Belfast Telegraph

I can understand why so many find it hard to forgive or forget these deaths

Alf McCreary, Religion Correspondent

Can you forgive and forget, or forgive but not forget, or do neither? The subject of forgiveness has made the headlines this week, following the death of the IRA informer Sean O'Callaghan.

Some people claim that his early career as a murderous IRA activist is unforgivable, while others claim that he truly repented, and tried to make amends by putting his life on the line daily as an informer.

Most people who have views for or against what O'Callaghan did will never have to live in the murky depths of paramilitary activity as he had done, but there are few human beings alive who do not have something for which they need to forgive or to be forgiven.

It is also important to stress that those of us who speak or write about forgiveness arising from the Troubles have no right to tell others to forgive. We will never fully understand their pain, or the aching loneliness of an empty chair at the table.

In the early part of my writing career I interviewed in depth many people who had suffered pain and loss, on both sides of the political and religious divide.

Each person had his or her own reaction but what struck me most was the fact that these people had to live with the consequences of violence long after writers like me had described their suffering, and then moved on to produce another book or another story.

Suffering of such people long outlives a headline or a book, and we need to deal with the utmost sensitivity to their continued hurt, and their long quest for justice, which many will never receive.

One of the families to which I became closest in those awful days is the Wilsons of Enniskillen.

We are now approaching the 30th anniversary of that awful carnage, and it is still unbelievable that any Sinn Fein politician, or a politician from any party, cannot condemn it out of hand.

Senator Gordon Wilson and his wife Joan lost their young daughter Marie in the no-warning IRA bomb at the local cenotaph, on November 8, 1987. Other Enniskillen people died, were maimed or lost loved ones, and Gordon and Joan were always very conscious of that.

During the long period when I talked to Gordon for a book about Marie, I touched on almost every aspect of that individual and family tragedy.

One morning I asked him about forgiveness, and I reminded him that while he gained international attention by saying that he bore "no ill-will" to Marie's murderers, he had not actually said that he had forgiven them.

I still remember the clock in Gordon's front room ticking in the silence as he gave long consideration to my question.

Eventually he said, with typical straightforward honesty: "You are right. I did not forgive them. Their crime was so heinous that only God can forgive them, provided they repent. But I still pray for them every night."

I believe that Gordon's lack of ill-will and his constant prayers mellowed into a state as near forgiveness as a human being can achieve, but he went to his grave without receiving justice for the murder of his daughter.

For the past 30 years I have remained close to Joan Wilson, who is not only a trusted friend, but one of the most truly Christian people I have ever known, and I am aware that she will never completely get over the death of young Marie and what that did to the Wilson family.

Therefore, I approach the subject of forgiveness with trepidation for it reaches to the deepest heart of human experience, and we cannot ask or expect others to forgive, unless we also are prepared to forgive others for past wrongs they did to us.

I write this as someone who experienced deep hurt in my earlier life, which re-surfaces from time to time, but I still try hard to forgive and to put it behind me.

There is also a deep imperative and challenge in the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us".

One of the deeply rewarding aspects of true forgiveness is that it releases you personally from the shackles of the past, and does bring a degree of peace of mind. But it is not easy.

Some time ago I met a man at Corrymeela who had overcome an alcohol addiction, and was living one day at a time.

He said to me: "I prayed for forgiveness for the wrongs I had done to other people, and I know that God forgives me. However, I still find that the very difficult bit is to forgive myself."

Perhaps that is what haunted Sean O'Callaghan all his life after his cold-blooded murders early on, but only God knows the truth about that and about his life, and death.

So we must leave the final judgment to God. Himself. That is no longer our business.

Thought for the weekend: Having strong faith in Christ gives you power to attempt great things for God

(By Rev Gareth Burke Stranmillis Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Belfast)

So, can you remember your first day at school? For some it will be a distant memory and for others their focus just now will be more on their son or daughter who is about to take the big step into primary one.

I was hearing of one boy who started P1 with much enthusiasm and declared to his mother, at the end of the day, that he had loved school.

However it became clear in their conversation that he thought his day at school meant he had done 'the school thing' and was rather alarmed to discover this was to be his life for at least the next 12 years!

Now education is a great matter and the provision in our country of free education for all is a wonderful privilege.

But we have to be careful that we don't find our self-worth in academic achievement and we also have to be careful that our appreciation of others isn't based solely on their intellectual ability.

We need to recognise that there have always been men and women who have made an enormous contribution to the world who have been largely uneducated in a formal sense and certainly don't have a string of letters after their names.

Take William Carey. He was born in Northamptonshire in 1761 and left school aged 14 without any notable qualifications. He worked as a shoemaker and began to read extensively and discovered he had a flair for languages.

In 1793 he became a missionary in India where he stayed for the rest of his life - some 41 years. As well as sharing the good news of the gospel, Carey translated the Bible into Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Arabic, Marathi, Hindi and Sanskrit.

What motivated him to leave the relative comfort of home and to live a life of hardship and difficulty? His faith in Jesus Christ.

As a young man he had turned away from sin and trusted in Jesus. It was this faith and his love for Jesus that drove him.

For those of us who also have faith in Jesus, his life remains a challenge to us as does his well-known motto: "Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God".

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