by Laurie Gudim
There is a story of a Desert Father who owned a special book. It was very valuable, illuminated with gold leaf and encrusted with precious gems. It was also dear in a practical way. A Gospel hand copied on vellum, it was used daily by the hermit for guidance and inspiration.
One night a thief sneaked in to the hermit’s cell and stole this book. He was running away with it when the hermit awoke and saw him, and instantly got up and gave chase. But what he shouted at the escaping thief was, “I give it to you. It’s yours. I give it to you. It’s yours.”
He didn’t want the sin of stealing the book to tarnish the soul of the thief. And so he made a present of the book so that this could be avoided.
I think I love this story so much because of my experience of forgiving a family member a very serious wrong he had done me. It was a two step process. First I had to realize and take quite seriously that what he had done had hurt me permanently, that it was not the result of any wrong on my part, and that my desire for justice and vengeance was appropriate. What had been taken from me was valuable, irreplaceable. So was the truth of what had happened.
The second step of the process was to let go of those “possessions”. Like the hermit I went chasing after the wrongdoer, shouting. In my case what I shouted was, “I forgive you. I forgive you.” I was trying to give my right to retribution and justice away. But, like the thief, the perpetrator kept running. And he shouted back at me, “It never happened.” Did that take away from my gift to him of forgiveness? No, for I forgave him that as well.
Sacrificing what is by right ours – the truth of what happened or the right to exact vengeance – is a pure gift of love. In my experience it is even more excruciating than letting our cherished possessions walk out the door. As is the Desert Father in the story, we are diminished by this kind of gift. There is no recovery from it. When you lose the precious book, it is gone for good. And when you give away your right to retaliation, that is gone for good as well.
And yet it is only through this self-negating giving that we grow into emotional and spiritual maturity. Our egos want what we want when we want it, and there is a tyranny in that which does not ultimately redeem us. If we follow the dictates of our needs and longings exclusively, we limit ourselves to the world of what they know. And tit-for-tat justice is all they know.
There is a greater knowing that comes from God. God – that holy, flowing, changing, creating Love that ignites the universe and pulses through everything – reveals God’s self in the next breath we take after we have given away what we cherish most. We inhale an entirely different sort of justice. It is a whole and creative redemption that transforms both the recipient of our gift and us as well.
In today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” Sin is being all wrapped up in the tyranny of ego longings. And the best way of growing beyond it is to give what it desires away. We give away the eye that sees only how we have been wronged. We give away the hand that would strike out in retribution. We give them away in order to see and to act out of a different reality, God’s reality.
And then, sinking down into our deeper natures, we are eventually opened up to a “truth that passes understanding”. A new sense of our place in the universe unfurls. Who knew that throwing away an eye or a hand is the pathway to clear comprehension? Who knew that the emptying of “me” could lead to an evolving new experience of relationship with the Creator? But it is so.