(This is the sixth in the series ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy.)
Plenty of times in movies and on TV, I had seen someone go into a dark confession booth and say to the priest on the other side of the screen, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been [length of time] since my last confession . . .” followed by a litany of sins. The priest would then assign a number of Hail Marys or Our Fathers, maybe some act of penance. That was pretty much all I knew about asking forgiveness. I’m a Baptist, after all; we don’t do confession — at least not to another person. We confess our sins directly to God (if at all). So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself, as a hospital chaplain, on the receiving end of a whole lot of confessions.
No matter what their religious background, or even if they have none at all, people in hospitals often want to talk to the chaplain about forgiveness — how to get it, how to give it. I hear stories from people who are dying (or think they could be) about the things they regret. “I had an affair. My wife never knew.” “I cheated my brother out of his share of the inheritance.” “I was a terrible mother.” “For years I kept my addiction a secret from my family.” “I embezzled money from my company and was never discovered.” Some are afraid of going to their death with unconfessed sins. Others think that their current illness just might be punishment from God or karmic retribution for past wrongs. With worried looks, they ask me, “Do you think I can be forgiven, Chaplain?”
Then there are those who have never healed from past hurts and don’t know how to begin. “My neighbor sexually abused me as a child.” “A drunk driver killed my daughter.” “My husband gambled all our money away.” “I found my spouse in bed with my best friend.” As they tell me what happened years, even decades ago, the pain and anger are as real as if these things happened yesterday. In some cases, the person who wronged them is long since dead, unable to make reparations. “I want to be at peace about this,” they tell me. “But how can I forgive?”
I’m a terrible source of answers on this subject, because forgiveness is still difficult and mysterious for me, too. I remember well the day I sat in a group Bible study in my 20s, and when the time for prayer requests came, I told the group about someone who had wounded me deeply. With a laugh that couldn’t hide the pain, I said, “It’s just really hard not to hate her, you know? So I guess just pray that I wouldn’t hate her so much.” After prayer time, another member of the group took me aside and told me gently, “I think you need to forgive her.” I nodded and agreed, but inside I was fuming.
How dare she tell me to forgive! I’ve already done that, of course. . . Haven’t I? Okay, let me just compare this with the last time I forgave someone. I did a mental inventory, desperately searching my brain for someone I had forgiven — really forgiven — in the past. And I came up empty. There were plenty of people who had told me they were sorry, and gotten my response of, “That’s okay.” But I knew that forgiveness was more than that. Forgiveness was what I needed in this case when what had happened was definitely not okay and I would most likely never get an apology. I had every right to be angry, but the anger was exhausting.
I did a lot of praying and reading about forgiveness after that. When I read Jesus’s words from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” I heard them differently. Maybe it wasn’t just that he was being all nice and holy, I thought. Maybe he didn’t want his last few moments before death to be full of anger at his executioners, even though they deserved it. It could be he realized that the only way he could die in peace was to forgive — not because they deserved to be forgiven, but because he needed to forgive. I knew that was what I needed, too.
Honestly, I’m still working on it, both the forgiving and the asking forgiveness. It’s not easy. When I get hurt by someone else, my temptation is still to nurture my righteous anger until it has grown into some overfed monster with no shred of righteousness anymore. I’m a master of holding a grudge, allowing any thought of the person who wronged me to set off a chain reaction of memory that lets me relive the hurtful moment all over again, and again and again and again. I have to pray frequently and fervently for God to put a stop to this process, remembering Buechner’s warning that if I continue feasting on anger I will eventually find that the skeleton on the table I have picked clean was myself. And when I know that I have hurt someone else, intentionally or not, the last thing I want to do is own up to it. I’d much rather run away than face them and ask forgiveness. Can’t I just move away instead, go to some other city where I never have to see them again and I can start fresh?
That would involve a whole lot of changes of address, I’m afraid. And the people I meet in the hospital remind me with their stories that I don’t want to burn all my bridges and end up trapped on an island of my own making, anger piled on anger. That’s no way to live, and it’s no way to die. We all need forgiveness — from God, from one another, from ourselves. I try to help my patients find peace, acting as their confessor and bearing witness to a God who grants absolution, or keeping them company as a fellow student of allowing the wounds of the past to heal. I’ve learned as a chaplain the value of forgiving and being forgiven now. It’s a lesson I’ll be learning the rest of my life, I think, and I still need a lot of practice. But when it comes time for my own deathbed confession, I hope that at least I won’t have as much to say.