Gordon Wilson worked as a draper in a town in Northern Ireland called Enniskillen. On Remembrance Day, November 8, 1987, Wilson and his twenty-year-old daughter Marie went to the center of their village to watch a parade that was to include the British Legion and local police. They took a position next to a tall brick wall. Gordon asked his daughter, “Will you be able to see from here?” “Yes,” she replied.
Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion. The Irish Republican Army had placed a forty pound bomb on the other side of the wall where Gordon and Marie were standing. They were thrown forward and to the ground by the force of the blast. The wall collapsed and fell on them. Gordon found himself buried in four to six feet of rubble. He was injured, but alive. Five or six people around him were already dead. Marie, also buried in debris, reached out for her father’s hand. “Daddy, is that you?” she asked. “Yes Marie, it’s me,” he responded, thinking to himself, “Thank God she is alright.”
All of this took place in a matter of seconds. It was followed by a short period of complete silence that quickly gave way to screaming coming from every direction; screaming that was raw, naked, and terrifying. Again Gordon asked his daughter, “Are you alright?” “Yes,” she said, but then she too screamed. Gordon was confused. Why was his daughter screaming if she was not hurt? Again and again he asked her if she was okay and each time she responded that she was fine. The last time he asked her, Marie said, “Daddy, I love you very much.” Those were her last words before slipping into a coma. Marie had suffered catastrophic injuries and she died four hours later in a hospital.
How do you think Gordon Wilson would hear the gospel reading we heard just moments ago? Peter asked, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” “Not seven times,” Jesus responded, “but seventy-seven times!”
Undoubtedly one of the other disciples had wronged the great Apostle and he had forgiven that person. The Pharisees taught that we are required to forgive the offenses of another just three times and now Peter wanted some praise for his manifold and great mercies. Jesus’ response told Peter that he was just beginning to scratch the surface of what forgiveness looks like and what it costs.
Most of us have not lost a loved one to an act of terror and therefore might not be able to comprehend fully the agony and anger to which it gives birth, but I suspect most of us would not condemn Gordon Wilson if he said, “Forgive them?” Forget it!” Still, you don’t have to lose your daughter to a senseless act of brutality to know how difficult forgiveness can be to muster.
It is my experience that the stranger far away and the enemy close at hand are not the ones whose blows we find most difficult to forgive because they are outsiders. We do not give them access to our innermost being where pain cuts cruelest. It is the people we love the most and who love us the most who are the ones who can hurt us the most. Those who are closest to us are the ones who can cause the deepest pain.
Our greatest hurts come from those who love us, but cannot love us in the way our heart desires. It is our father, our mother, our brother, our sister, our spouse, our children, our closest friend, our neighbor, our priest who can hurt us most and be most hurt by us. In these primary relationships our greatest joy and our greatest pain touch each other. Henri Nouwen, the Roman Catholic Priest and author, wrote,
“The great tragedy of human love is that it always wounds. Why is this so? Simply because human love is imperfect, always tainted by needs and unfulfilled desires.”
Nouwen went on to say,
“Forgiveness is the name of love among people who love poorly.”
If it is true that we love poorly, it is equally true that we forgive poorly by substituting all manner of pretenders for the real thing. Have you ever forgiven someone saying to yourself, “Oh well, it is no big deal,” when in reality it was? Forgiving does mean denying your hurt and suppressing your pain. In some situations, we rationalize “I’ll just have to grin and bear it,” but forgiveness bears no resemblance to martyrdom. Sometimes we are willing to extend forgiveness with conditions attached (i.e., “I forgive you as long as…”), but forgiveness does not mean putting a person on probation. To forgive is not to excuse bad behavior, saying for example “boys will be boys”). And to forgive, with the exception of small indignities, is not necessarily to forget, like when we say, “I’ll just have to pretend this little episode never happened.”
If forgiveness is not these things, what than is it? Here are five things to ponder:
First, forgiveness involves a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment might be. It represents our decision to forgo resentment and retribution.
Second, forgiveness also means giving up our expectation of emotional restitution. We want so badly for the person who offended us to acknowledge the wrong, to do something to mend our hurt, and to repay us for the loss of dignity and trust we have experienced. But in most instances, the person who wronged us does not comprehend the destructive magnitude of their behavior and, in many instances, never intended to cause us harm.
Here is a third truth about forgiveness. The Latin word for mercy, eleison, literally means “to unbind.” When we refuse to forgive, we hold others firmly enmeshed in the bondage of our judgment. When we forgive, we loose others from their connection to our anger and vengefulness. This act also frees us from the corrosive burden of anger and bitterness that eats away at the peace in our souls. Thus, forgiveness is a gift that allows us to untie the knots that connect us to the offender while it unbinds the burden we carry inside.
Next, forgiveness must have as its goal reconciliation. When we offer forgiveness, it is a one-way action undertaken without conditions. Reconciliation is a two-way street where forgiveness is offered and received in such a way that restoration of a relationship is possible.
Finally, forgiveness constitutes a decision to call upon divine love in order to heal and rebuild a fractured relationship. As we are drawn to God’s love we are compelled to imitate and express what we find. Forgiveness is an important manifestation of the love we find in God.
All of this suggests that forgiveness is a choice to release another from internal judgment, to forego restitution, to loose emotional binds, to seek reconciliation, and to draw on God’s love. I know that this is a lot to think about and that it makes something which is deeply emotional and painful sound as simple as following a Betty Crocker recipe. Still, if today’s gospel tells us one thing, it is that we will not be forgiven any more than we learn to forgive.
Which brings us back to Gordon Wilson. In an interview with the BBC, he described his last conversation with his daughter:
“She held my hand tightly, and gripped me as hard as she could. She said, ‘Daddy, I love you very much.’ Those were her exact words to me, and those were the last words I ever heard her say.”
Then, to the astonishment of listeners, Wilson went on to add,
“But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.”
The historian Jonathan Bardon wrote of this, “No words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact.”
Due in part to the notoriety he received from losing his daughter, Wilson was elected to Ireland’s Senate. He began to wonder if there was something he could do to end the violence. He decided to meet with the leaders of the IRA because he felt Maria’s death would be in vain if it did not lead the country closer to peace. Sitting around a table with some of the very people who executed the bombing that took Maria’s life, Wilson said this:
“I know that you have lost loved ones, just like me. Therefore, on the grounds of our common humanity and for the love of God, is there not a better way to achieve our goals? Surely enough is enough. Enough blood has been spilled.”
Before his death in 1996, Wilson helped to found The Spirit of Enniskillen, a trust whose mission is to bring together Ireland’s youth in settings where they can cross boundaries in order to learn from and appreciate one another.
I suggest to you that Gordon Wilson suffered an incomparable loss. I also suggest that, through the mercies of God, he was set loose from his deep loss. Always remember this: forgiveness is the name of love among those who lover poorly.