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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Leon

What I Have Learned About Forgiveness

Learning to forgive my first husband for the many ways he hurt me and our children was a journey like none I could have imagined. "May we never risk the life of our souls by being resentful or by bearing grudges." – St. Gregory of Nyssa.

Mommy and Clare at her 3rd birthday party

It was my youngest daughter’s 3rd birthday when I first heard the news that would rock my world to the core. After unloading groceries for her upcoming party, I took a break to sit and scroll through my phone. I was unprepared for what I would find -- an anonymous Facebook message from someone claiming to be a co-worker of my first husband, implicating him in an affair. This “friend” had concrete knowledge of his infidelity and could not sit around any longer knowing he was lying to me and hurting our family. He encouraged me to hire a private investigator to know the truth for myself.

By this time, I was standing in the driveway, having moved outside to hide my overflowing emotion from my children. It was one of those surreal life moments where time freezes. I felt the heat of the blacktop under my feet. The sky was blue and innocent. The August air thick on my skin. WHAT????? Disbelief, panic, and fear surged through me. My mind raced a million miles an hour and yet time seemed to stop. In an odd way, I was relieved. I had been living through hell for the last 7 months after my husband told me he wasn’t sure he loved me and was slowly and agonizingly pulling away from me and our family. Nothing made sense about what he said or did or the reasons he gave for these changes. But adultery? As horrifying as it was, it was something tangible. A REASON. And it gave me something to DO. I could confront him. He would be repentant and distraught. I would forgive. There was hope.

I already had plans to take the children by myself to my father’s house at the shore that weekend. My husband was barely around at this point, so there was no issue of trying to hide this new knowledge from him for long. I put on my strongest, bravest face for our daughter’s party and left with the kids the next day.

My thoughts in my journal as I processed these revelations were full of purpose and focus. My job, my vow, my CHOICE is to love my husband. To love him as Christ loves him. To see him as Christ sees him. To give until it hurts. I just need to love. When I am scared, love. When it hurts, love. Holy Spirit, how do I love him when he no longer wants my love? What do I do??? Help me to do your will and to suffer well. I feel this churlish desire to go back in time and tell that younger me that she has no idea what she is in for.

There was an extraordinary miracle from that weekend away that gave me direction in how to make my way through the nightmare that was my life. Sunday morning before we left to return home, the kids and I went to mass with my Dad and his wife. I was very emotional and had trouble keeping it together at church. After the gospel, the priest picked up his homily and then paused and put it down. He looked out over the congregation and he said the following words:

If you are here, and you are struggling and you are in pain and you don’t know what to do, the Lord wants you to just Keep. On. Loving. God will deal with adulterers in His own judgement.

Then he picked up his homily and began to speak about the gospel. I was frozen, those words burning into my heart. Did I really just hear that? Did he really just say that? I was not alone!! The Lord DID see me. He DID see my misery and sorrow as Psalm 10 says. The Lord IS close to the broken-hearted. God already KNEW! He knew the pain I was in. He was with me. I had always known the truth of God’s presence in my head, but those words were a MIRACLE -- God’s voice straight into my devastated heart and soul for what He wanted me to do. For how I was supposed to face this. Keep trying to love. Let God be the judge.

We had SUCH a long journey in front of us and so much of it would be out of my control, but I felt empowered to focus on the two things I COULD do: love and forgive. I knew that recovering from the problems in our marriage would be a marathon, but I was strong and I was confident and I knew there was NO MOUNTAIN I would not climb to save my marriage and protect my children. I already knew how to love my husband, but I didn’t yet know how to forgive this.

I am bouncing all around – shock. Truly experiencing numbness. Horrifying anger. Overwhelming grief. I do not want to end up bitter. I want to process this, deal with it, face it, forgive it, and be free from it. Forgiveness will cost me a lot because I will be letting my husband off the hook for a debt he can never repay. I read somewhere that “Forgiveness of betrayals parallels what Jesus did on the cross for all of us”. I don’t doubt my ability to forgive. This will come supernaturally through Christ manifesting himself in me. God will work that miracle in my heart, of that I am sure. (9/28/2010)

Stumbling through this time of my life required so much faith. But reading these words from my journal now, I feel like a Girl Scout trying to earn her forgiveness badge. I didn’t have a clue how that “can-do” spirit would be tested. It didn’t take long for the shock and numbness to wear off. The adultery and betrayals burned like hot fire in my heart. I was weak and empty.

It was clear as the months went on (the events therein a story for another day) that my marriage was not to be saved. He did not repent. He did not stay. There would be no triumphant battle to rescue us all from the destruction of divorce. Yet, in the rubble, I heard the echo of the priest’s words from the beach the previous summer – Keep on loving. God will deal with adulterers in His own judgement. Now, please understand me -- I DO get to judge adultery as wrong. I get to judge that the actions of a man who is unfaithful and unrepentant and leaves his family are evil. What I DON’T get to do is to decide I know exactly why he did these things, the condition of his heart and soul, and what punishment he deserves. God has been very clear that this territory is His alone. And our God is faithful. He is just and He is merciful. He can be trusted. NONE of us gets away with our sin, even when we delude ourselves into thinking we have. But with those miracle words, God freed me from the burden of being judge, jury, and executioner. The battle I waged now was in my own heart: what do I do with the attachment and love I have for this man who is now gone? How do I emerge from this tragedy without bitterness and resentment and hatred? How do I accept the new terms of my life with custody and visitation and support payments? There was only one way: Forgiveness.

I am so abundantly grateful for the deep grace I was given to beg for forgiveness. For myself and all my failings, but mostly for a deep and true forgiveness for my former husband. I knew this was the path to peace and freedom, and I am convinced it was the prayers of so many people around me that allowed me to commit my heart to this process. I remembered at some point during this time when a friend had shared with me that after her mother died, she wanted a sign to know when her mother was in Heaven. She prayed fervently for a specific sign and some months later, it was granted to her. I was fascinated. I had never had the confidence and boldness to approach God this way, but in this season of brokenness and pain and NEED, I gave it a try.

In September of 2011, I wrote in my journal: Lord, I am here with you again, sinner that I am. I know you see me, know me, love me. I know that I am only a moment of grace away from falling. I want to know you and love you more and I ask you to help me on this path with your grace. I want to forgive. I want to be rinsed clean. To let it all go. To say, “there but for the grace of God go I.” Please, help me Lord to completely forgive Ray. To only see him with love and peace and compassion. I am asking for and want something I know is supernatural: the grace of total forgiveness. And to have a shield around my heart so no more anger and resentment can grow. To let his issues roll off me. To live a crazy, wild, grace-filled peace no matter what he says or does. I want to forgive the other woman. My soul is bristling. How can I??? But you know, Lord. You know what they did. You see. That has to be enough for me. And you see and know my own sins and how I need your grace and I know I must offer to them that grace and forgiveness in the abundance that only you can offer. I ask for the sign of a single yellow rose to be given to me to help me know when I have completely forgiven them and am healed.

I smile at these words 6 ½ years later. I was so sincere and so hopeful. I really, really, REALLY thought I would have that yellow rose by the end of the month. Maybe 2 months at the latest. I was so innocently naïve as to the depths of the human spirit, the extent of the wreckage I carried, the power of the aftershocks that would continue to shake me and my children and hurt us for years to come. What in the world made me think that forgiving my first husband would be as neat and tidy as receiving a Girl Scout badge? In reality, it has been one of the bloodiest and ugliest processes I have ever had to go through.

The most profound lesson I learned is that forgiveness is not just about the other person. In order to forgive someone completely from the heart, we must first genuinely experience the depths of God’s mercy. The only way to truly appreciate the incredible gift that has been done for us by the Lord on the cross, the POWER of forgiveness, is to dive into the misery of our own sin and the punishment WE deserve. It would be easy for me to sit on my high horse and point my finger and say, “Yes, but HE was the adulterer!” But then I miss the whole point of the story of redemption. Forgiveness is not first about us forgiving someone else. It is first a love story about God forgiving us. I cannot be transformed by the miracle that I am forgiven until I come face to face with my own wretchedness and my desperate NEED for forgiveness. I have to be willing to do the hard work of letting the Lord show me my true sinfulness and love and heal me anyway through His grace.

Months and then years passed without a yellow rose. I let God crack me open and show me the magnitude of the healing I had to do in my own heart. Together, He and I began the “Journey of the Beloved”, the name He gave me for these years of becoming my truest self, God’s beloved daughter. I’ll be honest – it was agony. I had to let God re-open wounds that had never healed well and were infecting my heart with lies and shame and fear. I unraveled in a way I had never before experienced and there were times I felt I would never be put back together. I fought anxiety, depression, and even a desire to just be washed away. Everything felt like pain and some days I just wanted it to end. But God was so gentle and faithful and brought me everything I needed each step of the way – devoted friends, coaching groups, just the right books or songs, an ever-patient new husband, a Godly therapist, many holy priests, and a deep faith.

Forgiving from the heart and coming face-to-face with our own wretchedness is a long journey. Along the way, we certainly need to say prayers of forgiveness that are purely an act of the will. Out of obedience, we can forgive others because God tells us to and because it is ultimately the only way to true freedom. Humanly, forgiving someone doesn’t mean what they did was OK. It doesn’t mean they are “off the hook”. It doesn’t mean we are not still in pain. But when we can forgive as an act of our will, it begins the process. We can say the words even when we are not sure we mean them. “Lord, help me forgive.” We may need to start a step further back and pray: “Lord, help me to WANT to forgive.” At times, forgiveness may be a continual process, especially when the events are on-going or a destructive and toxic person remains in your life. If we stay committed though, God is faithful and will see us through to the end.

In July of 2016, almost 5 years after truly beginning my journey of trying to forgive, I made a pilgrimage with Fr. Dan Leary and some other women to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The trip focused on healing and I found my time there intensely meaningful, bringing me even closer to the Lord and to a deeper understanding of Mary’s love and care for me as well. On our last day there, I was visiting the grounds of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe with a friend. We headed over to a side garden we hadn’t been in before that led to an enormous statue of Christ the King. Soaking in the beauty of the garden path and the day, I took many pictures, thanking God for the gift of this time with Him. As I finally stood at the foot of the Christ the King statue, looming 40 feet over my head, I photographed the words etched into the circular base, “Vivo Christo Rey!” Long live Christ the King! I made my way around the statue to take a picture of the next set of words. As I framed the shot, my breath caught in my throat. Surrounding the base of the statue on this side were the words "La Virgen de Guadalupe" and the green leaves of many rose bushes. But there in front of me was only one flower. A single, yellow rose.

I stood for the longest time in this sacred moment. God had not forgotten my long ago prayer. I had waited for years for someone, some friend or my husband, some unknowing accomplice, to hand me my flower. I hadn’t given up, but I also wondered if maybe I had been too bold in asking for this sign. But here it was. Joy and excitement flooded my heart. I instantly felt God’s presence and love for me in a profound way and gratitude surged through me. Who better than my heavenly Mother to bring me the peace and understanding that I had forgiven well and completely? Tears rolled down my cheeks and I whispered “thank you” over and over again. Resisting the urge to take the whole flower, I leaned in and carefully pulled off one delicate yellow petal to bring home with me. And then, like the women at the tomb on Easter Sunday, I ran to find my friend and my tour group to tell anyone who would listen about my miracle.

In the years since that pilgrimage, I have been called to forgive my first husband anew and again every time some issue crops up. But this journey is giving me such a profound understanding of God’s mercy and His love for me. (Let yourself be loved!) It allows me to be more merciful and kind and forgiving with all the people in my life. It has given me hope and reassurance that God is with me through this whole mess. I have been freed from the bondage of being a victim and able to embrace the many blessings that God has brought in the wake of the destruction of my first marriage. I pray that whatever your pain and your struggles, the Lord will bring this same healing and hope to each of you.

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has

a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgives you.

Colossians 3:13

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