Jesus’s prayer on the Cross, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do”, is very hard to emulate, especially when you have been wounded by others in the deepest, most appalling way. Forgiveness at this level is not something one can achieve by one’s own strength; it can only come through the grace of God.
These thoughts have been prompted partly by listening on the radio to the statement made by Brendan Cox, husband of the murdered Labour MP, Jo Cox. He said: “We feel nothing but pity for [the perpetrator]; that his life was so devoid of love that his only way of finding meaning was to attack a defenceless woman…”
As well as this, I have been reading If You Sit Very Still by Marian Partington, published by Jessica Kingsley, which tells a story more harrowing in its way than that of Jo Cox’s untimely death. Marian is the sister of Lucy Partington, who disappeared on the night of December 27 1973, and whose remains – along with those of many others – were dug up in March 1994 from the cellar of the house in Cromwell Road, Gloucester, where Fred and Rosemary West were living.
A tale of unimaginable pain, horror and eventual transformation, related with great honesty, the book “evolved”, as its author describes it, over 18 years. There was the long drawn-out grief of not knowing what had happened to Lucy for 21 years; then coming to terms with the news of her abduction, rape, torture and death at the hands of the Wests.
In her long inner journey to come to terms with these experiences, Marian was helped by Buddhist and Quaker friends. Most poignantly she relates that Lucy, a brilliant third-year student at Exeter University, some of whose poems are included in the book, had become a Catholic five weeks before her abduction; when asked “Where are you going [after graduation]?” she had replied: “Towards the light.”
In struggling to come to terms with her sister’s killers, Marian was impelled to face up to her own “rotting pile of mistakes and woundings”, admitting that between 1970 and 1985 she had chosen “to terminate four pregnancies”. Relating that she had often been “overwhelmed by a feeling of terrible remorse and shame about the abortions”, she reflects that “it is not consoling, but true, that this has helped me to feel more compassionate towards those who have killed, legally or illegally.”
Now working for the Forgiveness Project, on behalf of which she visits prisons to share her own experiences with sex offenders and murderers, Marian finally came to understand that “There was no room for demonising. I realise that we share a common humanity. I recognised my own capacity to inflict harm.”
Forgiveness requires heroism. It means, as Marian Partington discovered in her suffering, learning to forgive ourselves as well as others. Whether those who practise it know it or not, this involves walking the way of the Cross; following the footsteps of Christ. How else can we possibly learn to love our enemies?