Then Peter approached and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
I love this passage, and it really challenges me. How many times, Jesus? Among all the different translations of this line, there are two versions of the number: 77 and 70 x 7. I really like 70 x 7. 490 times! With a symbolic flavor of eternity! This, in contrast with common wisdom: “Fool me once, shame on you – fool me twice, shame on me.” I am often very afraid of being fooled, of being shamed. I avoid it at all costs. Peter, like me, is stretching the limits of his imagination on this point. We can almost hear his mind working: if someone repeatedly said harsh or condescending words to him, or beat him up, or ignored his need, or stole from him, or betrayed him, what would be the outer limit of reasonable forgiveness? Jesus suggests that there is no outer limit. He points to a deeper truth. What is that truth, and how can it apply to Jesuit women? Here’s one take, in the words of comedian Erma Bombeck:
“Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.”
A Jesuit man has never committed any of the above sins against me. In fact, they are pretty wonderful guys, all said. The following generalizations are widely held among women I know, when we speak of Jesuit men: Jesuit priests are safe and supportive confessors for women of faith, and brothers and priests are good collaborators in both professional and spiritual settings. These men don’t seem quite as frightened of women as some churchmen. They make intentional space in their apostolates and publications for women’s perspectives. They use gender-inclusive language. The Society of Jesus also formally allied itself with women during its 34th General Congregation of 1995. (This is a beautiful document, if you haven’t read it. Get ready to feel proud and inspired!) Jesuit men are, by-and-large, sweet, kind, creatively supportive, and respectful guys.
But for Jesuit women, that is, for women who begin to feel called to the Jesuit way of life, there is a painful undercurrent to this praise. Early in its history, the Society of Jesus formally excluded women from fully sharing in its identity and mission. The reason given in the petition, made by Saint Ignatius himself to the Pope, was practical: that religious women’s lack of mobility would be a hindrance to the works of the Society, and “the care of women religious,” including our spiritual needs, would demand too much of the men’s time and energy. Jesuit men can be “for” us, but not “with” us, in this model. The formal exclusion continues, and can feel like an oft-repeated kick in the gut as we work, recreate, learn, and pray in Jesuit institutions. We watch as our brother Jesuits travel a path of formation that we desire to walk, with all of its sacrifices, and all of its supports. We are even asked to evaluate them as they travel. But we are not asked to walk the path, to run the race, to deeply co-create. In Jesuit institutions, when we talk about “vocations,” we are almost invariably talking about men’s vocations. And the most painful part is, that there is some element of actually believing that the men matter more, that this whole thing would fall apart without them, when the whole truth is, it would fall apart without us, too. We are the secret Society of Jesus.
It is good to inquire into the complexity and contradictions of both our history and our present reality as Jesuit women. But it’s only the first step. To really see clearly and choose freely, we need to forgive Jesuit men. Our minds have spent much time pondering our brothers, and our mouths have spent many words both in praise and admiration, and in giving them a (sometimes very) hard time – needling them for the perceived good fortune of being so invested in, so resourced, so trained, so believed and so listened to, so admired, so published, so humble, so funny, so mobile, so right, so real, so “sent” – so et cetera. So human.
Admiring, envying, needling – but I ask myself, what about forgiving my brothers? What about forgiving my Church, my world? What about asking forgiveness for myself, to myself, and within myself, for sometimes buying into the notion that any formal petition to a Pope could possibly exclude me from true conversion, from the call to human flourishing and the priesthood of my baptism? I hypothesize that you have felt as I do, albeit in your own way; that maybe you have already entered this process of forgiveness; and that we might be agents of healing and inspiration to one another.
If Jesuit women are willing to forgive Jesuit men, again, again, again, then each forgiveness is an act of faith in the invisible. Each attempt to forgive these sweet, flawed, ambitious guys and our sweet, flawed, ambitious selves is an act of hope – a step out of the hope for a different past, and into the hope of a future better than we can imagine.
Ok, Jesus. 77. 70 x 7. Like Peter, I start today.