Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.
Forgive your neighbor's injustice;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
Could anyone nourish anger against another
and expect healing from the LORD?
Could anyone refuse mercy to another like oneself,
can they seek pardon for their own sins?
If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath,
who will forgive their sins?
Remember your last days, set enmity aside;
remember death and decay, and cease from sin! (Sir 27:30-28:7)
There’s an Italian verb that I keep thinking about these days––risentire. The root of it is sentire, which means both “to hear” and, mainly “to feel.” To risentire primarily means “to feel the effects of something,” or “to feel again,” or, in its reflexive form (risentirsi) simply “to resent.” That’s of course where we get our English verb “resent.” In English it always has a negative connotation, so it’s interesting to reflect on its root––to feel something again.
There are two things about resentment that I’ve learned from recovery programs, First, that resentment is a “dubious luxury” even for normal people, let alone addicts. And secondly––and I like this one a lot––having a resentment, or carrying a grudge, is like taking poison and expecting someone else to die from it. But actually resentment kills us from within. My guess is that is the cause of a host of other neuroses as well as perhaps cancer and other sicknesses.
This week the scriptures read in Christian churches all over the world focus on forgiveness and Jesus’ teaching on the importance, nay, essentiality of it. And to me the opposite of forgiveness is resentment. The image I have of resentment is a cow chewing on her cud: she swallows it and then spits it up again and chews some more, trying to get every ounce of juice and flavor out of it. And we do that too with resentment, savoring every drop of bitterness and anger, righteous indignation and feeling of victimhood, until we actually start to enjoy it. It becomes a habit, we get addicted to it, it’s the land we live in, a way of life.
Christians often have the misperception that the Jewish scriptures only present an angry, violent and warlike God, and are filled only with retributive justice and vengeance, but the 28th chapter of the book of Sirach says that wrath and anger are hateful things, and those who hold onto them are sinners. And it uses the similar images about resentment when it asks “can anyone nourish anger”––isn’t that a savoring kind of word? But that’s what we do, we nourish it and make sure it doesn’t go away. That’s resentment––“”can anyone nourish anger and expect healing from the Lord?” We can’t receive healing if we nourish anger. And then Sirach asks, who would forgive the sins of someone who “cherishes wrath.” That’s another one of those words––we sometimes “cherish” our righteous indignation, but in doing so we close ourselves off to forgiveness. It’s simple math, really. Hands and hearts are just like each other in that way: if they are open they can give as well as receive. If they are closed to give they cannot receive. If we can’t give forgiveness, we can’t receive healing. The older I get the harder it is for me to watch people grow old still nursing their resentment and their bitterness, going into their senior years angry, the “long day’s journey into the night.” It’s frightening, and Sirach addresses that too: “Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin!”
Sometimes the lessons that we need to learn for our personal lives are also important lessons we need to learn corporately, as a people, as a nation. It’s poignant that we should hear those scripture lessons on the same weekend that we are celebrating the many commemorations of the terrorist attacks of 2001. It occurs to me that we have to be careful about our remembering so that it doesn’t turn into the bitter poison of risentire–resentment. All the TV stations and news magazines and papers are showing the images of the planes flying into the World Trade Center and images of the towers collapsing, and the smoldering rubble in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the devastated west side of the Pentagon over and over again. We have to be careful. There could be something almost prurient about it, spitting it up and chewing it all over again, draining every drop of bitter juice out of it.
I remember that I specifically couldn’t get the image of the second plane flying into the World Trade Center out of my mind for days and weeks after the attacks. It took on a life of its own in my head; it became a dark symbol of everything I was afraid of. Finally I asked one of the brothers to download me a photo off the internet and print it up for me so I could have it and put it on my bulletin board and learn the lesson it had to teach me. It had become for me, as I was saying, my version of memento mori, “remember death,” in the great monastic tradition; or at least I was kidding myself that that’s what it meant. And then one day I read an article by a wonderful British theologian who reminded me of my Baptismal promises, and suddenly I realized that in Baptism I had renounced Satan’s works and all his empty promises, and this was the work of Satan! This was not power; this was a lie and it had NOTHING to teach me! And I was actually giving my power to it by resenting it––feeling it over and over again. I’d made it into a kind of dark god. That was not power. That was a lie to distract me from the beatitudes, from the loving God who is the source of my strength, a lie, a satanic lie to try to convince me that the good would not prevail. And worse yet, this horrendous crime had been committed by my fellow human beings, my very own brothers who had been deluded into suicide, and it was tempting me to believe that peace was not the answer, tempting me back into my youthful nihilism. That was a vacuum of power and to give it any more of my attention, to stand awestruck and trembling before the sheer sublimity of it any longer, to resent it was to turn my back on the light that I had based my life on believing would overcome the darkness.
So we remember, but we remember not to re-sent: we remember to grieve so that we can move on. We remember so as to be vigilant and strong, and we remember so that we can let go because, as Sirach taught, “wrath and vengeance are hateful things”! The other scripture that I keep thinking about these days is 2 Corinthians 5. Paul teaches that God was in Christ to reconcile the world to himself. That was the whole purpose of the life of Jesus––to reconcile the world to God. Now there’s a whole theological treatise we could spell out there to flesh out what that means, but my point is actually the next line that Paul writes after that: and now, “that good news of reconciliation has been entrusted to us.” We remember not to resent; we remember so as to reconcile, we remember only so as to grieve and heal and be made stronger so that we can then be a sign of unity and an instrument of peace in a world that needs it now as much as ever.
“Let peace fill our hearts, our world, and our universe.”