Forgiving the Unforgivable

Recently, I finished reading the book - Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, by Immaculee Ilibagiza, whose whole family, except for one brother, was brutally murdered during three months of genocide in Rwanda. She survived by being hidden, along with 6 other women, in a very small bathroom in the house of a pastor, where none could truly sit or lie down. She went in weighing 115 lbs., and came out weighing 65 lbs.

The people who murdered her family and tried so unsuccessfully to hunt her down, were life long friends and neighbors she had grown up with. Even her childhood friends turned their backs on her because she did not belong to the right tribe. One of her brothers was hacked to death by friends, because other friends disclosed his whereabouts.

Even in the midst of this, Immaculee survives and does what is almost unimaginable - she forgives the unforgivable.

I thought of this, as I rode to my yoga class today. Like Immaculee, I could not understand how people you have loved and trusted for years can turn their backs on you. During the many months she was in that bathroom, she survived by praying 12 hours or more a day, until she experienced her anger dissipate. The killers came to the house many times, but a wooden wardrobe was placed over the door to the bathroom, and while the whole house was turned upside down, the wardrobe was never moved. Immaculee received a vision where Jesus told her she would survive, but that her family would not. Yet, she was also assured that they were happy in their present state, and full of joy.

After leaving this prison she was in for months, she still had a number of dangerous encounters where she almost lost her life. While in a camp guarded by French soldiers, she learned the horrors of how each and every one of her family members met their brutal end.

Immaculee came from a family of very devout Catholic educators, widely known for their many good deeds - sometimes her parents even paid for the education of other individuals from their own salaries - and some of them participated in the very deaths of their benefactors. It was the death of her most beloved brother that was the most brutal one to read in the book.

After the genocide, she found out where the remains of her favorite brother and mother had been lain to rest, in shallow graves. She herself, participated in the exhumation of her brother, needing to look at his bones, to assure herself of his death. Both sets of remains were placed in coffins, and properly buried on the property of her destroyed home...

Later, Immaculee goes to prison to see the man who led the gangs that killed her family. He had been a friend of her father. When she looked upon him, she saw that he was a broken down man who could not look her in the eye. But she looked at him with compassion, and simply said: "I forgive you."

When she left, the man in charge of the prison was furious with her. "How could you forgive him?"

And she responded, "Forgiveness is all I have to offer."

I read these words, late in the evening a few nights ago. It was the only time I totally lost it while reading this book. I found I had to steel myself to get through it, though the simplicity and strength of her faith was so beautiful and moving throughout the gruesome account.

She writes, that it is impossible to know how long it will take a broken heart to heal, but in two years time, she met a wonderful man and went on and had two beautiful children.

She concludes by saying that the love of a single heart can make a world of difference. Now Immaculee goes around telling her story to all who will hear.

After I finished the book, and lay down to sleep, I said to myself in the darkness, if she can forgive the unforgivable - forgive those who exterminated her family - then truly - there is nothing that I cannot forgive...I thought of those I had perhaps forgiven once - maybe half-heartedly, and thought to myself - you must forgive them - again, and again, and again...

I pondered all of these things in my heart, in the early evening, as I went down to the river. I needed to ground, and there is no better way for me to do this than to visit the river. The river is a constant friend - and is always there - rain or shine. It was biting cold and no one was around. The water was also very still. It reminded me - that even in the face of great turmoil - our hearts must remain still and grounded in the Divine, as my yoga teacher reminded us to do today.

There are many layers to forgiveness. And as I prayed several nights ago, and as I drove to class late this morning, I was moved to forgive, yet again. We can forgive, even when we still feel the sting or the pain of having been wronged because it releases us from bondage. But mostly, we must forgive, because it frees us to love more deeply...

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