The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 62, No 2, March-April 2009

Theology for the Laity

The Our Father, Part VI
Forgive Us Our Trespasses

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.

The Gift of Counsel

       In previous reflections we have considered the connection between the words of the Lordís Prayer and the Holy Spiritís gifts of fortitude and knowledge. Knowledge, we have seen, is the capacity to live a good life, principally by our willingness to learn from others, especially from the example of Our Savior. When we pray "Thy will be done," we acknowledge - humbly - we are neither the source of our talents and gifts, nor the sole guide by which we lead our lives.

       In the Lenten sermons he preached in 1273, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that when we ask God to give us daily bread we pray for the virtue of Fortitude, which strengthens our spiritual resolve (when doing a good deed seems too difficult), much as food strengthens our physical bodies for the tasks of material existence.

       Experience teaches that our physical strength and intellectual capacities can lead us astray if we do not allow ourselves to be guided in the proper use of these gifts. Likewise, we reasonably seek the moral guidance that helps direct our spiritual gifts toward their proper goals. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are said to soften our will - not in the sense that they weaken our moral resolve, but because they allow us more easily to cooperate with Godís will (ST II-II, 52.1).

       Human beings appropriately use their intellect as they learn to perform particular actions; if we need advice, we turn to someone qualified to guide, or counsel, us. The same is true in our spiritual lives. God understands all things, so we reasonably turn our minds to Him for moral guidance. This activity, through prayer or study, is called the gift of counsel. In the moral sphere, counsel allows us to be guided by God in the same way we allow a human expert to guide us when we find ourselves able to address a physical goal, or when some challenge proves beyond our capacity to overcome.

An Aid to Virtue

       The Book of Proverbs admonishes, "Purpose is strengthened by counsel" (Prov. 20:18), a helpful reminder that the good we seek to do is enhanced when we allow ourselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spiritís counsel also comes to our aid when we must choose which of several options will help us most effectively to reach our moral goals. When we were children we learned that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. As we mature, we learn that our moral lives become far more efficient when we allow ourselves to cooperate with Godís Spirit.

       Godís counsel does not abandon us once it has helped us make a proper choice. St. Thomas observes that the sun continues to brighten the sky after it has risen. In a similar way, His counsel continues to enlighten our moral decision-making.

    In this way, then, God causes in us virtue and knowledge, not only when we first acquire them, but also as long as we persevere in them: and it is thus that God causes in the blessed a knowledge of what is to be done, not as though they were ignorant, but by continuing that knowledge in them (ST II-II, 52.4).

A Remedy for Sin

       St. Thomas preaches that we need a doctorís counsel when we suffer physical illness. Likewise, we must seek moral counsel when we are in trouble, and especially when we have sinned. Here we begin to see the connection between Godís counsel and our petition in the Lordís Prayer, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

       The dictionary defines trespass as an unlawful act causing injury to the person, property, or rights of another. God has the right to expect us to choose His will over our own; He, after all, knows what is best for us. When we choose our will over Godís, we deny Godís right. This is sin, and we properly call this poor choice a "trespass," a debt we owe to God.

       Our faith assures us that although we may turn away from God, God never turns away from us. His love continually calls us to union with Him. When we sin, Godís gift of counsel inspires and encourages us to seek His forgiveness. We do this for two reasons: to grow in humility, and to live in hope.

Perseverance in Humility

       Only Christ and His Blessed Mother have lived on earth in perfect virtue. St. John reminds us that sin is the far more common experience of humankind. "If we say that we have not sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not is us" (1 John 1:8). Humility is the virtue by which we acknowledge God as the source of everything we have, and everything we are. It is the ability to look at ourselves honestly, and to see how we measure up to Godís will for us, and how we have failed to do so. The words of the Lordís Prayer are a plea for humility, for when we ask God to forgive us our trespasses, we not only seek His forgiveness for our sins, we remind ourselves of our constant need for His mercy.

To Live in Hope

       Although we are sinners, the words of the Lordís Prayer are a constant invitation to hope. Throughout the gospel Jesus tells parables of individuals forgiven immense debts when they demonstrate true repentance. Sorrow for sin is essential, and sorrow itself is evidence of Godís mercy, for we could not express contrition were we not called to repentance by Godís grace.

       "Consequently," St. Thomas preached in his Lenten sermon, "whenever you ask for mercy you shall receive it, provided you ask with repentance for your sin." The words of our prayer, in which we ask God to forgive the debts we owe Him, are a constant reminder of Godís mercy, a source of constant hope that throughout our lives on earth God is always willing to accept our repentance and forgive our sins.

The "When" of Forgiveness

       When we speak of sin we refer both to the sinful act, by which we choose our will over Godís, as well as the punishment we deserve as a result of our wrong choice. To ask God to forgive our trespasses, addresses both aspects of sin, provided our words reflect the true state of our hearts.

       To express genuine sorrow for sin, our contrition must include the intention of atonement, by which we promise to repair the wrong we have committed (through sacramental reconciliation), as well as a purpose of amendment, by which we promise to avoid a sin in the future.

       St. Thomas considers the consoling words of the Psalmist, "I said I will confess my transgressions to the Lord; and Thou forgave the iniquity of my sin" (Ps. 31:5). He concludes, "...man must not despair, seeing that contrition together with the intention of confessing suffice for the forgiveness of sin."

A Note of Caution

       Lest we conclude that sacramental confession is unnecessary for our salvation, St. Thomas reminds us that the Churchís reconciliation not only forgives sin, it takes away at least a part of the punishment due our sinful act. Our sorrow lays claim to Godís mercy, for He is always willing to forgive the wrong we have done. But St. Augustine observes that the punishment due even venial sin is no small thing; we should not, therefore, ignore the sacramental means by which the punishment is lessened.

An Additional Promise

       Nor should we ignore the value of indulgences. These have been a source of bitter debate among Catholic and non-Catholic Christians, but St. Thomasí words (preached before many of the controversies arose) offer a refreshing and simple reflection on the nature of indulgences and their purpose.

    ...many are the good deeds of holy men...which deeds were done for the common good of the Church. Likewise the merits of Christ and of the Blessed Virgin are, as it were, the treasury of the Church. Thus the sovereign pontiff and those whom he delegates...can allocate these merits wherever the need occurs. Consequently sins are remitted not only as to their guilt by contrition, but also as to their punishment by confession and indulgences.

Our Response to Forgiveness

       Thus far we have considered only the effect of Godís forgiveness of our sins against Him. What shall we say about the parallel words in the Lordís Prayer, by which we express our willingness to forgive others? To repeat these words commits us to a course of action, and St. Thomas turns to two passages from the Scripture to illustrate our responsibility to imitate the generosity of God in our relations with other. The first of these passages, from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, asks rhetorically, "Man to man reserveth anger; and doth he seek remedy of God?" (Ecclus. 28:3). The second, from the gospel, is far less poetic, and considerably more direct, "Forgive and you shall be forgiven" (Lk. 6:37).

       The petition by which we ask God to forgive our sins is the only one in the Lordís Prayer to which a condition is attached, and the condition is immense. "As" may be one of the tiniest among the innumerable words in the language, but its consequences are vast. "As" means "to the extent that" or "in the same way." Either definition is a clear reminder that our disposition is an essential part of the equation in which we, God, and our fellow men relate to one another. The Angelic Doctor is very blunt when he reminds us, "...if you do not forgive, you will not be forgiven."

       He is equally blunt when he reminds us that Christ, who taught us The Lordís Prayer, remembers what He taught us. "He will not be deceived. If, therefore, you say the words with your lips, fulfill them in your heart."

Forgiveness and Beatitude

       Throughout His sermons on the Lordís Prayer, we have seen that St. Thomas continually make connections between the petitions of our prayer, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the beatitudes. Often these connections are subtle, and, perhaps, difficult to see, at least at first. This is not the case with our asking God to forgive us our trespasses. St. Thomas sums up his reflection on this petition very succinctly, "This leads us to another beatitude: Blessed are the merciful, for mercifulness makes us show mercy to our neighbor."

       Mercy is a word we use frequently, perhaps without much thought. This is a pity, because mercy is a beautiful - and challenging - part of our spiritual life. The word deserves the same honored place in our vocabulary that the deed holds in our attitude toward our fellow men. Mercy means "compassionate sorrow for anotherís distress, coupled with a practical will to relieve it." To cry at the end of a sad book does not demonstrate mercy. To be merciful, our tears must be united with some effort to relieve the condition that inspires them.

       As we pray the Lordís Prayer we must remind ourselves - continually - that Godís mercy toward us is so great that He sent His Son to die for us. When we had incurred, by sin, a debt we had no means of repaying, God provided the remedy. But Godís gifts are never given to enrich only the person who receives them; they are given for the entire Church. Thus, when we experience Godís mercy in our prayer, or in the Sacrament of Penance, we pledge ourselves to show others the same practical compassion God has shown us.

       This is something to consider whenever we say the words of the Lordís Prayer, of course, but the days of Lent and Easter are an especially urgent reminder of how much we have received, and how much we are challenged to share.

Mary, the Final Word

       And here we might consider our Blessed Mother, whom we address as Mater misericordiae, "Mother of mercy." As the mother of Our Savior, Mary is, truly, the Mother of Mercy Incarnate. But in her life, so far as the gospel allows us to penetrate the modesty that continually surrounds Mary, we see a continual example of what constitutes a merciful life, a life filled with practical compassion.


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