By Dan Clendenin
When I finished reading Kate Hennessy’s new biography of her famous grandmother this past July, Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty (2017), I felt a sort of heaviness. Three generations of so much family pain and sorrow.
Hennessy (b. 1960) says that it took her five years to write this family memoir about her “paradoxical grandmother” Dorothy Day (1897–1980), her many “complexities and contradictions,” and in particular the deeply complicated mother-daughter relationship between Day and her only child Tamar (1926–2008).
Hennessy is the youngest of Tamar’s nine children. Her book strips away the hagiography that often surrounds her grandmother Dorothy Day, who is now on track for Catholic sainthood, and the Catholic Worker movement that she founded with Peter Maurin in 1933. In many ways, their family story raises fundamental questions about the means and ends of ministry.
The genius of the book, though, is how Hennessy tells these deeply painful and personal stories with a rare mix of candor, compassion, respect and even genuine gratitude. At the end of the day, the book is suffused with the spirit of forgiveness and acceptance.
In the gospel this week, Peter asked Jesus, “how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” It’s a loaded question when you remember that Peter denied ever knowing Jesus, and then also deserted him.
No doubt Peter was proud to appear so extraordinarily merciful as to forgive someone seven times. But Jesus exploded Peter’s arithmetic of forgiveness. God’s pardon, which we are called to imitate, far exceeds even our most exaggerated ideas about forgiveness.
Jesus told a parable about an “unmerciful servant” who received forgiveness for his million-dollar debt. Then, instead of forgiving a tiny debt that he was owed, he imprisoned his debtor.
He told us to forgive not merely seven times, but seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven. Divine forgiveness, given and received, is beyond calculation or comprehension. It was so flabbergasting to the original audience that later scribes couldn’t agree on what numbers Jesus had actually said.
Forgiveness on that scale is wildly disproportionate to the sincerity of the penitent or the seriousness of their offense. Anyone who seeks “serial forgiveness” makes us question their motives, but Jesus says it doesn’t matter — we still forgive them.
Later, after his resurrection, Jesus restored Peter as they sat around a charcoal fire, no doubt a painful reminder of the charcoal fire when he betrayed Jesus at his crucifixion.
St. Augustine once commented, “Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved.”
He then cautioned, “Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.”
Jesus linked receiving forgiveness with offering forgiveness in a sort of law of reciprocity. We can expect divine forgiveness in the measure that we extend human forgiveness: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart.”
Similarly, in the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” We forgive because we’ve been forgiven. We can only long for ourselves what we lavish upon others.
In this week’s epistle, Paul says that we should never “look down on” another person, that is, despise, scorn, or treat a person with contempt (Rom. 14:3, 10). This same word occurs 11 times in the Greek New Testament, and was used by Jesus, who warned about people who are “confident of their own righteousness and look down on everybody else” (Luke 18:9).
The early monastics were adamant on this point: “The monk, says Moses, must never judge his neighbor at all in any way whatever.”
Instead of judging others, God calls us to protect them. “They said of Abba Macarius that just as God protects the world, so Abba Macarius would cover the faults he saw, as though he did not see them, and those he heard, as though he did not hear them.”
The reason for this is an awareness of both human nature and the character of God. St. Maximos the Confessor: “The person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a person never belittles anyone… He knows that God is like a good and loving physician who heals with individual treatment each of those who are trying to make progress.”
And so Paul writes in the epistle for this week, “Accept one another, just as God has accepted you” (Romans 14:1, 15:7). Similarly, to the Ephesians, he says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Stanley Vishnewski, a close friend of Dorothy Day who joined the Catholic Worker movement in 1934 and remained with them until his death in 1979, once observed that “people came to the Catholic Worker expecting to find saints, and instead they found human beings.”
Robert Ellsberg, who transcribed and edited Day’s handwritten diaries, calls Hennessy’s biography a “stunning work.” Why? Because it reminds us that “holy people are actual human beings.” And because actual human beings are deeply imperfect, we all need to give and receive forgiveness, and never judge one another.
At the end of her biography, Hennessy recalls how her mother Tamar, who suffered so much and for so many reasons, once told her, “You don’t grow up until you forgive your parents.” And we could ad, your spouse, your children, you neighbor, your boss, even and especially your own self.
See here for our Journey with Jesus weekly webzine for the global church. All free, all the time.