Guest post by A.J. Avila.
I stared at the computer screen. According to Facebook, my eighth-grade teacher, Sister Ann (not her real name), had died at the age of 99.
Former students posted about what a wonderful teacher she had been, what a sweet person she was.
Which she was—to everybody except me.
In about the fourth grade, I began being bullied by some of the other girls in my class.
I couldn’t figure out what had caused this shift in attitude. We were still the same girls as before, weren’t we? Yet, all of a sudden they called me stupid and ugly. Despite my prowess with a basketball, I was always the last chosen for a team—and even then the team captains argued over who had to take me.
Of course my athletic skill had nothing to do with it. It was all about popularity, and it was made abundantly clear that I was at the bottom of the pecking order.
That was difficult enough, but in the eighth grade, Sister Ann joined in the bullying.
I don’t know what it was about me that set Sister off. Maybe I reminded her of someone who had done her wrong in her past. Maybe it was because she’d had my older sister as a student a few years before, and Sis could be quite a handful.
Whatever the reason, she would scream at me, her face red and her body trembling with anger, over something as trivial as a book cover. I could get into trouble for the horrible crime of saying “Excuse me, Sister” when I wanted to ask her a question.
I could not talk to my mother about this. She had already told me the bullying from the other girls was my fault. “You must have done something,” she said. But for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what I had done to invite such animosity.
There was no way I could tell my mother that a teacher, a nun!, was doing this to me. Most likely she wouldn’t believe me, and even if she did, I would get blamed.
So I suffered in silence.
Eventually graduation rolled around, and I was released from the abuse. By that time my self-esteem had dropped to near zero. The pain followed me into adulthood.
It didn’t take much to trigger the anguish and an abundance of tears. Just seeing a photo or hearing a song from that time period could set me off. It wasn’t an everyday occurrence, but about once a year again the tears would flow.
“It was so long ago,” my husband said. “Why can’t you get over it?”
That was a good question. Why couldn’t I? I knew I had to forgive Sister Ann and my other tormentors, so I did. I forgave them again and again. And again. And again. And yet again.
Why did it still hurt so much?
Then one day I discovered a way to let go. I was in pain, wasn’t I? What are you, as a Catholic, supposed to do with your pain?
You’re supposed to offer it up.
And then, like a light bulb brightening over my head, it occurred to me to offer up my pain for the souls of my tormentors.
When you think about it, this is what Jesus did for me on the cross. Those were my sins that scourged His flesh, pounded a crown of thorns into His head, and drove nails into His hands and feet. Yet He offered up his agony for the sake of my soul.
This kind of forgiveness didn’t make my pain stop immediately. But it did diminish it. Every time the anguish returned, I offered up the pain for my abusers. And every time I did that, the pain lessened.
So now, there I was, staring at Facebook. Sister Ann had died.
“My all-time favorite teacher!” one poster gushed.
If anything was going to evoke another crying fit, this was it.
And I did feel pain. But it was just a twinge.
What kind of comment could I leave? “Praying for the repose of her soul,” I typed.
In every Our Father, we recite, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It is my fervent prayer that God forgives me any cruelties I’ve inflicted on others the same way I’ve learned to forgive those who inflicted them on me.
A.J. Avila lives in San Bernardino, California and is the author of four Catholic novels: Rain from Heaven, Nearer the Dawn, Amaranth, and Cherish. Cherish is partially based on the method of forgiveness discussed in this post.