A Meditation on Guilt, Repentance and Forgiveness

March 12, 2000

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish New Year, Jews are expected to fast all day in repentance for sins committed over the previous 12 months. Only children, the very old and the sick are exempt from this requirement. The fast is broken at sundown with a family meal. If God accepts a person’s sincere repentance, traditional Judaism teaches that one will be inscribed for a blessing in the Book of Life.

I grew up in a liberal Jewish family. In adolescence, I refused to fast. Although I was often consumed by guilt from an overactive superego, I knew I had tried so hard all year to be good. If I had sinned against anyone, including God, I felt it was totally unintentional. In addition, I had (and still have) very little tolerance for hunger pangs and didn’t wish to voluntarily inflict them on myself. I didn’t think that would enhance my holiness one bit! Since my parents weren’t very strict about religious customs, they let me get away with not fasting and never asked me why.

Looking back on it, I interpret this refusal as a psychological and theological statement. I was declaring that I was basically good and did not need ritualized self punishment. It was a healthy rebellion, I think. Perhaps this was the same healthy outlook that led our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors, two centuries ago, to declare their freedom from a harsh, judgmental Calvinism, to declare themselves not irredeemably damned by Original Sin. In fact, all humanity … according to the old Universalists… were saved by God’s love and grace. All people would end up in heaven eventually, no matter what they had done in life.

Having recovered over the years from this chronic sense of guilt, I’m less defensive and uptight about my faults. Here’s the paradox. Now that I’m less burdened with guilt, I’m more open to admitting that I’m imperfect, merely human... that I make mistakes… and its okay. I’m freer to say I’m sorry and that I’ll try to make amends and do better next time. I can forgive myself and may be forgiven by others. I see the value now in seeking forgiveness from the Divine and from other people… and in trying to set things… including relationships … right.

I recently read an article about how Lent is observed in Orthodox Christianity.1 It was fascinating. At seven weeks before Easter or Pascha, parishioners take part in an all-church ritual that builds church community. They openly ask each other for forgiveness. After a formal vesper service on Sunday evening, parishioners form a large circle. The priest begins by turning to a deacon and bowing to the ground. Then he stands to say, "Forgive me, my brother, for any way I have offended you." After the deacon says, "I forgive you," he bows to the ground and asks for and receives the same forgiveness. Then the two embrace. Each of them moves to the next person in line. Every person eventually comes face to face with every other person and goes through this ritual.

I don’t know how such an emotional ritual would be received in a UU congregation. But it may be a truly transforming experience to turn to someone with whom you had had a difference and say "Please forgive me, my brother (or sister), for any way I have offended you" and "I forgive you." We could then shake hands or hug, whichever is more comfortable. What a joyous celebration of mutuality and commitment to each other in community. May we ever seek ways to support each other in the journey towards becoming more loving, open and better human beings. Amen

1 Frederica Mathewes-Green, "Journey In Orthodox Christian Lent" on the beliefnet.com web site.