When one reads Helen Prejean’s, Dead Man Walking, what is often lost in the sheer power of the story is what she recounts at the very end of the book and intends precisely as the real ending to the story.
The book ends with the story of Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of the boy who was murdered, and his struggle to forgive his son’s killer.
After the execution of the man who killed his son, Prejean describes how she would occasionally meet Lloyd LeBlanc at a chapel which holds perpetual adoration. Kneeling with him, in the middle of the night in a silent chapel, they would say the rosary together. Prejean describes how, at a point, he shared with her his struggle to forgive his son’s killer.
When he arrived with the sheriff’s deputies in the deserted field to identify his son’s body, he had knelt down beside the body and prayed the Our Father. When he came to the words: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” he had not stopped praying or made any mental reservations. Instead he added the words: “Whoever did this, I forgive them.”
There, beside his dead son’s mutilated body, he had forgiven the man who had done that to his son.
This is truly extraordinary. To be kneeling beside the dead body of your own child and be able to say: “Whoever did this, I forgive them,” requires a big faith and even a bigger heart.
But Lloyd LeBlanc admits that it has not been easy to sustain that forgiveness. Bitterness continues to well up inside of him, especially on days like his son’s birthday and other days when the memory of his son and the senselessness of his death simply overwhelm him. He confesses that the struggle is constant and the forgiveness he once gave must be given over and over again.
But obviously forgiveness is winning out because, among other things, he was even able to go and visit the mother of his son’s killer, when she herself lay dying, and offer her comfort.
I bring up the example of Lloyd LeBlanc because forgiveness is the one thing that we do not do well. Lack of forgiveness is our Achilles’ heal. As much as we like to protest – and for all of our moral, intellectual and technological achievements, our political correctness and our espoused sensitivities – our world, our communities, our churches, our families and our personal lives are shot full of hatred, anger, resentments, grudges and long-remembered wounds.
Everywhere we turn, somebody is nursing a grudge; somebody has a history which justifies an anger; and somebody is protesting that, in his or her case, the call to forgiveness does not apply. All of which is an infallible sign that our hearts are not near the size of our faith.
We rationalize this non-forgiveness in every kind of way: If I am more crass, I simply say: “I don’t forget, I get even.”
However, if I am more sophisticated, or at least pretend to be, I rationalize the refusal to forgive by saying: “I have a fierce desire for justice and there can be no forgiveness until there is justice.” “I have been victimized and therefore am above the demand for forgiveness – at least right now, at least as it pertains to this particular thing, or at least as it pertains to this particular person or group.”
“Nobody knows my pain and pain such as mine justifies my bitterness and anger.” “The challenge to forgive is easily spoken by those in power and those who have done the wrong – I wonder how they would feel if they were on the other end!”
In each of these cases, unspoken but present, is the subordinate clause – “and thus I have the right to hate!” In each case too, unspoken but present, there is a bracketing of a key subordinate clause in the Lord’s Prayer “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
To err is human to forgive is divine. Forgiveness is not something we human beings can do all on our own. Forgiveness is a non-human power that God gives to the world in the resurrection of Jesus.
And it is here that all of us can learn a lesson, maybe the most important one of our lives, from Lloyd LeBlanc. He could have rationalized a perpetual bitterness under any of the slogans quoted above, but he didn’t. He forgave, immediately and without qualification, the killer of his son.
Prejean shares with us that Lloyd LeBlanc sustains his faith and his forgiveness in a rather simple, straightforward way: He goes to churches, kneels in adoration and prays the rosary, especially using the sorrowful mysteries, asking God to give him a strength that he knows he does not have. And he does this over and over and over again.
Forgiveness is the only thing that is new in the world, the one sure sign that there is a God. The example of Lloyd LeBlanc is an icon of that.