The Miracle of Forgiveness: A Journey of the Heart

Seeds, whether planted by the human hand or sown by the wind, endure. Covered by earth they rest unseen, waiting in faith to be called forth at God’s appointed time. So it is that deserts will bloom from long-forgotten seed.

The blessing of forgiveness came to flower in me from seeds planted in years past. The hatred that I carried was so deeply rooted that it had become a part of who I was. It was not just a passing thought or a flash of remembered anger; it had grown and matured as I had, from the age of three when the abuse began, not ending when I left home at sixteen. The abuser was my stepfather.

I was encouraged to write the following account of my miracle by two dear Friends with whom I felt led to share my experience, separately and months apart. At first I wondered if I could find words powerful enough to convey the nature of the gift that God had given me. Writing became a burden that felt heavier and heavier. After holding it in the Light for some time and not seeing the way forward, I bundled it together and laid it all at God’s feet.

Some months passed, and the season of harvest was upon us. One evening, after a full day in the field, I heard my husband telling a non-farming friend that the crops were almost in. All things had come together at the right time: spring rains, good sun, no drought; the seeds planted in the spring had flourished. It would be a good harvest. Days later I knew at least how to begin.

Sowing Seeds

The first seed of which I am aware was planted approximately 18 years ago. In conjunction with my work (teaching juveniles who are incarcerated), I attended a lecture on conflict resolution. The speaker asked us to think about someone with whom we were in conflict or someone we intensely disliked, and instead of holding the image of that individual in the present, to picture that person as a baby or as a small child. This new, nonthreatening image would be one we could hold more comfortably, thus allowing ourselves to experience some positive feelings for that person. Immediately my stepfather leaped into my consciousness, but before I was able to complete the assigned thoughts, I rejected the idea so violently and with such anger that I remember nothing else about that afternoon. Nevertheless, that seed was planted.

I have been a secondary school teacher for many years. My first teaching assignment after university was in Gary, Indiana. My students were, for the most part, victims: of neglect, violence, abuse, and poverty, both financial and spiritual. I was ill-prepared for the task, and I will always be thankful to these students for the lessons they taught me about survival. The demands of geography next found me teaching in a small, rural high school where I taught English literature to juniors and seniors. It was also in this rural setting that I met the man who would become my husband a few years later. It was with great sadness that I left this school, protected as it was, hiding among the fields of corn.

I believe it was God who sent me to my next assignment, as I arrived there by accident. I mistakenly answered an advertisement for a job in juvenile corrections, thinking the position was something else. Quickly realizing my mistake, but loathe to break the connection, I inquired about the education program offered to the young offenders. I was informed that there was no program and no teachers. At that time in Indiana most juveniles were held in adult jails. This detention center had recently opened and was one of less than ten such facilities in the entire state. It was located on the second floor of the county jail.

Here, though they occupied the same cells that until recently had housed the adult population, the young offenders were separated and thus protected from the adult prisoners. It was in this setting that I met my first Quaker, Paul Landskroener. The same week that we met, he invited me to Duneland Friends Meeting. I guess that I had always been a Friend, so I’m still there. Another seed fell into the soil.

I have been teaching in detention for the last 20 years and know that this is the work that God had in mind for me all along. Five years ago we moved into a new, state-of-the art facility, designed specifically to meet the needs of the young people in our care. I have two full-size classrooms, a library, a gymnasium, and large windows that look out upon a meadow and a grove of trees. I also supervise a second teacher who works part-time.

I work every day with children who are victims of sexual abuse, and I believe that in some small measure I have helped them. I also work daily with young sex offenders, and they have touched me deeply. They are children who are desperate for love. Most are lonely children, lacking in social skills, who want very much to belong. They often seem less emotionally mature than their peers and have very low self-esteem. These are the children who are most difficult to place in foster care. They experience "placement failure," re-offend, and are shuffled throughout the juvenile system until they reach the age of 18, when they then become adult offenders. I can picture these young people as children, because I first knew them as children.

Through the years I have learned many things. Abuse exists in all colors; it thrives in the city and on the farm. It occurs in settings of wealth and education, just as it does in poverty and ignorance. Much of what I know, I have learned from these offended and offender children. With gratitude to God I can truly say, "I have loved them all." It was hard for me to consider forgiveness in my own life, but a few more seeds were planted.

In the mid-’80s I collected my courage and traveled to a seminar given by survivors of child sexual abuse. It was during this period that I felt I could deal more openly with my own pain and be more able to accept help from others. I will never forget one of the women who spoke at this gathering. She had found that forgiveness was truly a part of her healing journey. I felt such distress at her words that I couldn’t stay. A very tiny seed fell into the soil.

In October 1987 I realized a lifelong dream. My husband and I crossed mainland China and then flew to Lhasa. It had taken 14 years to save the money for this trip. It was there in Tibet, the Land of Snows, that I experienced a spiritual awakening. I am not a Buddhist, but the Tibetans spoke to my condition. I found something that I was not aware of seeking. We traveled through the villages and passed countless pilgrims. We climbed to monasteries and followed caravans of yaks like long black threads strung through the mountain passes. We reached Nepal, then continued on to Bhutan, a mountain kingdom, and finally into northern India. The stirrings in my heart that began on that pilgrimage continue to this day.

Nine years after this trip I was present in a small audience given by the Dalai Lama just prior to his public appearance and address at the Medinah Temple in Chicago. I lightly touched his hand in greeting before he began to speak to those of us gathered in the small room. He spoke on the subject of hatred. In an attitude of love and with a quiet voice he said, "Give up hatred. It is too heavy to carry. Hatred is only a burden to the one who is hating." I never really thought about hate in this way before. It seemed to make sense. I briefly entertained the question, "Can I give up my hate?" My whole being closed in upon itself crying, "No!" However, this seed of forgiveness was buried deep into my inner soil.

On February 21, 1997, I traveled by rail to Missouri to be trained as a listener by Herb Walters, who developed The Listening Project. The goal of this project is to help participants begin a process of actively listening to each other systematically so that all "views are heard and explored respectfully, without a preset goal in mind . . . seeking to discern the will of God by openly stating what is in our hearts."

Armed with pamphlets, journals, mysteries, my ever-present Bible, and a selection of crossword puzzles cut from my daily paper, I boarded the train. Some hours into my journey I opened my Bible to the book of Matthew. It was not my first reading, but this time the words of Chapter 5 held me fast as they had never done before:

23 Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee;
24 Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

And again,

43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thy enemy.
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

Once again I questioned, "Can I do this?"

The answer was still, "No." I didn’t even want to give up my hate. I prayed, "Please God, accept my worship anyway." . . . More seeds, heavy seeds.

The following day at the training session, Herb opened by talking to us about the need for empathy and the value of finding common ground when listening to those whom we dislike, or to those whose views we find extreme and difficult to tolerate. He suggested imagining the disliked person as a baby, full of God, beautiful and perfect, not born evil, depraved, or perverted. I remembered hearing a similar message all those years ago.

Still I thought this task was too much to ask. Why, even at the distance of so many years could I not give up my hatred? Perhaps the hate was, at one time, the only part of myself that I knew was mine, my sense of personhood. Hate felt like power. Maybe to give it up would be to again become a victim, to be powerless, to disappear once more. Doubt, fear, . . . light? Seeds falling to wait unseen.

The first, long day of training ended, only to be followed by committee work late into the evening. That night, after prayer and meditation, I gratefully relaxed into sleep and received the gift of a dream.

The Dream

I am walking on a warm and sunny day; I feel at peace. My tranquil walk is interrupted when I come upon a large, beautiful bald eagle that has been wounded near to death by my stepfather, who is standing nearby looking at what he has done. I feel torn between my need to flee and my desire to gather up and minister to the wounded eagle. My stepfather does not seem to understand the seriousness of what he has done and seems unmoved by the pain of the dying bird. At the same time he seems confused by my deep emotion and concern.

At this point the image of the eagle recedes into the background and I make the decision to confront him with the pain that I have felt and the suffering that I have experienced from his sexual abuse. He expresses a mixture of surprise and regret that his actions had hurt me. He says that at the time he felt that they were of very little importance, since they were only about sexual feelings.

In the dream I begin to picture him as a beautiful, perfect child . . . easy to love and to protect. In that moment I physically feel the old hurts and hatred dissolving, falling away, leaving my body. I tell him that I forgive him. His image now leaves my dream and does not return.

Soon a bus arrives, bringing a friend I have known and loved for a very long time. I run to him and hug him with great joy. I tell him about the eagle, which has now reappeared looking well and happy. My friend and I take the huge bird to a mountaintop and set it free. The mountain looks like Annapurna in Nepal, the most beautiful mountain I have ever seen.

I won’t ever forget the bodily sensations I experienced as all that hatred left me. I lack the words, but I believe that something like a sickness flowed out of me from every cell of my body. I could feel it leaving. I awoke and the sensation stayed with me through the remainder of the night.

Morning came, bringing breakfast and the train ride home. I was unable to speak about what had happened in the night. I was filled with an internal excitement. Though I did not speak of it, I continued in a state of joy like I had never known. Alone on the train, I kept checking to see if I still believed that I had received the miracle of forgiving. For the first time in my life, I said a short prayer commending my stepfather’s soul to God. (He had died over 20 years ago.) I asked God to bless him and heal him. For the first time I was able to say his name, Edward.

With the passing of many miles, I fell into a light sleep. When I awoke, it came to me that such an important happening in my life should be written down lest I ever forget. I began to make my notes and look back upon the events in my life that led me to this place. The sense of release was still very real. I had truly forgiven. I had begun to harvest those seeds planted by the sowers of God.

I finished my journal entry and looked out of the window into the setting sun. There I saw a white tank car sitting alone on a siding, on the side of which was scrawled in huge red letters the message, "No Time To Hate." (I think God wanted to make sure I was paying attention!)

The train slowed to a stop, and passengers struggling with luggage and small children left the train. We had arrived safely and on time in the city of Normal, Illinois. Perhaps I too had reached "normal." I was a child who had kept her hands wrapped in dishtowels and rags because I couldn’t bear to touch anything that he had touched. I was the child who held her breath whenever it was necessary to pass through a room in which he was present, because I had to shield myself from his breath. Perhaps I was now released from the bedtime rituals I had tried to let go of for so long. There seemed to be so many possibilities in the new freedom I was feeling.

Four years have passed since that train ride, but my journey has barely begun. Where the old hatred had been, there is now a new awareness of God as a constant presence, not just in times of difficulty but also in the ordinariness of everyday life. Forgiving is still a developing aspect of my growth, and I find that I am not quite finished with all the "old stuff." Maybe I never will be, but with God, family, and F/friendship, I am happier and more whole than I ever have been.