The will to embrace—love—sheds the light of knowledge by the fire it carries with it,” writes theologian Miroslav Volf in his essay “Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Justice.” “Our eyes need the light of this fire to perceive any justice in the causes and actions of our enemies.…if there is any justice in their causes and actions, only the will to embrace will make us capable of perceiving it, because it will let us see both them and ourselves with their eyes.”
Volf goes on to say that the “clenched fist of exclusion” and the “open arms of embrace are epistemic stances: they are the moral conditions of adequate moral perception.” Epistemic—a word not common to Sunday worship or devotional life—is that branch of philosophy that studies how people come to know things.
Before reading Volf I had never thought of the work of forgiveness as an education. Clenched fists hinder any possibility of seeing justness in an opponent. And if some justice can be detected in their person or conduct, open arms are still required for embrace. Clenched fists go with a closed mind, maybe even a hard heart. Open arms go with an open mind, maybe even a heart made of something other than stone. In this school, unlearning may turn out to be as important as new learning.
Spencer Reece, an Episcopal priest, taught poetry at Our Little Roses, the only all-girl orphanage in Honduras, a nation of 180,000 orphans. In the January 2015 issue of Poetry magazine he writes about his experience there, and shares some of the girls’ work. The following poem, “Counting,” was written by sixteen-year-old Aylin:
Every week, every day, every hour, every minute, and every second that I pass without my family it feels like a knife trying to get inside a rock. I am the knife and the rock is my life. So this is me, Aylin, and this is my difficult life without my family. Some people think that living in a home for girls like Our Little Roses is a big blessing. Yes, I say to those people, it is a great blessing but at the same time it is a curse. Every night I start thinking and talking to God in my prayers: “Why, God, why did my family leave me alone?” There is no answer. A lot of people see me with my sisters and my aunt, who is not really my aunt, and they think we are a happy group, but really all of us think the same thing that no one ever says: One day, will our mother come to visit us? It is ugly to know that everyone in this school is celebrating Mother’s Day. On this day, I feel ashamed to be me. But, God, listen to this: I am counting the time like people count the stars and I will keep counting until my mother comes. My sisters are graduating and soon I will go to college, too. When I graduate from college and when I am finally somebody in this world, God, I will go straight to Mexico where my mother lives and I will stare at her like I stare at the stars and with a voice that cracks like thunder I will say: I FORGIVE YOU! But for now, God, I am here, in Our Little Roses, counting.
Imagine the encounter between this daughter and her mother, and the complicated “epistemology” of the forgiveness process of going from clenched fists to open arms. Who is teaching whom? What was the circumstance that forced the mother to place her daughter in Our Little Roses orphanage? Can the daughter open her arms (heart, mind) to hear it? If the daughter is alienated can the mother perceive a history behind it that needs to be worked through? Forgiveness requires a learning curve and a classroom where the roles between teacher and student become blurred.
“Counting” first appeared in Poetry magazine and is used here with permission of Our Little Roses Foreign Missions Society.