EDITOR’S NOTE—The Lenten season that leads to Easter is a call to spiritual reflection for millions of Christians around the world. As Benjamin Pratt writes in our first Holy Week story, some of the questions we ask are: What are we yearning for? Dreaming for? Hoping for in our lives, our families, our communities and our world? Much like the Jewish call during the High Holy Days, Holy Week calls Christians to reflect on our relationships with God and with other people. This moving column about forgiveness by author Lucille Sider relates to the larger story she tells in her book, Light Shines in the Darkness.
By LUCILLE SIDER
When I was 15, I visited my sister Ruth and her husband Edmond in Ontario, Canada. It was the 1960s, they were about to have their first child and I visited to help them paint and prepare a perfect room for the baby.
What a happy time!
That is, until the night I was awakened in bed, startled to see Edmond standing over me. He began touching my breasts and declaring his love for me—all while Ruth was sleeping soundly downstairs. In an instant, I swung my arms to fight him off. As I fought harder, he left the room. What a horrifying experience! He did not enter my room again, but I could not sleep.
As the next day dawned, I did not confront him about the attack. How could I? I couldn’t fathom how to respond to what had happened at a time when Ruth was happy about all that was happening in their family. I was paralyzed and afraid.
Even though I did not confront Edmond, I hated him. I feared him. A second night was coming. Again, I could not sleep. Would he return?
What could I do to keep him away since there was no door to the room—just a curtain? But I found some straight pins in the room and I fastened the curtain to the wood. Of course, I knew that he could break through this, but I hoped that at least this might deter him, even a little bit. He did not return that night but the trauma continued to build within me.
The following afternoon, my father came to pick me up. He admired the baby’s bedroom, then took me home. As soon as we arrived, I insisted that I talk with him and my mother. They sat opposite me at the kitchen table as I sobbed my way through the details. In my heart, I knew they would help. But instead, my mother sat silent, stricken. My father uttered a short prayer which I barely remember hearing.
I expected them to defend me, but they were silent.
I felt totally abandoned.
They never said another word to me about it. They did nothing. I was left alone to carry this secret for 33 years.
For decades after that interaction, I was painfully aware that I still held tremendous anger toward my father. Sometimes, it took the form of despising him. Other times, it took the form of disobeying him. Once I even cut my hair short—much shorter than was expected by women in our denomination. For decades, I harbored anger toward him.
Why didn’t I confront him? He was an adult; I was a child. That horrible day around the kitchen table, he had made his reaction crystal clear in such a hurtful way that I dared not risk a second injury. And, unlike today, there were no models for me of women publicly talking about such abuse. I could see no way to respond further to him. The trauma festered. My anger and hatred simmered silently.
Eventually, in 2002, my father died. (And my mother had passed six years earlier, in 1997.) We had never found a way to address this deep wound.
While I held onto this anger for decades, it did not prevent me from succeeding in other ways in life. I enjoyed a career as both a clinical psychologist and clergywoman. My faith was strong, and I developed powerful spiritual practices, like meditation. It took over 50 years, but meditation was what allowed me to forgive my father.
It happened just after I turned 68, 54 years after the abuse. I moved into an apartment in the south side of Chicago, in the same building where my dear friend Frank lived. I had known Frank for many years. We lived near each other in our 30s and meditated together weekly with one other friend. Even after that period in our lives, we still would gather for meditation occasionally. But beginning in our late 60s, we began to meditate twice a day.
We started each meditation by saying and enacting “The Lord’s Prayer” as Frank interpreted it from Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. In the traditional line about forgiveness, the Bible tells us to “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” But from the Aramaic, Frank translated it to something we could truly see: “Loosen the knots that form within and between us, freeing us to forgive.” This made the Lord’s Prayer an “alive” prayer, full of powerful imagery—not at all static the way the traditional rendition can become.
Frank then enhanced this “aliveness” by embodying each line with physical postures. At one point, Frank suggested we use a prayerful posture that is common throughout many of the world’s religious traditions, although most Americans may not have seen it except in a Catholic or Episcopal ordination service. And, some clergy encourage this posture on Good Friday to mimic Jesus’ form on the cross. They call it “lying prostrate.” In this particular form of prostration, a person lies face down on the floor—the ultimate form of prayerful surrender.
Frank suggested we use this posture during the line about forgiveness. I remember the first time I did this—spreading out on the floor face down, arms out, in the shape of a cross. How deeply this embodied the prayer’s petition. With our arms straight out, there could be no “knots.” Being in the shape of a cross, we were powerfully reminded of Jesus on the cross. And as he suffered there, Jesus offered forgiveness for those who had crucified him—something that later on was understood to be forgiveness for all of us for all time.
After two years of saying and enacting this prayer, I had a profound experience of forgiveness toward my father. It was not a strong lightning bolt that shocked me to my core. It was not a burst of remorse that brought me to my knees. In that moment, I simply realized that there was no heaviness in my heart in regards to my father. There were no knots. The heavy, angry heart that I carried for 57 years was simply gone.
It took commitment on my part.
I learned that forgiveness doesn’t always come quickly, or immediately, when someone has been hurt so badly. But by committing to saying this prayer of forgiveness, I gave myself the time I needed to let it truly sink in. Without this meditation and time, I don’t think I would have ever forgiven him.
And, so, this year as we enter Holy Week, I invite you to consider this spiritual discipline to help ease those knots that may be tying you to a troubling past. Remember: For me, it took time. Lots and lots of time.
But you may at least want to start right now. This is a season of new beginnings.