Friar Cristoforo, Renzo and Lucia (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The rest of that bread

Love that precedes guilt through the eyes of Manzoni, Milosz, Dante... “When one truly forgives, there is nothing left to forgive.”
Franco Nembrini

We sometimes think that forgiveness is born out of goodness: I forgive you because I am good and therefore when you make a mistake, when you do wrong, I am capable of turning a blind eye and letting it go. It does not work like that, that is not what it is about. Because forgiveness is love, it is not pardon.

Years ago, some friends of mine who were heavy smokers like me made an oath not to smoke during Lent. I have often heard people say to me: “You are so stupid! You have not smoked for forty-six days, so why are you now continuing?” I tried to explain that one can only not smoke for that long because they await the day to start again. If forgiveness were born of our goodness, it would be a bit like smoking: we make an effort in the hope that something will happen to compensate our effort. We close one eye, but in the meantime we accumulate resentment for the other who is hurting us, and at some point we cannot take it any more. We have forgiven 490 times, but at the 491st time we take revenge.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, is born of gratitude, of the knowledge that we have been willed, drawn from nothing, and destined for eternity by a boundless love and without calculation. In this sense, forgiveness precedes guilt; it is the way in which you perceive and embrace the other person at the very moment when he or she makes a mistake, sins, betrays.

In these times of pandemic, I have re-read The Betrothed in order to savour its most beautiful pages, those concerning the plague, and to learn how to deal with today's difficulties. And I rediscovered Manzoni's novel as a novel of forgiveness.

Lodovico has committed a serious crime; he killed, he escaped to a convent where he converted and became Friar Cristoforo. When he comes out of the convent, now dressed as a monk, the murderer's relatives are waiting for him to teach him a lesson, to humiliate him publicly. But as soon as Cristoforo speaks and everyone understands that he has truly repented and converted, the tables turn and the murdered man's brother embraces and forgives the friar, giving him a loaf of bread. Cristoforo will carry that loaf with him for the rest of his life, so as not to forget the forgiveness he has received. If we too do not go around the streets of the world carrying the bread of forgiveness, that is, the sign of mercy that embraces us despite the crime we have committed, despite our sins, and the evil within us, we cannot face reality with gratuitousness and love, and we cannot embrace the other.

When Renzo enters the lazaretto [hospital for the sick] to look for Lucia, he meets Friar Cristoforo who takes him to the bedside of Fr. Rodrigo, the villain who had ruined his life, and says something terrible to him: Do you see? He cannot die, he has been in agony for four days but he does not die. What if the Lord is waiting to receive him by your forgiveness? "Perhaps God is ready to grant him an hour in which he can make his peace, but awaits a prayer from you […] Perhaps this man’s salvation – and your own – depend on you at this moment – on an impulse of forgiveness and pity from you.” Only at this point does Renzo understand what true forgiveness is and how to recognise it: when one truly forgives, there is nothing left to forgive.

I am reminded of the other great novel that has accompanied my life, Milosz's Miguel Mañara, specifically when the author makes the protagonist say on the point of death: "I am Mañara. And he whom I love says to me: these things were not. If he has stolen, if he has killed: may these things not have been! He is alone."

And what can we say about Dante who, already in the Vita Nova, writes: "I say that when she [Beatrice] appeared, in whatever place, by the hope of marvellous greeting, for me no enemy remained, in fact I shone with a flame of charity that made me grant pardon to whoever had offended me.” And in the Divine Comedy, in Purgatory, he presents the two amazing deeds of Manfredi and Bon Conte. Both of them, on the point of death, have given themselves up to God's mercy: "(...) I, weeping, gave myself / to Him who, freely, cares to pardon us. / My sins and crimes were horrible to hear/ God, though, unendingly is good/ His arms enfold and grasp all those who turn to Him”, Manfredi (Purg III, 119-123); "uttering Maria’s name,” Bonconte (Purg V, 101).

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Dante's journey opens with the great Miserere of the first Canto and closes with the prayer to Mary in the last: "... in te misericordia, in te pietate...". In this sense, man does not work mercy, he can only allow himself to be invaded by God's mercy, by His being charity, the generator of life. As I grow older, I seem to understand better what the Gospel says, namely that it is older people who feel the need to be forgiven because they carry the weight of their sins more than young people, of their inability to be worthy of the greatness to which they are destined. Like the old man Nicodemus, who would like to draw a line under the past and start anew, or the elderly who were the first to shy away from Jesus' challenge: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."

Perhaps this is exactly how it works: it is through an inborn gratitude to the One who called us from nothing to being, from death to life, that we become capable of true forgiveness. It is that forgiveness that makes Friar Cristoforo say, when he blesses Renzo and Lucia, their union and their children to come: "In here is what remains of that bread…the first bread I ever begged; you know the story. I leave it to you. Keep it carefully and show it to your children. They will be born into sad times, in a sad world, among proud and overbearingly mean. Tell them they must forgive…always forgive, no matter what it may be.”