Something important, I believe, can be learned from our reaction to capital punishment.
For a good number of people, capital punishment is hailed as something that is needed to help bring about healing and closure for those most affected by the violence that the condemned man or woman perpetrated. Healing and new life, they believe, cannot begin until a certain raw justice has been served. Sometimes this idea has a more- gentle expression in groups and individuals who, while themselves non- vindicative, sincerely believe that only capital punishment can help the victims’ loved ones heal and move on. Often though its expression is more bitter, as seen in those groups that gather outside the execution chamber and gleefully count down the seconds until the lethal needle is injected. For these persons only an eye for an eye, a life for a life, can help to make things right again.
There are of course others who strongly disagree and believe that an eye for an eye solves nothing. These are the ones who stand, outside the execution chamber and in living rooms and chapels everywhere, silently praying. Figuratively speaking, they are like Mary standing under the cross of Jesus – helpless, muted, reduced to praying for an intervention from a power beyond our own. But even this biblical gesture, virtuous though it may be, is, of itself, not enough. Prayerful protest, all by itself, does not bring about the kind of healing and restoration that leads to new life. Perhaps it’s the best we can do on a given day, as it was for Mary on Good Friday, but something else is still needed.
What? What lies beyond even the powerful protest of prayer?
New relationship. What’s needed for life to be truly restored is a new relationship that takes us beyond old hurts and purifies our memory of those hurts by weaving old wounds into a new situation. What is meant by that? Perhaps an example can help:
One of the families who lost a loved one in the Oklahoma City bombings did more than protest the execution of their child’s killer. They went to visit Timothy McVeigh’s parents, prayed with them, consoled them, and established a certain friendship with them. In doing that, they were able, in a way not possible before, to forgive their child’s killer and purify their own memory of the terrible injustice that had been dealt them. Only this, the establishment of a new situation, ultimately brings about new life and new spirit (something the popular mind calls “closure”).
Jacques Dupuis, speaking in the context of the historical wounds that various religions have inflicted upon each other, makes the same point. How to move beyond old hurts? For him, this requires more than good intention and silent prayer: “Purification of memory is not at all easy. Peoples and religious communities cannot be asked to forget how much they have suffered. … For them forgetting would be tantamount to betrayal. The personal identity of a human group is built up from a concrete historic past that in any case cannot be annulled, even if there were a will to do so. But even while not forgetting, memory can be healed and purified through a shared determination to begin a new constructive mutual relationship of dialogue and collaboration, of encounter.”
John of the Cross has a spirituality of healing based upon precisely this idea, new relationship, deeper growth that takes us beyond old hurts. We heal, he says, by “growing to our deepest centre”, something he defines as the maximization of our deepest moral potential. That centre, he says, then becomes a great fire that heals our wounds and faults by burning them away as if by cautery (a medical procedure wherein doctors cure a sore that will not heal by burning the wound still deeper). Healing, for him, comes about by deeper growth and deeper relationship, which, initially, make the wound worse, but eventually bring about a cure.
Put more simply: If John of the Cross were your spiritual director and you came to him wanting healing from some hurt or moral fault, he would not have you focus on the hurt or the fault itself, but would challenge you instead to begin a deeper relationship to life, love, and morality. For John, a deeper relationship is what creates the new energy needed to move beyond old hurts and old faults. We heal, he says, not by making new resolutions but by living in a new way.
And nowhere is this more true than in coming to forgiveness and peace with those who have hurt us. We cannot forgive and move on simply on the basis of good intention and raw willpower. We’ll forgive, but not forget – and nothing will change. Our memories need to be purified and this can only happen through fire, that is, by relating in a new way to that which hurt us so that the new relationship cauterizes the old wound by deepening it enough so that it might heal.