Sr. Judy: Practice daily forgiveness, encouragement
While adults find it relatively easy to both forgive and offer words of encouragement to the children in their lives, they often have a much tougher time forgiving and encouraging their fellow adults, observed Marianite Sister Judith Gomila, speaking to the 80 seniors involved in Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Foster Grandparents Program.
During a May 7 mini-retreat entitled “Spiritual Fitness,” Sister Judy reflected on how this irony can help the faithful identify two ways to build their “spiritual muscle”: first, by working more diligently to forgive all those who hurt them; and secondly, by becoming better encouragers – by continually “looking for the good” and praising it when they see it.
Self-forgiveness is vital
“I am 72 years old and I have learned, probably the hard way, that the hardest person in the world to forgive is ourselves,” Sister Judy said, addressing the sticky subject of forgiveness.
“I have met folks five, 10, 20 years later still carrying around a burden,” she said. “God has forgiven (the sin) long ago, but they can’t let it go, even if it has been forgiven in the sacrament of reconciliation.”
Sister Judy, the communications director for the Marianite Sisters and an active member of her community’s speakers bureau, said she has found that one’s ability to forgive himself or herself is directly related to his or her ability to forgive others – because self-forgiveness is a road that’s often long, difficult and humbling.
“To forgive ourselves means we take steps to do something different – to not fall into those same holes, to not go down those wrong streets,” Sister Judy said. “The call to be forgivers begins with the ability to forgive ourselves and know our own weaknesses and failings. We learn that it takes great humility and patience to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ or ‘Yes, I forgive you.’”
When we learn to forgive ourselves, we joyfully realize we have a chance to start over, Sister Judy said, likening this feeling of grace to the endless “clean plates” that are available at a buffet restaurant.
“I am proud to tell you that our God offers us a clean plate every day,” Sister Judy told the foster grandparents. “It’s as if God is telling us, ‘Honey, you were cranky yesterday; you were mean; but today’s Tuesday! It’s a new day! Start over!’” she said.
“If our generous and extravagant God offers us a clean plate every day, who are you and I to not offer clean plates to others, whether they’re the children in your care, your peers or your family?”
Unwillingness to give clean plates to others can reach epic proportions in families, she said. While helping prepare a group for reconciliation during a Lenten mission, Sister Judy met a woman who had not spoken to her twin sister in 16 years. They had forgotten why they were mad at one another.
“Please don’t let that happen in your family; don’t let that happen in your church or neighborhood,” she urged. “Start over every day with a clean plate.”
Always look for the good
Sister Judy said the second way to build spiritual muscle – being an encourager of others – is easier to practice when one realizes that offering words of praise to another “takes nothing away” from the one giving the words of support.
“It actually makes (the encourager) stronger,” Sister Judy noted, recalling the generosity of spirit expressed in the Ugandan proverb: “I have the strength if you have the strength.”
“That means we rejoice with other people; it’s building up each other as that Body of Christ,” Sister Judy said.
So how does one get better at being an encourager? Sister Judy said it is as simple as being a person “who goes around looking for good.”
“Sometimes we can get critical, particularly of our own relatives,” she said. “Sometimes we’re nicer to the kids we work with than to our own family – our own kids, our own grandkids – because we want ours to be perfect.”
While elders must give constructive criticism where it is warranted in both work and family settings, “there’s always something we can say that’s positive before that,” Sister Judy said.
“Sometimes we get so focused on (one negative thing), we forget all the other good things, all the other wonderful things we can say to make a difference with children and adults,” she said. “We take for granted the gifts and the blessings and the good things that other people do for us.”
She concluded by asking the seniors to model “how to be an encourager” to the young people in their care – dignity-instilling actions as simple as saying “Please,” “Thank you,” and graciously accepting others’ compliments instead of shrugging them off.
Sister Judy said she learned how to accept compliments herself after a Native American woman she was working with in Alaska compared compliments to the wildflowers that would pop out of the snow to announce spring.
“The woman told me, ‘When someone gives me a compliment, I take it as a wildflower – not expected, but ever so much appreciated,’” Sister Judy said. “And at night, when this woman would say her prayers, she would give those compliments back to God. She knew it was the Lord who had done great marvels for her. It was the way she kept it all in perspective!”
The Foster Grandparents Program trains men and women 55 and older to serve as tutors at local elementary schools and Head Start centers. For more information, call Shelli Tarver, program director, at 310-6882.