Seventy seven gazillion times.
On Friday the Cassini spacecraft that circled Saturn and its moons for the last 13 years to examine and investigate its mysteries was deliberately crashed into the atmosphere of the planet, burning itself out of existence forever. The New York Times’ online edition published a series of photographs taken by Cassini’s cameras during its lifetime, and they are extraordinary. The photos appear to be a graphic artist’s imaginative representation of the ringed planet, and not the real thing!
Looking at the photos, it was hard not to think of the astonishing universe of which we are a very small part. It provided a wider perspective outside of our narrow, self-centered focus. I made me think of my petty concerns, my daily obsessions, my animosities, resentments, spitefulness and all the times I thought that I’ll forgive, but I’ll never forget.
Drawn by two beams of blue light in the night sky, I was downtown on Tuesday night at the place where the twin towers once stood. On the sixteenth anniversary, the beams of light pierced the darkness way way high, gradually fading and mixing into the blackness of a cool September night. There were hundreds of people there with me: couples, families, small groups of young people. An older couple stood before a picture of the site taken from the air the day after the attack. The man had his arm around her, holding her closely, not saying a word.
Four young Japanese men stood before one of the huge waterfalls and asked me to take their picture. I obliged: I lined them up, composed the shot, and pushed the button. The picture caught them, big smiles, and they had me wondering what they made of all this. Perhaps they had visited the memorial in Hiroshima. They thanked me in broken English, and I moved forward to peer into the hole where once a building climbed to the heavens.
I remembered what I saw on TV that morning, safe and sound in my office in Connecticut. I had just been complaining to someone about a staff member’s behavior, and I stopped--mid-sentence--to watch the plane fly into the second tower. When the realization of what had happened dawned, I was at once so terribly sad and so angry. And worse…so helpless. I wanted to do something, anything---strike out at whomever was responsible. Get the military in there and take them out, whoever them was. I remember calling my uncle Joe, who lived in 2 Peter Cooper and was a member of this parish. I nearly broke down when I spoke to him about it. “How terrible,” he said, “how terrible.” And he tried to console me over the phone.
A few years after that awful day, I was with him in my car. We had just had a wonderful meal, and we had talked about lots of things, as always. We spoke about the shortness of life, about putting things in perspective, about what really matters. And how petty things seem when you look at the big picture. We both of us agreed that in God’s view we must seem pretty dumb, obsessing over our small jealousies, envies, angers, hurts, attachments.
My uncle was 92, had been in World War II, had seen it all. “I know I’m nearing the end,” he said, “and God has been good to me.” I dropped him off at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Since his wife died a year before, he had become a regular there, Mass every day at the Cathedral. I watched him walk away from the car, up 5th Avenue towards the Cathedral’s entrance a block away. He had aged a great deal since his wife’s death, and for the first time I realized that he walked like an old man: little steps, uncertain, slightly hunched over.
On the seat beside me, he had left a little pamphlet about St. Patrick, patron saint of New York. I looked at it for a moment, scanning the history of the famous saint. At the end of the paper, on the bottom, in his perfect Catholic penmanship, my uncle had written three words: “In His mercy”. Just that. “In His mercy.” I looked up. He was still working his way down the sidewalk, almost lost amidst the bustling humanity, heading to the Cathedral. That was how he lived out his days then, I thought: in His mercy. A car horn honked, and I drove across the Avenue.
On my ride home to Connecticut, I glanced over at the pamphlet on the seat beside me. My uncle’s words were all that I could see. “In His mercy.” All his life, my uncle had spoken about how blessed he had been, how merciful God had been to him, about how much he didn’t deserve all the good things that came to him through the years. A life lived out ‘in His mercy’: forgiven so many times for the big and little sins committed in selfishness and insecurity.
The words on the paper spoke to my heart. I too clearly had lived ‘in His mercy’, my whole life has been blessed ‘in His mercy’. And yet, still, I can’t forgive others for small or large grievances. The long ride to Connecticut became a perfect confessional preparation. I thought about my need for forgiveness, and my wish to relieve others by forgiving them. On that ride God gave me plenty of people to consider, people in my life of whom I needed to beg pardon, and many who needed my forgiveness.
In the Gospel, and in the first reading from Sirach, we’re told that we should offer forgiveness like the way God does—freely: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice,” it says in Sirach, “think of the commandments…and overlook the faults.” And in the wonderful parable in the Gospel, Jesus tells us about a master who freely forgives his employee for a debt of a million dollars but then is outraged when he finds out the same man had given no mercy to someone who owes him twenty bucks.
“Lord, when my brother wrongs me, how often must I forgive him? Seven times?” asked Peter, thinking he was being generous in his forgiveness. Jesus responded with a number of forgivenesses so huge that meant unlimited: “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.” In his mercy, Jesus shows us what love really means for one another, even to a stranger, even, I dare say, to a terrorist.
Along one of the highways on my return route, they built a giant cellular tower disguised to make it look like a huge pine tree. Just as it came into view, I was preparing to call someone who needed to hear me say the word I have been practicing in the car. “I’m really sorry. I’m really really sorry. Please forgive me.” I looked at the cellular tree and wondered how many such voices were beaming off of it at that very moment, and how many forgiving acceptances were beaming right back. “That’s OK, my friend…no problem, man….That’s alright….Ah, don’t worry, forgetaboutit…it’s cool..i forgive you.”
On Tuesday night, those huge towers of light shone out into the darkness of the heavens, visible for miles to millions of people around the great city we call our home. I imagined those beams carrying our cries of helplessness, our fears and hurts and sadness and loneliness--the ingredients of our hardness, coldness and vengefulness: those great blue beams pulling it all out of us, delivering it away from us, out beyond Cassini as it crashed through the rings of Saturn, out beyond our very small minds and into the heavens where the very heart of love lives.
And back down the light, riding the beams into our very own hearts, a consoling love to reassure us that we are not forgotten, that we are not alone, and that there is nothing, nothing for us to fear.
Because we are…In his mercy. The only way we can forgive one another for all the terrible things we do and say is to recognize that we live these very short lives every day, in His mercy, in His merciful love.
There is, of course, the ultimate example of forgiveness, and the ultimate cosmic perspective: Jesus, hanging, bleeding and suffocating in the hot sun on two pieces of crossed wood, suffering unto death for no offense at all, taking all of our offenses with him in forgiveness, for free.
"Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do..." Not seven times, seventy seven gazillion times.
Today is a good time to think about that wonderful mercy we all of us enjoy, and to act to be instruments of his mercy as well. Is there someone who needs a good apology from you, or someone who needs to be forgiven? It’s not so hard to do, in His mercy.