Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Few Thoughts on Forgiveness and Grace: "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do."

Brian Muha was brutally slain in Steubenville with his friend Aaron Land in 1999. We were living there at the time and everyone had their eyes on Mrs Muha because from the first moment the story broke - when the boys were still only missing - she called on everyone to forgive those responsible. The amazing thing is that her resolve to forgive was tested when the boys were found shot to death. She did not disappoint us because she went forward, even testifying on the murders behalf to prevent them from getting the death penalty. When she spoke the young men responsible for the murders she said, "my son is now your best friend." She was referring to the fact that the murdered boys would now be praying for the soul of these guys.
Mary at Broken Alabaster has written a moving piece about forgiveness. Please do go read it now before continuing.

She mentions my prayers for the souls of my friend's murderers as a good example. As my promptings in this are have been entirely the result of Christ's grace I felt extremely unworthy to be mentioned.

However, it did make me stop and think back to why I would begin praying for the souls of those persecuting my friend when I first heard of it, before she was killed.

It is because Christ has been working on my heart through the examples of saints and friends. In short, it is because of his workings through the Body of Christ.

I remember distinctly the impression that my gentle, kind friend Norma made immediately after the Twin Towers were destroyed on Sept. 11. I was ranting about vengeance against the terrorists and she didn't say anything but had a troubled look on her face. That look made me stop and examine my own instincts as compared to the example set by Christ.
Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34)
As distasteful as it was, I had to stop and pray for forgiveness for the terrorists' souls. I did not want to but Norma's example pointed out the right path.

I remember Kathy L's witness during the CRHP retreat I attended. It was instrumental in breaking open my heart for the main reason I was supposed to be there. That reason was forgiveness of certain people. After I faced that reality and took it to confession, I was set free to be so much more of the person that God created me to be.

I remember being interviewed for a jury that was going to consider the death penalty for a confessed murderer. My head said that I was not in favor of the death penalty because of Pope John Paul II's writings on the subject. However, that was the gloss over what my heart had always felt, that the death penalty, an eye for an eye, was the right and proper punishment for murderers. That trial was the impetus that made me realize my inconsistencies and turned me, in part, toward St. Maria Goretti who forgave her murderer upon her deathbed. It made me look at Alessandro Serenelli, her killer, who in old age wrote:
"I'm nearly 80 years old. I'm about to depart.

"Looking back at my past, I can see that in my early youth, I chose a bad path which led me to ruin myself.

"My behavior was influenced by print, mass-media and bad examples which are followed by the majority of young people without even thinking. And I did the same. I was not worried.

"There were a lot of generous and devoted people who surrounded me, but I paid no attention to them because a violent force blinded me and pushed me toward a wrong way of life.

"When I was 20 years-old, I committed a crime of passion. Now, that memory represents something horrible for me. Maria Goretti, now a Saint, was my good Angel, sent to me through Providence to guide and save me. I still have impressed upon my heart her words of rebuke and of pardon. She prayed for me, she interceded for her murderer. Thirty years of prison followed.

"If I had been of age, I would have spent all my life in prison. I accepted to be condemned because it was my own fault.

"Little Maria was really my light, my protectress; with her help, I behaved well during the 27 years of prison and tried to live honestly when I was again accepted among the members of society. The Brothers of St. Francis, Capuchins from Marche, welcomed me with angelic charity into their monastery as a brother, not as a servant. I've been living with their community for 24 years, and now I am serenely waiting to witness the vision of God, to hug my loved ones again, and to be next to my Guardian Angel and her dear mother, Assunta.

"I hope this letter that I wrote can teach others the happy lesson of avoiding evil and of always following the right path, like little children. I feel that religion with its precepts is not something we can live without, but rather it is the real comfort, the real strength in life and the only safe way in every circumstance, even the most painful ones of life."

Signature, Alessandro Serenelli
(This subject was further expounded upon by Mark Windsor after my friend's murder and I urge you to read his reflections upon evil and our response to it, if you have not already.)

Then I had the immediate example of Immaculee Ilibagiza, with her gentle voice echoing in my ears, about the grace of Jesus allowing her to look into the eyes of killers from the Rwandan genocides and think of the good people they were way down deep, to wonder what happened to them to twist them into such evil. That was quickly followed by young Namrata Nayak's story of forgiving Hindu extremists who bombed her home hoping to kill Christians. (You can find the post with their stories and links here.)

The examples were flooding upon me, though I did not notice their significance at the time. However, at that time was when I heard of my friend's persecution and I began praying for the souls of everyone involved. Everyone.

Immediately following the terrible news, I had the example of a mutual friend, Kathy L (yes the same one from the retreat), who regularly spent much more time with my friend than I had for some time. When a few of us who could get away in the middle of the day met at the church to grieve together, one of the first things out of her mouth was that we must not forget to pray for the murderers. She said, "We are all born with the same innocent souls. What happens to change some people so much?"

This was not a new thought to me by this time but it did embolden me to speak up to encourage friends to at least be willing to ask God for the "willingness to pray for forgiveness."

Now you can see why, upon reading Mary's article, I could see how carefully I was prepared to receive Christ's grace in praying for the souls of the murderers. In a way, it has been a salutory example of how our sins and virtues affect the entire Body of Christ. Without those virtues so clearly on display, I would not have been prepared to be open to praying for those who know not what they did.

In Mary's article, I see yet another example.
"my son is now your best friend."
I have not mentioned that St. Maria Goretti is not the only person I have been asking to pray for everyone involved. I also have turned to Alessandro Serenelli. Who better to intercede for both the victims and the unwilling recipients who committed the crimes?

As well, I think of my friend, Cyndie, who said, "Jeanmarie is in heaven. We have to put her to work." Cyndie was speaking of asking Jeanmarie to pray for Frank, for whom our hearts are breaking. I had not yet taken that final step of thinking of asking her prayers for her killers. Yet again, however, a member of the Body of Christ takes me another step down the road.
St. Maria Goretti,
Alessandro Serenelli,
Jeanmarie, Matthew, and Sydney ...
pray for us.

We pray for strength and peace for Frank and all those who are grieving.
For the souls of their murderers, that the Hounds of Heaven may chase them down and cause a conversion of heart.

I began this by saying that I was unworthy to be mentioned in Mary's piece. True indeed. However, we are all unworthy. If God can use an extremely unworthy example for moving others to a place of realizing the power of forgiveness ... then so be it. I am his to use as he will. It is all his grace.

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