In The Wisdom of the Desert, a text edited by Thomas Merton, the following saying from the 4th century Desert Fathers appears:
A brother in Scete happened to commit a fault, and the elders assembled, and sent for Abbot Moses to join them. He, however, did not want to come. The priest sent the Abbot a message, saying, ‘Come, the community is waiting for you.’ So he arose and started off. And taking with him a very old basket full of holes, he filled it with sand and carried it behind him. The elders came out to meet the Abbot and said: ‘What is this, Father?’ The Abbot replied: ‘My sins are running out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I come to judge the sins of another! They, hearing, this, said nothing to the brother but pardoned him. (p. 40)
This story illustrates the theme of new life/new creation through forgiveness of sins.
In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul, a convert to the way of Jesus, describes himself as a
runner who strains forward to embrace what lies ahead. In his former life, Paul (called
Saul and a prominent Jewish rabbi) adamantly persecuted Christians. Having experienced
new life/new creation through Jesus’ forgiveness, Paul now counts all as loss, if only he can
share in Christ’s suffering and know the power of his resurrection. During his extensive Christian missionary endeavors, Paul suffered floggings, imprisonments, and, finally, was beheaded. In this way, he who had become possessed by Christ responded to God’s merciful forgiveness and love by laying down his life for the sake of the gospel.
In the Gospel of John in the New Testament, the author includes a narrative that concerns
an adulteress woman. In this story, the assembled Jewish leaders are about to fulfill the Mosaic Law that requires that this sinful woman be stoned to death. As the drama unfolds, Jesus declares that whoever is without sin should cast the first stone. One by one, without uttering a word, the scribes and Pharisees depart, for who among the living is without sin? Left alone with the woman, Jesus proceeds to offer her new life/new creation through forgiveness of her sin. The woman, who moments ago believed her life was quickly drawing to an end, is now being given the opportunity for metanoia. Jesus’ words to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” require that she let go of lust of the flesh and embrace life according to the law of authentic love.
In 2006, the world witnessed another example of new life/new creation through forgiveness of sin. The pain and anguish of the Amish community in Lancaster County, Pa., was extreme when five young girls in the community were murdered; in the face of this tragedy, the Amish chose to not balance hurt with hate. Hours after this horrific event took place in the one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, the Amish reached out in compassion to comfort the family of the gunman. Later, dozens of Amish attended the gunman’s funeral in support of his grieving widow and three children.
The Amish went about the somber task of burying their dead in the simple way that characterizes their lives. Each slain girl was attired in a white handmade dress and buried in a pine coffin. When asked what message they wanted to convey to the world, an Amish community spokesperson replied: “We have the richest treasure in the world and that is fraternal love.” Throughout the ordeal, the Amish bore profound witness to the incalculable
value of forgiveness and love.
The story just recounted calls each of us to follow the example of the Amish by offering others new life/new creation through forgiveness. Additionally, in the Desert Fathers’ vignette quoted at the beginning of this reflection, the Abbot’s pronouncement: “My sins are running out behind me” is a poignant reminder that we are all frail humans in need of forgiveness. As we go about our daily lives, let us remember this truth as we strive to be ambassadors of forgiveness to others in a world in need of God’s merciful compassion.
Dr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, is Professor of Theology and Chair of the on-campus Theology Dept. at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.