Giving Up Resentment for Lent: Calisthenics for Your Soul

Resentment and retaliation are a toxic mix, concocted for another but ending up in your own tea. There’s a better way to get even, but it takes practice.

About a month before Lent on These Stone Walls, we posted “What Dreams May Come: Azazel and the Pursuit of Justice.” In part, it was a thinly veiled commentary on something that happened recently, and a few readers picked up on it. Part of its title came from a 2011 article by Ryan MacDonald entitled “To Azazel: Father Gordon MacRae and the Gospel of Mercy.” It described, among other things, an incident that took place a few years ago on the steps of a Catholic church near this prison. A man who traveled a long way to visit me in prison attended a Lenten Mass while on his way here. After Mass, he told the priest of his plan to visit me. “You should stay away from him,” the priest said. “He can’t be trusted.”

When I heard about this, I was both angry and bewildered. That priest and I had never even met. His views were based solely on what he heard from others. When the visitor asked the priest for the source of his opinion, he said, “It’s common knowledge in the diocese.” So I wrote to that priest. I didn’t lash out or accuse. I tried to defend myself, and asked if he would visit me in prison. He never responded.

That was a few years ago, and I got over it. Then the bitter feeling of being unjustly disparaged surfaced again just a few weeks ago. A woman in New Hampshire asked her parish priest about the process of meeting me in prison. The priest’s reported response was, “He’s dangerous, and you should stay away from him.” It wasn’t the same priest, but it was eerily the same sentiment – almost like a pre-written press release.

When I learned of this, my immediate reaction was to feel hurt, but that didn’t last long. The hurt was quickly replaced by anger which feels a lot more bearable than hurt. It’s almost always where hurt goes when given a chance. The anger seethed for a few days, then morphed into resentment and thoughts of revenge which is where anger goes when it festers long enough. In prison with no place for resentment to go, I imagined a few retaliatory TSW headlines outing the priest as an imposter of charity and justice.

Of course, you have never seen such a headline on These Stone Walls, nor will you. When it came down to it, I told the person who reported this to me that I have nothing disparaging to say in return about my brother priest. That wasn’t entirely true, of course. I had lots of explosive things to say. I just wasn’t sure any of them were true so I didn’t say them.

I wasn’t sure any of them were true because I don’t really even know this priest. We met a few times thirty years ago, but beyond his name I cannot say I know him, nor does he know me. I wrote to him once from prison years ago, but like most of the priests of my diocese I have written to, he never responded. His recent remarks, like those of the other priest before him, simply parroted what he has read in newspapers or heard on the tangled web of diocesan gossip which, as I recall, is far more prolific than accurate.

So all the disparaging remarks given free reign to roam around in my mind remained in my mind. I’m glad no one else was aware of my thoughts because they weren’t very nice and I’m not very proud of them. The longer such thoughts are given free mental reign, the more they become ingrained. Do they serve any purpose at all beyond the compensatory imaginings of someone who is really powerless to respond in kind? After all, I am convicted and in prison. The scarlet letter embroidered upon me in prison places me at a disadvantage. In a game of ecclesiastical quid pro quo, I can’t compete. I can fight, but I cannot win.

RESENTMENT IS A PATH TO THE SOUL’S DARK NIGHT

The real truth, when it comes down to total honesty, is that I have nothing bad to say about that man. I remember him as a good and faithful priest with a stellar reputation. If I say anything else just to fire back at him, it would be contrived and unjust. It would make me someone I know in my heart and soul I must not become. If there’s one thing I have learned well in prison, it is this: while bearing with the purgatory of unjustly losing my freedom, becoming hateful and vengeful would put me on the fast track to a living hell.

I am surrounded day after day by men whose lives have become just that; men who have long ago caved into their basest instincts, confusing survival with retaliation for real or imagined wounds. When I am not writing in prison, I am defusing the nefarious plots and bombs concocted by fellow prisoners determined to only further harm themselves by lashing out at others. Among prisoners – as you may have learned from “Downton Abbey’s Prison Drama” – character assassination is a daily grind, and a spiritual sickness of epidemic proportions.

And where does it end? If you have followed the story of the files of accused priests being publicized in Los Angeles this month, then, like me, you might be even more alarmed at one of its sideshows. The public sniping going on between Cardinal Mahoney and the current Archbishop of Los Angeles delighted the secular media no end, but placed the Cardinal in a distorted light. We priests cannot call upon Catholics to avoid “The Scandal of Catholic Abuse of the Catholic Abuse Scandal” when we are engaging in it ourselves.

And you’ve probably seen or heard of the lurid headlines of the monsignor recently arrested on charges of supplementing his income by selling illegal drugs. “Meth-dealing Monsignor” is the sensational media’s dream headline, but he is charged and indicted, not convicted and in prison. As a lawyer I know likes to say, “A good prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich. It doesn’t mean the ham sandwich is guilty. ”

I was a lot more scandalized by the shameless exploitation of that ugly headline by the rapidly diminishing, oxymoronic group, Voice of the Faithful. In a recently published press release, the “Meth-Dealing Monsignor” story was presented by VOTF as evidence for how celibacy and the male priesthood have harmed the Church. Really? I have met lots of meth dealers in prison. None of them were practicing celibacy. There are women’s prisons too, and some of the women in them were drug dealers.

It’s easy for me to say that the priest in my diocese who recently slandered me could have, and should have, kept his disparaging thoughts to himself. But he didn’t. My anger and thoughts of revenge effect this other priest not one iota. They effect only me. They further disparage me, and only me. I’ve come to know only too well the power and self-fulfilling prophesy of resentment and revenge. They can quickly turn you into the very person some unkind soul already suspects you to be. So they must be somehow defused.

FORGIVING TRESPASSES

If you managed to make your way through my ramblings about the metaphysics of time and living in the past in “Forty Days of Lent in the Practice of the Presence of God” last week, then this might be a more practical – and readable – post about a self-improvement project for Lent. It’s not too late to take one on.

It doesn’t have to be a massive urban renewal of the soul’s dark night like the one I once proposed in “Potholes on the High Road” during Lent two years ago. That was a post about a grueling and wrenching project I took on to forgive a prosecutor who helped send me unjustly to prison for sixty-seven years, and then took his own life. If you can easily forgive someone who has done such a thing to you, then we should be seeing your name in the Roman Martyrology some day.

Have I forgiven that prosecutor as I set out to do in that post? Not on your life. That remains a work in progress. One day while offering Mass in my cell late at night, I prayed the Roman Canon as I usually do, and I found myself spontaneously adding that prosecutor’s name in an unspoken prayer as I remembered those in my life who have died. That’s progress. It doesn’t mean I have forgiven him, but he no longer rents space in my mind. All thoughts of resentment and retaliation have dissipated into my prayers for him. As I wrote in that post, “You simply cannot pray for a person and hate him at the very same time. I’ve tried it, and it cannot be done.”

What I really want is to engage in a “last-word” contest with that priest who so disparaged me anew – maybe something really childish like, “Oh yeah? Your mother wore combat boots!” That sort of thing. It’s tedious and empty and pointless, however. You know it is. So why bother?

I have a better way of dealing with the tit-for-tat my wounded spirit demands. Throughout this Lent, whether I want to or not, I am praying for the priest who disparaged me unkindly and unjustly. And my prayer isn’t anything like, “Lord, please see this jerk the way I do.” Though that was tempting, it never became part of my prayer. I simply added him, with as little judgment as I could manage, in the prayer for the living in the Roman Canon at Mass. And once a week I add him to my offering to God that ends each day in prison. Though I doubt very much that he feels he needs my prayers – or even wants them – that doesn’t matter. I now invite you to pray for him as well.

I also invite you to choose someone who has hurt you in the past; perhaps someone you have not forgiven, and whose hurt is something you carry with you in the form of resentment. You don’t have to let go of this. You don’t have to decide now that you want to forgive this person. When you pray simply mention this person’s name with as little judgment as your heart can manage. By Easter, this prayer will have become a favor to your own soul, and a source of grace and freedom from resentment. You may dislike this person forever, but resentment will diminish under the power of your prayer, and you will at least begin to walk on the road toward freedom.

After all, the prayer that every one of us prays daily, or at least once a week, really does ask Our Father to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Be careful what you ask for. If you really have no trespasses in need of forgiveness – none at all – then just disregard this post. I have lots, and not a day goes by that I don’t discover a new one.

So help me, Lord, to pray sincerely for my brother priest who trespassed against me. Help me pray for him with a sincere heart; with the kind, forgiving, and priestly heart I once had spontaneously in my life, and hope in this Lent to have again.

Editor’s Note: Lest you think the shocking news hasn’t reached into prison, Father Gordon’s planned post for next week is entitled “Pope Benedict XVI: The Sacrifices of a Father’s Love.” Also, I want to thank TSW readers who have voted for These Stone Walls.  TSW is a finalist for Best Catholic Blog!

Please Click here to vote for These Stone Walls for Best Catholic Blog

Remember–you can vote once every 24 hours in each category on every day of the voting period (10:00 A.M. EST February 19, 2013, through 11:59 P.M. EST on March 19, 2013)

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE

Comments

  1. The more time we spend thinking resentful thoughts and speaking resentfully about those who have wronged us, the less time we have for prayer and loving our neighbor. A good priest told me that when I am feeling hurt and resentful I need to immediately start thinking about something else or pray. It’s good practice for controlling our revengeful desires – and not easy at all. Also, by giving in to resentment, it seems to me that we allow the person we resent to exercise control over us. I’ve struggled to forgive somebody for years and still have to work at it from time to time. The urge to get even is really powerful.

  2. Joann says:

    I have asked several priests about forgiveness in the past year. It has always seemed to me that the Protestants do a much better job of this as they are forever in the news forgiving someone for the most horrific crime.

    Catholics, on the other hand, seem to need the offending person to grovel and beg before they are willing to forgive. I think we have it wrong.

    Forgiveness starts in our own heads when we can pray for those who have injured us. It will eventually filter into our hearts and souls.

    Thank you for sharing yourself with us. There are so many priests who are suffering who cannot. If anyone wants to help a priest today, please google Opus Bono Sacerdotii.

    May the Lord Bless and Keep you.

  3. Fr. Gordon J. MacRae says:

    From Father James Valladares:

    God be praised! The wheels of Divine Justice grind slowly but surely! I whole-heartedly endorse the initiative to list These Stone Walls as a finalist for the About.com contest for Catholic Blogs.

    Fr. Gordon Macrae is an extraordinary priest – unflagging in his priestly commitment, unwavering in his Christian faith, unabashed in championing the truth, and unconditional in his pastoral outreach to countless individuals in and through his inspiring Blog.

    His story features prominently in my book – Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast – Procedural Justice for Priests, Diocesan and Religious – published by iUniverse.

    It is my earnest wish and sincere prayer that truth and justice prevail for Fr. Gordon MacRae. God, it is said, tends to delay; but He is always on time.

  4. Domingo says:

    Your posts are honest, Father, and that’s the reason why many of us come back here and read them. You’re not writing a column for a magazine, or for a newspaper: you are sharing yourself to us. And we thank God for your generosity.

    Last Monday, I assisted at a noon Mass and the good Father said in his homily, “If we could only see the real life of every person, it will not be too easy for us to judge anyone.” When someone cuts me on the road, I simply say to myself that the person has a valid reason to hurry and that I must understand. I also realize that if I get mad, I only hurt myself. You’re very right, our own resentments only defeat us.

    I’ll be doing my Adoration again in a few hours and I will remember you in His Presence.

    Asking for your priestly blessing for me and my family,
    Domingo

  5. Joan says:

    Dear Father Gordon, Your words are of enormous comfort because they come so truly from the heart of one who has suffered beyond belief. My excuses for resentments aren’t nearly as valid. Because you have climbed this mountain to forgiveness, given the heavy backpack you are carrying, your authentic words are full of inspiration and hope to those of us who have slipped and fallen on these slippery slopes so many times. Thank you so much!

    God bless; you are in my prayers.
    Joan.

  6. Keith says:

    Thank you, Father G., for the insight that many a Preacher of the Gospel way of life has tried to convey to the congregation. An insight that has crept into my life from someone in a 12-Step program might also be helpful during this journey to renewal of Baptismal promises: “Isn’t it funny that the Catholics say ‘trespasses’ and others say ‘debts’ – maybe Catholics see that assaults against the boundaries of one’s self is deeper than money can buy!”

  7. Gérald C. LaJeunesse says:

    Dear Gordon

    Forgiveness. I’ve reflected a lot about this, and read up on it also. An intuition I had is that forgiveness is a process and the readings I made came up with the same. It’s very much like bandages: the deeper the wound, the more often you need to change the bandages. The deeper the hurt, the more often you need to forgive; and at first it may be with no conviction at all. With time and effort, you change and realize that you’ve journeyed into forgiveness.

    Yesterday’s Gospel reading was the Our Father. It’s striking that “as we forgive those who have wronged us “ (sorry, I don’t have the English text!) is the only ‘article’ which Jesus comments. He must have known we’d have difficulty with it. However, his insistence tells me that we need to pay attention. And we are then delivered from the evil festering in us when we forgive…

    May your lenten journey continue to bring you life!

    Amitiés,
    Gérald, ptre

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