In the Gospel for the feast of St. Matthias, Our Lord says the following words: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy burdened and I will refresh you.” When I was in high school, this quotation from the Gospel of St. Matthew hung in a corner of a classroom that was occupied by the senior girls. Underneath the careful calligraphy of the quotation was a picture of Jesus surrounded by men, women, and children sitting at His feet. Although I have not been inside that classroom for years, the image has stayed with me.For many Americans, high school seems one of many milestones. I know many people who will talk about their high school experiences. The stories are like so many scars earned in battle or medals. Everything about that period is engraved in their memories for better or worse. For me, high school is one of those periods of my life that I would rather forget that ever happened.
High school for me meant wearing a white shirt, clip on tie, and gray trousers. I was one of eight boys in a combined freshman/sophomore class presided by a blue robed nun named Sr. Amelia Marie. High school meant nights spent crying in bed and days spent at a school, where I felt that every last student in the high school had an axe to grind.
There was one young man in my own class, who had it out for me from the first day and mercilessly bullied me. Although I tried to defend myself and tell someone, his anger would only get worse when I did. Eventually, I stopped telling the nuns that were supposed to defend us and help us out. I clammed up and didn’t speak a word. I just let him use me as his punching bag.
In the years that followed, my life went down many different paths. For someone meek as a lamb, I began to act out and do things that were very different from the person I used to be. I never trusted anyone. I was depressive. I hated myself and I hated my life. For all and any accomplishments that would come my way, I would view them as something that happened someone else and that didn’t affect me personally. After all, the real Brother Juniper had disappeared under all of those wedgies and trash cans in high school.
Several years ago, I found a website at which other people told their stories about their experiences at this same high school. When I communicated with them, I felt a bond that was different from the one that I had with my classmates. Since we had all known the sisters in one capacity or another, it was easier for us to speak about the experiences. It was a place where we could be honest with each other and heal. Like other survivors, we congregated together because we knew that nobody else would understand our experiences except ourselves.
By writing on this website, I was able to find myself and begin the healing process. The hardest part of that process was realizing that I had sore, puss-filled wounds that were still open. Thanks to the goodness of a friend, I realized how much my experience in high school had shaped my life. Eventually, I was able to find myself in a place where I could accept what had happened to me. When I did that, I knew what the last step in the process would have to be.
A couple of days ago, I heard that the father of my bully had passed away. Yesterday, I wrote him a letter of condolence. Whether he replies or not is not important. The important thing is that I was finally able to forgive him for what he did to me and to forgive myself.
I also wrote a letter to Sr. Amelia, my home-room teacher, and told her about my life. I asked her about her health and how she had been doing. I told her that I wanted to communicate with her. Once again, I felt relieved that I had put this chapter of my life behind me. That book is closed forever. The memories will remain, but they will not be able to hurt me as much as they did before. They are just memories.
Years ago, I would never have forgiven Sr. Amelia or my bully. If anything, I would have told them exactly what I thought about them and their actions. I really wanted revenge back then for everything that happened to me. For the emotional trauma that I suffered and all of the other things that went with it. I wanted closure, but not the closure that comes with forgiveness. Rather, a closure that comes from revenge and confrontation.
Forgiveness is one of the hardest things for me to do. I’m not a hard-hearted person. Far from it, but I do hold grudges. Sometimes, I can hold a grudge for many years before I let it go. Yet I have learned from this experience that I must forgive others if I am to be a good Catholic. If I do not forgive them, then how I can expect God to forgive my many sins and offenses? How can I receive mercy from God if I am not merciful?
Mercy, as I have learned from St. Catherine of Siena, is one of God’s defining attributes. God’s mercy is what has allowed our world to continue its existence through century after century. God’s mercy is what gives us a new morning and a new day. It is God’s mercy that allows us to see Christ in one another and in ourselves. It is through God’s mercy that we are even allowed to breathe. Indeed, His mercy is a great gift and it endures forever.
Many of us, however, have problems with being merciful. It may not be forgiveness that is the problem, but being willing to walk a mile with someone else. One of my aversions was with those poor souls, who begged for change and money. One day, however, I met a man at the bus station whose plea was so authentic that I gave him the last three dollars that I had. I did not give them to him because of his story, but because I knew that he could use my change in a way that I could not.
Our Lord once enumerated the corporal works of mercy and the Church also teaches that there are spiritual works of mercy. Each one of us is capable of counseling the doubting, feeding the hungry, or clothing the naked. Every parish has a poor box or a place or a statue of St. Anthony with donation box, why don’t we use them more often? Our change can help a mother to clothe her children or a drug addict to get clean. It may not be enough, but it is more than enough for those who have absolutely nothing.
Over the years, I have been blessed with the opportunity to counsel many people. When I was working as a tutor, I often met people from very different walks of life. Many of them were down on their luck. For some, going to college was a second chance that they could not afford to bungle. Although my job was to teach them and show them how to write a paper or paragraph, I always felt the need to give them something extra: a word of encouragement or a kind word. I did not do this because I felt pity for them, but because I wanted them to know that I genuinely cared.
Many times, too, I would talk to people about things that were going on in their lives and offer suggestions. As a teacher, I’ve learned how important it is to listen to others and not to do all of the talking. To open one’s self up to people’s stories and understand them. From that understanding comes counsel and from counsel comes a seed that can be planted almost anywhere. A seed of faith that can grow and blossom into a tree.
For many people being merciful is the last thing on their long list of things to do. After all, why be a push-over or someone who can get stepped on? The truth is that by being selfless you are showing other people an example that they will likely never forget. By putting yourself last and putting them first, you are showing them that you genuinely care. And that is what can convert people to God.
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!