But when a man with all his resolution rises up from his sins and turns wholly away from them, our faithful God then acts as if he had never fallen into sins. For all his sins, God will not allow him for one moment to suffer. Were they as many as all men have ever committed, God will never allow him to suffer for this. With this man God can use all the simple tenderness that he has ever shown toward created beings. If he now finds the man ready to be different, he will have no regard for what he used to be. God is a God of the present. Meister Eckhart, Counsels on Discernment (Counsel 12).
My Dominican brother, Meister Eckhart, lived from around 1260 to about 1327. A teacher, a preacher, a mystic and a theologian, he wrote on the subjects of metaphysics and spiritual psychology. Along with St. Bede the Venerable and St. Anselm, he serves as an icon of the intellectual spirit of the medieval period. Like many who challenged the Church to think in fresh ways, he paid a heavy price for his ideas. The Franciscan-led Inquisition charged Eckhart with heresy, although he apparently died before the verdict.
In this passage, Meister Eckhart writes about the stunning nature of God’s forgiveness, offering us an appropriate Lenten reflection. Most of us are accustomed to thinking of forgiveness the way it works in the world. The forgiveness of our brothers and sisters is often reluctant, half-hearted, and incomplete. Eckhart assures us that God’s forgiveness operates immediately and without reservation.
We often struggle with this notion, just as we strain against the idea of the “good thief” who was crucified alongside Jesus. Jesus assured him, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23: 43. There’s something about this last-minute conversion that we really struggle with. After an entire lifetime mired in sin, as death approaches, the notion that one can turn things around upsets our sense of fairness.
The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) and the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) similarly challenge our notion of equity. Like the elder brother in the story of the prodigal, this just doesn’t seem right to us. As Eckhart points out, however, God will not refuse those who repent with all their resolution. Our instinct tells us there’s got to be some penalty for all that history of sin and disobedience. Meister Eckhart answers that God is just not interested in “all that history.”
Mother Teresa said, “We need lots of love to forgive, and we need lots of humility to forget. It is not complete forgiveness unless we forget also. As long as we cannot forget we really have not forgiven fully.” We pray for God to forgive us as we forgive those who’ve harmed us. As we live into the Christian life, we encounter in God’s kingdom something much richer and more loving than fairness or justice. We find mercy and grace. If we will only place our feet in this water, the river of forgiveness will sweep us away.
Most of us will find this notion of complete forgiveness terribly challenging. We struggle to let go of past wrongs and insults. We strain to share the grace of the present moment. It’s not an easy way; it’s the way of the Cross.
Lord, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis