July 19, 2019

Reflection / John Shaughnessy

Spray-painted word on street brings the trinity of forgiveness into view

John ShaughnessyIt’s the only time in my life when I wished I had a can of spray paint so I could add to the graffiti that someone had scrawled in the midst of a major city.

Spray-painted in white, the large one-word statement appeared suddenly as I walked along the busy streets of Chicago near Wrigley Field. I had just savored a glorious summer afternoon of baseball, but my thoughts shifted when I saw the word near the curb of a sidewalk:


It’s an invitation and a challenge that gets you thinking, and my thoughts immediately turned to a few specific moments in my life when I had been hurt by someone, when the pain and rejection I felt seared into my heart and my soul. I also remember how I held onto that pain and rejection, finding it difficult to forgive the people who I felt had let me down or done me wrong. Fortunately, the years have passed since those moments, the pain and rejection have faded, and I’ve made peace with those people, sometimes in person and other times in my heart.

In the midst of remembering those moments when I needed to forgive, I had the sudden wish to be holding a can of white spray paint. With the word FORGIVE emblazoned in my mind, I wanted to change the original message on that sidewalk by adding seven letters to it. And so I imagined myself using the spray paint to make an A, followed by an S, followed by a K. Then I saw myself adding four more letters to the end of FORGIVE, the suffix NESS. So when I was done with my imaginary spray-painting, the message on the street would declare to people passing by, ASK FORGIVENESS.

Maybe it’s the type of person I am, but in matters of mercy to ask forgiveness is the second hardest part for me. I know my faults, I know my mistakes, I know the times when I hurt people, but I have sometimes struggled to verbalize such failings—to simply say, “I’m sorry I have hurt you. Can you forgive me?” And yet when I have sought forgiveness, it has usually moved me closer to the people I have offended.

Still, when I look back across my life, I think of people I have hurt, people to whom I didn’t acknowledge my failure of love and friendship, people who—because of distances and circumstances that can’t be overcome now—I am not able to seek their forgiveness. So I make my confession to God, ask forgiveness from him and promise to treat others better. That reality, that regret, that promise also leads me to want to reach for the can of white spray paint again, to alter once more the original message, FORGIVE—this time to what is often the hardest part of forgiveness for me and many other people.

And so I imagine myself adding a eight-letter word after FORGIVE, spray‑painting a Y, followed by an O, a U, an R, an S, an E, an L and an F, so the message now reads, FORGIVE YOURSELF.

We often let our mistakes and our weaknesses haunt us. We often fail to remember that we are human, and that means we will never be perfect. We often forget to realize that in admitting our weaknesses and striving to change them, we open ourselves to strengthening our relationships with other people and with God. The process begins with forgiving ourselves, a process that should be easier to embrace knowing that God is always willing to forgive us—if we just ask.

So there’s the trinity of forgiveness: forgive, ask forgiveness and forgive yourself. Admittedly, together they would make for a crowded message spray‑painted on a busy city street. But that combination will always lead us back to God, to others—and even to ourselves.

(This reflection is an excerpt from John Shaughnessy’s new book, Then Something Wondrous Happened: Unlikely encounters and unexpected graces in search of a friendship with God. It is available on www.amazon.com.)

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