I was standing arm in arm with 55 men in a large circle.Twenty-four were long term residents of the prison where this particular Kairos program was being run, and the rest were the men from different denominations who had been formed for this ministry over a period of 3 months.

“Who do you need to forgive?” That was the question we were asked to respond to in the first session that morning and here at the end of the day we waited to burn the lists we had made, it was a symbolic way of freeing ourselves of the chains that held us and others to a life diminished by our choices and circumstances.

I had completed seven Kairos programs and was quite prepared for this experience. Watching the faces of the men who were around me, I had drawn up my list with the usual names – my ex-wife being one of them only because I couldn’t really think of anyone else I needed to forgive in her place. I was asking God if it was necessary to include her name yet again; I certainly didn’t feel I harboured any un-forgiveness towards her but the answer came as quick as lightening – “You have already forgiven her, now I want you to love her”.

This was typical of my relationship with God, always being pushed to do more, always being made aware that there were more steps to take.

To have a grasp of what the forgiveness factor means for me I will share a little of my story, at least enough to realise that forgiveness of others and of myself hasn’t always been an easy and one-off event.

I am the product of a childhood of sexual abuse and an adulthood of alcoholism and sexualised behaviour. My abuse started very young, I believe from what I have been able to piece together, that it started before I was two years of age and ended when I was thirteen. There were a number of people involved of various ages, both male and female. 

Forgiveness hasn’t been a one-off even. In my life, I have discovered that it is an ongoing process sometimes revisiting the same events of my life and at other times new events that I have been made aware of through reflection and dialogue with God and the Scriptures.

My healing started from the first moment I was hurt but I became aware of the action of God at the age of thirty five when I experienced a spiritual awaking. It was a gentle experience (a strange warming of the heart) but very impactful and both a resting place and a start point for the rest of the journey which was going to take a different direction from the past.

Even after this warming of the heart, the unresolved hurt I carried continued to impact my life. A spiritual awakening isn't an answer to a lifetime of habit and practice. In not transforming my pain I was transmitting it onto the ones that I thought I loved the most and the damage I was causing was uncontrollable.

I was aware that I was being called to live a life in freedom and from this point on I was challenged more and more to revisit my own story, to unpack the pain I had buried and to become honest with myself and with others. At the age of 42 and after years of struggle finally, with the grace of God, I was freed from the alcohol addiction which consumed my health, wealth, family and soul but the damage caused to my loved ones was too much and in 1994 after 19 years of marriage my wife and I separated.

I have been in recovery from my addictions since then and it has been aided by the 12 Steps of AA, spiritual direction, psychological counselling, loving relationships and a disciplined and very real prayer life. All of these have worked in union to encourage me to acts of forgiveness for others and for myself. It is ironic, though, that one of the most effective spiritual programs in modern times, the 12 steps of AA, was given to a bunch of drunks and not to the Church.

Through the Kairos program in Australia’s prisons I have discovered so many men who share my experience of sexual and physical abuse and can't find a way through. In their brokenness, dejection and hopelessness they are however, prepared to hear the stories of those of us who have found ourselves on the path of forgiveness and healing. Yet, on the outside of the prison walls, I find victims and survivors trapped in guilt, shame, rejection and un-forgiveness, victims living with the illusion that they are free in a postmodern world, victims living with the lie that I'm ok and, you’re ok. We aren't ok and that’s all there is to it.

The most effective healing for me has come from repentance, forgiveness and prayer.  Those of us who are survivors of abuse can't travel this path of healing if we continue to point the finger at the abuser or at the authority that hasn't handled it appropriately; it's a distraction from standing with ourselves and others who have similar experiences and moving on to a life of freedom.

I discovered in my own journey and in the journey of those I have accompanied in prison that we are all chained and in bondage in some way. We are helped by companions who listen to our stories. Being listened to deeply validates our story and it helps us take one more step forward. Forgiveness can't be reached as a straight out act of will, only God can give us that gift, but the work can be encouraged by people who are prepared to accompany and listen.

What stops us from listening and loving and therefore being agents of change in this world are the open wounds that we carry ourselves. In my years of carrying un-forgiveness and my own pain, I couldn’t accompany myself let alone anyone else.

In prison I have discovered so many who share my experiences and can’t find a way through; but for those who are sick of being sick, we discover together that repentance and forgiveness are two of the foundational blocks (among others) of the Gospel; they form the Christian life in the reality of our daily engagement with people, our relationships with others and importantly with our self. 

With the grace of God I have forgiven my abusers. I still carry the wounds, and the way I engage with the world is coloured by my experiences, but I no longer drink to hide my pain and hopefully I no longer transmit what pain I have onto others. I can’t say I have come to love my ex-wife yet but my heart has softened since that forgiveness liturgy in prison and I was able to send her a Christmas card last year and yes, it did feel good.

 

Some points for your own reflection…

  • What part of this story has caused me discomfort or pain?
  • Where have I found hope in this story?
  • What desire has risen from this hope?

 

Chris Walters

 

Click below to provide your response to this article.