One of the better things I have done this year is to introduce a module on ‘Forgiveness’ to the Durham University MA in Theology and Ministry. Of course I haven’t done it alone. Dr Anthony Bash and I have developed it together.
The teaching has been offered in two intense 48-hour blocks, the second of which finished at lunchtime yesterday. As it concluded, the participants were saying two things: first that it has turned their understanding of forgiveness upside down. ‘This has blown my mind,’ was the cliché of choice as they left. Second, that they can’t believe that this is an optional module. They felt that everyone involved in pastoral ministry should be thinking seriously about forgiveness.
With the the first point I am delighted. With the second I agree 100%.
As well as introducing the participants to the ethical, psychological and theological issues which impact on forgiveness, some recent writing and case studies, we have shown them two films and had two visiting speakers. The films were ‘Death and the Maiden’ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109579/ and ‘Red Dust’ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0388364/ Both films are powerful in their own right, and a real counterblast to anyone who thinks forgiveness is trivial, easy, slight or unimportant.
Our first guest was Dr Graham Spencer from Portsmouth University who has done much on forgiveness and remembering in Northern Ireland. You can read about Graham here: http://www.port.ac.uk/departments/academic/scafm/staff/title,103324,en.html Graham was informative, inspiring and very challenging. His work with close family members of the victims of the Omagh bomb is truly remarkable.
Then this weekend we welcomed Fr Michael Lapsley, Director for the Institute for Healing of Memories in Cape Town, South Africa.
While with us in Durham, Fr Michael also led a day for counsellors and pastoral workers, preached at Durham Cathedral and spoke at a lunchtime meeting about his new book ‘Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer’.
I have learnt a great deal over the last few days and was up early this morning making notes to capture some of my new-found clarity into the distinctions between healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Michael made some extremely memorable points in his various talks, including this: “I ask clergy whether they find forgiveness easy in their personal lives and they say, ‘no, it’s a very difficult challenge’. I then ask them whether they tell people from the pulpit that forgiveness is difficult. They answer, ‘No, we don’t tell people that.'”
The point doesn’t need amplifying. But the question of how to help people on the journey of forgiveness to recognise how difficult it can be, and yet encourage and enable them to keep going, remains a top priority for me. Indeed I beleive it deserves to be a top priority for anyone who thinks that the Christian faith is just as relevant when terrible things happen as when good things happen.
Forgviness is often vital but never easy. It is a ‘healing agony’. Indeed it’s only when it seems impossible that it really is forgiveness, and not one of its lesser lookalikes.
To learn more about the healing of memories, forgiveness and Michael Lapsley have a look at the Fr Michael Lapsley Story (a 16 minute film) .