Seventy times seven

3 11 2010

I am on a quiet day today, reading ‘Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense’ by W.H. Vanstone. His reflections on the ‘phenomenology of love’ — the title of his third chapter — have set me thinking in the nature of forgiveness and fidelity.

What does forgiveness mean? I guess I would start by saying that it is a willingness or a decision (of the heart) to cut out an offence. I use that metaphor deliberately, as I think talking about brushing aside or sweeping away, for instance, would not do justice to the pain or cost involved in forgiveness. It is surgery. Without anaesthesia. It restores a relationship as if the offence had not happened.

But what if the offence is the utter betrayal of infidelity? Would we consider a wife who responded to her husband’s adultery with forgiveness seven times (let alone seventy times seven times) a heroine of love or something else?

I am trying to be careful here as there may well be people out there reading this who are tolerating a serial adulterer, perhaps even people known to me. I do not pretend to have any right to comment on your decisions.

But we might be more inclined to say that such serial forgiveness might be a failure of that other sort of love, implied in the traditional summary of divine law: love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour *as yourself*. It might be said to be a dereliction of one’s duty to love one’s self to allow such betrayal and abuse to be perpetuated. And it is the same Christ of the gospels who both sets such a high standard of forgiveness and appears to accept that infidelity invalidates the covenant of marriage. Is it possible to have both forgiven and divorced an unfaithful partner? Surely it must be so. Otherwise we ask that forgiveness robs us utterly of our dignity and self-esteem. I am not saying here that there is no way back for a relationship when there has been adultery. But I am saying that I think that living out the demands of the prayer that daily asks us to forgive others as we are forgiven does not mean that we must endlessly tolerate betrayal.

But what does forgiveness mean if the broken relationship is not restored as if the offence had not occurred? Perhaps it means that we do not place that person in a category other than ‘person’ in our own heart and mind. That we continue to view them as a person of unique and infinite worth, even if we have concluded, with sadness, that it is not healthy for either of us to remain together. And perhaps it means that we do not allow that experience of betrayal to so distort our understanding of ‘persons’ that we can no longer trust or love. Perhaps it is a restoration of innocence, if not relationship; something that is for our own benefit and for the benefit of others, as much as it is for the benefit of the one who has betrayed us.

That is all very well if we are talking about the utter betrayal of adultery. That sort of betrayal is not ‘all very well’. What I mean is that this understanding of forgiveness does not touch my experience as I have not needed to offer it or ask it in those circumstances.

But what is infidelity? Is ‘marital unfaithfulness’ merely a question of adultery or should we draw its bounds more broadly. I have lived up to my vow to ‘forsake all others’ but have I loved and cherished in times better or worse? Or have there been times when I have been indifferent, unkind or even cruel? I confess that there have. And not merely as that perhaps understandable sort of sulking or lashing out in the emotional heat of receiving offence, but through prolonged periods of self-absorption. It is clearly a deeper betrayal to withdraw one’s love and give it to another. But simply to withdraw it is on the same trajectory. What sort of forgiveness can I ask for in those circumstances? Is this not a sort of infidelity — a lack of faithfulness?

I am fortunate indeed to have been forgiven this more than seven times. Slowly perhaps, this forgiveness is transforming me; making me better able to love in a truly faithful way.

And perhaps this is a way too to understand the relationship at the heart of faith. Time and again in the Hebrew Scriptures, the nation is ‘hewn by the prophets’ for their spiritual adultery. They literally engaged in the ritual worship of gods other than Yahweh. As a follower of the Way, I am not, I think, drawn off in idolatrous worship of false gods. (Though I do lust after the idols of consumer capitalism — iWant.) My infidelity is more along the lines of that self-absorbed indifference. Even the work of a priest, pioneer or otherwise can be a way of avoiding the call of God. So today I am taking time to reflect in silence; to be still and allow myself to be found; to experience and receive forgiveness and perhaps grow in faith/fulness.