The Our Father, Part VI
Forgive Us Our Trespasses
by Father Reginald Martin, O.P.
The Gift of Counsel
In previous Reflections we have considered the connection between the words of the Lordís
Prayer and the Holy Spiritís Gifts of Fortitude and
Knowledge. Knowledge, we have seen, is the capacity to live a
Good Life, principally by our Willingness to learn from others, especially from the example of Our Savior.
When we Pray "Thy Will be done", we acknowledge -
Humbly - we are neither the Source of our Talents and Gifts, nor the Sole Guide by which we lead our
In the Lenten Sermons he preached in 1273, Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that
when we ask God to give us Daily Bread, we
Pray for the Virtue of Fortitude, which Strengthens our Spiritual Resolve (when doing
a Good Deed seems too Difficult), much as food Strengthens our Physical
Bodies for the Tasks of Material Existence.
Experience teaches that our Physical Strength and Intellectual Capacities can lead us astray if we do not allow ourselves
to be guided in the proper use of these Gifts. Likewise, we reasonably seek the Moral Guidance that
helps direct our Spiritual Gifts toward their Proper Goals. The Gifts of the
Holy Spirit are said to Soften our Will - not in the sense that they Weaken our Moral
Resolve, but because they allow us more easily to Cooperate with Godís Will
(ST II-II, 52.1).
Human Beings appropriately use their Intellect as they learn to perform Particular
Actions; if we need advice, we turn to someone qualified to Guide, or Counsel, us. The same is true in our Spiritual Lives.
God understands all things, so we reasonably turn our Minds to
Him for Moral Guidance. This Activity, through Prayer or Study, is called the
Gift of Counsel. In the Moral Sphere, Counsel allows us to be guided by
God in the same way we allow a Human Expert to guide us when we find ourselves able to address a Physical Goal, or when
some Challenge proves beyond our Capacity to Overcome.
An Aid to Virtue
The Book of Proverbs admonishes, "Purpose is strengthened by Counsel"
(Proverbs 20:18), a helpful reminder that the Good we seek to do is Enhanced when we allow ourselves to be Guided by the
Holy Spirit. The Spiritís Counsel also comes to our Aid when we
must choose which of several options will help us most effectively to reach our Moral Goals. When we were children we learned that a
straight line is the shortest distance between two points. As we mature, we learn that our Moral Lives become far more efficient when we
allow ourselves to Cooperate with Godís Spirit.
Godís Counsel does not abandon us once it has helped us make a Proper Choice.
Saint Thomas observes that the Sun continues to Brighten the Sky after it has Risen. In a similar way,
His Counsel continues to Enlighten our Moral Decision-Making.
In this way, then, God causes in us Virtue and Knowledge, not only when we first acquire them, but also as
long as we persevere in them: and it is thus that God causes in the Blessed a Knowledge of what is to be done, not as though they were
ignorant, but by continuing that Knowledge in them (ST II-II, 52.4).
A Remedy for Sin
Saint Thomas preaches that we need a Doctorís Counsel when we suffer Physical Illness.
Likewise, we must seek Moral Counsel when we are in Trouble, and especially when we have
Sinned. Here we begin to see the connection between Godís Counsel and
our Petition in the Lordís Prayer, "Forgive us our Trespasses as we
forgive those who Trespass against us".
The Dictionary defines Trespass as an Unlawful Act
causing Injury to the Person, Property, or Rights of another. God
has the Right to expect us to choose His Will over our own; He,
after all, knows what is best for us. When we choose our Will over Godís,
we Deny Godís Right. This is Sin, and
we properly call this Poor Choice a Trespass, a Debt we owe to
Our Faith assures us that although we may turn away from
God, God never turns away from us. His Love continually
calls us to Union with Him. When we Sin,
Godís Gift of Counsel Inspires and Encourages us to seek His Forgiveness. We do this for
Two (2) Reasons: to Grow in Humility, and to Live in
Perseverance in Humility
Only Christ and His
Blessed Mother have lived on Earth in Perfect Virtue. Saint John reminds us that
Sin is the far more Common Experience of Humankind. "If we say that we
have not Sin, we deceive ourselves and the Truth is not is us" (1John 1:8). Humility
is the Virtue by which we acknowledge God as the Source of
Everything we have, and Everything we are. It is the ability to look at ourselves Honestly, and to see how we measure up to
Godís Will for us, and how we have Failed to do so. The Words of
the Lordís Prayer are a Plea for Humility, for when we ask
God to Forgive us our Trespasses,
we not only seek His Forgiveness for our Sins, we remind ourselves
of our Constant Need for His Mercy.
To Live in Hope
Although we are Sinners, the words of the Lordís Prayer are
a constant invitation to Hope. Throughout the Gospel Jesus tells Parables of
individuals forgiven Immense Debts when they demonstrate True Repentance.
Sorrow for Sin is essential, and
Sorrow itself is evidence of Godís Mercy, for we could not express
Contrition were we not called-to Repentance by Godís Grace.
"Consequently", Saint Thomas preached in his Lenten Sermon,
"whenever you ask for Mercy you shall receive it, provided you ask with Repentance for your
Sin". The words of our Prayer, in which we ask God
to Forgive the Debts we owe Him,
are a constant reminder of Godís Mercy, a Source of Constant Hope that throughout our lives on Earth
God is always Willing to accept our Repentance and
Forgive our Sins.
The "When" of Forgiveness
When we speak of Sin we refer both to the Sinful Act,
by which we Choose our Will over Godís, as well as the
Punishment we deserve as a result of our Wrong Choice. To ask
God to Forgive our Trespasses,
addresses both aspects of Sin, provided our words reflect the True State of our
To express genuine Sorrow for Sin, our
Contrition must include the Intention of Atonement, by which we Promise to Repair the
Wrong we have committed (through Sacramental Reconciliation), as
well as a Purpose of Amendment, by which we promise to avoid a Sin in the future.
Saint Thomas considers the Consoling Words of the Psalmist, "I said I will confess
my Transgressions to the Lord; and Thou Forgave the Iniquity of my Sin" (Psalm 31:5). He concludes, "...
man must not despair, seeing that Contrition together with the Intention of Confessing suffice for the
Forgiveness of Sin".
A Note of Caution
Lest we conclude that Sacramental Confession is unnecessary for our
Salvation, Saint Thomas reminds us that the Churchís Reconciliation not only
Forgives Sin, it takes away at least a part of the
Punishment due our Sinful Act. Our
Sorrow lays-claim-to Godís Mercy, for He is always
Willing to Forgive the Wrong we have done. But Saint Augustine
observes that the Punishment due even Venial Sin is no
small thing; we should not, therefore, Ignore the Sacramental Means by which the
Punishment is lessened.
An Additional Promise
Nor should we ignore the value of Indulgences. These
have been a source of Bitter Debate among Catholic and non-Catholic Christians, but Saint Thomasí
words (preached before many of the Controversies arose) offer a Refreshing and Simple Reflection
on the Nature of Indulgences and their purpose.
... Many are the Good Deeds of Holy Men ... which Deeds were done for the Common Good of the Church. Likewise
the Merits of Christ and of the Blessed Virgin are, as it were, the Treasury of the Church. Thus the Sovereign Pontiff and those whom
he delegates ... can Allocate these Merits wherever the Need occurs. Consequently Sins are Remitted not only as to their Guilt by
Contrition, but also as to their Punishment by Confession and Indulgences.
Our Response to Forgiveness
Thus far we have considered only the Effect of Godís Forgiveness of our
Sins against Him. What shall we say about the Parallel Words in
the Lordís Prayer, by which we express our Willingness to Forgive
others? To repeat these words commits us to a Course of Action, and Saint Thomas turns to Two (2)
Passages from the Scripture to Illustrate our Responsibility to Imitate the Generosity
of God in our relations with others. The First of these Passages,
from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, asks Rhetorically, "Man to man reserveth anger; and doth he seek Remedy of
God?" (Ecclus 28:3). The Second, from the Gospel, is far less poetic, and considerably
more direct, "Forgive and you shall be forgiven" (Luke 6:37).
The Petition by which we ask God to Forgive our
Sins is the only one in the Lordís Prayer to which a Condition is
attached, and the Condition is Immense. "As" may be one of the tiniest among the innumerable
words in the language, but its Consequences are Vast. "As" means
"to the extent that" or "in the same way".
Either definition is a Clear Reminder that our Disposition is an Essential Part of the Equation in which We,
God, and our Fellow Men relate to one another. The Angelic Doctor is very blunt when he reminds us, "...
if you do not forgive, you will not be forgiven".
He is equally blunt when he reminds us that Christ, Who
taught us The Lordís Prayer, remembers what He taught us.
"He will not be deceived. If, therefore, you say the words with your lips, fulfill them in your Heart".
Forgiveness and Beatitude
Throughout his Sermons on the Lordís Prayer, we have seen that Saint Thomas
continually make connections between the Petitions of our Prayer, the Gifts
of the Holy Spirit, and the Beatitudes. Often these connections are Subtle, and, perhaps,
Difficult to see, at least at first. This is not the case with our asking
God to Forgive us our Trespasses. Saint Thomas
sums up his Reflection on this Petition very succinctly, "This leads us to another Beatitude: Blessed are
the Merciful, for Mercifulness makes us show Mercy to our Neighbor".
Mercy is a word we use frequently, perhaps without much thought. This is a Pity,
because Mercy is a Beautiful - and Challenging - part of our Spiritual Life. The word deserves the
same Honored Place in our vocabulary that the deed holds in our Attitude toward our Fellow Men. Mercy
means "compassionate sorrow for anotherís distress, coupled with a practical will to relieve it".
To Cry at the end of a Sad Book does not demonstrate Mercy. To be
Merciful, our Tears must be United with some 'Effort' to Relieve the Condition that
As we Pray the Lordís Prayer we must remind
ourselves - continually - that Godís Mercy toward us is so great that He
sent His Son to Die for us. When we had incurred, by
Sin, a Debt we had no Means of Repaying,
God provided the Remedy. But Godís
Gifts are never given to Enrich only the Person who receives them; they are given for the entire
Church. Thus, when we experience Godís Mercy in our
Prayer, or in the Sacrament of Penance, we pledge ourselves to
show others the same practical Compassion God has shown us.
This is something to consider whenever we say the words of the Lordís Prayer, of
course, but the Days of Lent and Easter are an especially Urgent Reminder of how much we have received, and how much we are Challenged to Share.
Mary, the Final Word
And here we might consider our Blessed Mother, whom we address as
Mater Misericordiae, 'Mother of Mercy'. As the
mother of Our Savior, Mary is,
truly, the 'Mother of Mercy Incarnate'. But in her life, so far
as the Gospel allows us to penetrate the Modesty that continually surrounds Mary, we see a continual
example of what constitutes a Merciful Life, a Life filled with Practical Compassion.