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November Is Trespass-Forgiving Time

November Is Trespass-Forgiving Time

Georges A. L. Boisselier, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” 1903 (photo: Picasa / Public Domain)

 

As the year closes, let’s close our books on our fellow man: Isn’t it time to sweep away some pride and forgive.

Catholics dedicate November to prayer for the faithful departed. The month should remind us both of our duty to pray for those who have gone before us, especially our relatives and friends, as well as of our own mortality and how we stand before God.

In the prayer Our Lord taught us, we ask that he “forgive us our trespasses” in the measure “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That should be our resolve every day.

Why, then, speak of “November as trespass-forgiving time?”

We pray that the faithful departed rest in peace. But sometimes peace is not to be found among those left behind.

How often do some people carry their animosity towards another beyond the grave? How often do some people refuse to let go of something negative about the dead?

It need not be great and overwhelming — though sometimes it is. Sometimes, it’s just some irritant that, while it may bug a person, is relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Leave it! “It is a fearful and terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” the Letter to the Hebrews (10:31) reminds us. God is certainly just; you may not be. Every man “will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). Do you want to be on the devil’s side, an accuser of your brother? Do you remember that you, too, will have to make such an accounting, and “the measure by which you measure will be measured back to you” (Matthew 7:2)?

Sometimes, grudges persist not with the dead but the living. How many families are divided by inheritances or divisions of property? How often are people alienated from each other over things, grievances they bear for decades, sometimes to their own graves. How often do such matters make relations between those left behind as silent as the grave?

Again, where the deceased has gone, you and I will go. There is nothing that you could have received in this world that you will take with you there. You will go as empty-handed of things as you now complain you are. The only thing you can take in those hands are your good deeds, of which forgiveness is key. Do you want to be bereft of that, utterly empty-handed?

I know that giving up one’s bitterness and resentment can be difficult, especially when one has tended and guarded them for a long time. The Church shows how well it knows human beings when it includes this wise reading in Night Prayer:

 

In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger. Do not give the devil a chance to work on you (Ephesians 4:25-26, emphasis added).

 

Easier said than done? If you still have doubts, let’s consult the great insight of the American Quaker poet, John Greenleaf Whittier. In his 1846 poem, “Forgiveness,” Whittier speaks of nursing grievances against others. Whittier took his walk as a middle-aged man, about 40, usually the point when enough life has been lived for most men to have “scores to settle.” Whittier was certain he’s in the right, his cause was just, his “trust abused” and his “kindness answered with foul wrong.” Certain that none of his fellow man would understand or sympathize with his victimization, he decided one Sunday (“one summer Sabbath day”) to take a walk in a town cemetery.

Imagine this New England poet, wandering around “gloomily” behind the stone walls of a church graveyard, adjacent to some white-steepled church in the Sabbath quiet of a little Massachusetts town. God starts to work on him.

 

I strolled among
The green mounds of the village burial-place;
Where, pondering how all human love and hate
Find one sad level; and how, soon or late,
Wronged and wrongdoer, each with meekened face,
And cold hands folded over a still heart,
Pass the green threshold of our common grave.

 

Which one was a wrongdoer? Which one the wronged? Whittier’s eye can hardly distinguish who was divided from whom because, whatever their divisions once on earth, they now share the same, common ground. From man’s perspective, “all human love and hate//find one sad level.”

From man’s perspective. Human love and human hate do not find the same level with God, which is why we should do two things:

 

  • leave the job of judgment to him; and
  • knowing we all have to be judged, forego the British royal motto Dieu et mon droit (“God and my right”) in favor of the petition our Lord taught us, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

 

The last line of Whittier’s poem tells us what the poet learned from his graveyard ambulations: his encounter with mortality “swept all my pride away, and trembling I forgave!”

Whittier took his walk on a warm summer’s Sunday, but November might better fit a Catholic with his own baggage. November reminds us of our mortality, even as the Lord hastens to call us in Advent, “Come, now, let us set things right” (Isaiah 1:18).

As the year closes, let’s close our books on our fellow man: Isn’t it time to sweep away some pride and forgive?

 

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