhere not prominent, just somewhere. I know Porter is talking about paintings, but what he says sounds like acceptance, and maybe forgiveness will be given if you don’t try for it.


  14. I think leave him in that picture, but also blow up one of her by herself, and place it prominently somewhere, as your mom had him. I like the fact that they are separated by a foot, that is eloquent. Thank you for the terrific blog on this difficult subject.


    • Thanks so much, Margaret. Several people suggest that I take two aproaches, and I am thinking on thsat. See you soon i hope!


  15. Cut the bastard out. (Since everyone else is commenting, I figured I would as well!)

    I find it interesting that Jesus, who (at the least) conferred forgiveness of sins on folks during his ministry and preached interpersonal forgiveness (forgive us as we forgive others; forgive 70 times 7) does not, in the end, personally forgive his crucifiers, but rather asks God to do it. There is a difference to me between “I forgive you” and “Father forgive them.”

    Maybe there’s a reason he commanded us to love enemies and pray for those that persecute and not offer them blanket forgiveness.


    • David: Thank you for this very helpful post; really gives me something to think about.

      Let me know about your CPE application.

      Sent from my iPad


    • Forgiveness is difficult for everyone. Like Jesus, we need Divine help in genuinely forgiving another, especially if that hurt is deep and wounding. We cannot live this process of forgiveness by ourselves. God needs to be part of the relationship,


  16. Crop the picture and look at your great-grandmother if you like. You can’t crop the guy out of your family history.
    For me, forgiveness is a gift from God. I can want to forgive someone, but if I ever do, it’s because I’ve had a change of heart. That sort of deep change in me isn’t something I can will; it’s a gift. I can long for it, but I can’t make it happen.
    I’m so sorry for the pain this man caused your great-grandmother. I’m so sorry for the hard life they both must have had. I’m so sorry for the horrors caused by alcohol. I’m so sorry for the terrible ways Irish Catholics were treated when they arrived in this country. I’m so sorry for what capitalism does to people. I abhor male violence and whatever cultural forces that made and makes beating women acceptable. I’m not so concerned with forgiving all the horrible things this man did as I am with figuring out how to STOP similar violence that is happening right now.
    Perhaps the life you have lived IS the forgiveness your great-grandfather deserves. By living your life, you help to make more space and more safety for women everywhere. Perhaps that’s the longed for gift. Perhaps that’s forgiveness.


  17. I grow weary of the sappy notion of some sort of universal forgiveness that is often perpetrated by Catholics and others. It is useless, even harmful. In the case of domestic violence, our stand as Christians must be first to protect victims and hold abusers accountable. Anyone who knows how early Christian communities functioned know that those who hurt others were ostracized and a period of penance that sometimes lasted years was put in place so that there could be a “change of heart” or “teshuvah.” As most survivors of the Holocaust would say, 1) No one can truly forgive on another person’s behalf, 2) There must be repudiation of past crimes and, 3) Even when forgiveness comes, there is an obligation to never forget lest past crimes be repeated.

    I’d use the photograph in this way. Put Grandma in a place of great honor. Cut out Grandpa, put him in his own frame with the words “Abuser of my Grandmother.” In that way, daughters, sons, granddaughters, grandsons, etc. will learn something valuable. It isn’t your job to forgive or not forgive, but it is your job to uphold what is just and right.


    • Forgiveness does not mean forgive and forget. We remember the hurt in order to re-member our lives and put them back to together. Also, forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. I can forgive someone who abuses me, but not be reconciled. In other words, stay away from the abuser.


  18. Like many of the readers, I want to distinguish between forgiving and reconciling. I guess that I want to take the community approach to reconciliation–I want to work for economic justice for women, so that no one would ever have to stay in an abuse marriage because they couldn’t afford to leave. I want to create laws that will treat domestic violence as the crime of assault that it is. I want to hold the bars accountable for serving someone who has had too much and I want to work on issues of masculinity so that the peer group that surrounded your grandfather would have condemned rather than condoned his behavior. In the Kingdom that I seek, the situation of a drunk abuser would not have been (will not be) acceptable, by anyone’s standards. And when it came to the individual, your grandfather, I would look for Christ in him and pray that he might repent and amend his ways from behind bars (or at least a restraining order).


    • Kirsten:

      Thank you for this wise and thoughtful response. I can see that your years in seminary have served you well!!

      See you soon.



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