Almost ten years ago I was on a spiritual retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemane in central Kentucky. While I was there I noticed this guy, Martin (not his real name). It was my first time at the Abbey and he seemed too loud for the place and I tried to avoid him, but there he is, motioning for me to come talk to him on the porch outside the library.
After some small talk, he tells me that he's tried but simply cannot believe that God has forgiven him for what he's done. As he nervously chain smokes, he begins to let me know that down in Miami he spent several years as a pimp for boy prostitutes. He tells me that he can still see their faces, mostly runaways that he took advantage of. Martin is ashamed of the terrible acts that he committed against these fragile teenagers.
Tears begin to well up in these heavy-set older man's eyes with graying hair and beard. He’s sitting there with a flannel shirt and overalls as his eyes seem to pierce my conscience. No doubt he is looking to see if I'll condemn him as much as he condemns himself.
He tells me that all week he's been trying to talk to someone about this, but no one wants to hear him out. I can tell that this man is engulfed in remorse; his hands began to shake as he asks me if I think that God could ever forgive him for his horrible sins.
As I've listened to his story, I wondered if this kind of thing happens very often at monasteries, and if there's some convenient way that I could excuse myself from this conversation.
But I also hear a man in pain and a man who believes that he is beyond God's love and I know that this is simply untrue. I know I need to make it clear to him that we all can be forgiven, but simply telling him that will have almost no impact on his troubled soul.
As he glares at me, waiting for an answer to whether he can be forgiven, I let him know that I was sexually abused when I was a teen by an upperclassman. I let him know that this young man abused me and traumatized me to an unfathomable degree. I tell him how I hid what had happened to me for years out of my shame and my guilt, believing that somehow I had asked for it and that no one would understand or comfort me or try and help me process what had happened.
I tearfully tell Martin that this man never said he was sorry and in fact he had the nerve to ask me a couple of times over the next two years if he could do it again.
There was a silence on that porch for what seemed like a long time, and the air felt still and time seemed to slow down a bit. This was one of those delicate moments in time where two people were connecting on a level much deeper than is normally experienced. At this moment Martin and I seemed to have this bond and I know that he began to see me as one of his victims. He began to shake and cry. To some degree I envision him as the man who molested me, with me hoping deep down that someday that upperclassman will be seeking forgiveness for what was done to me like Martin is now.
I tell Martin that God loves him so much, and while what he's done is terrible and can't be taken back, that God's mercy is bigger than all of us, and that all he needs to do is ask for forgiveness and it is his. Martin is listening but seems unconvinced. He wants to believe.
He stares at me for a long while, and then he says to me, “I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.” He's bent over and slouched, enough weight on his back to crack the guest house bricks.
At once I know he sees me as two beings, one of his victims but also as an angel of mercy, so I tell him,
“Martin, I forgive you.” As I tell him this, I realize that I'm also forgiving the man who'd harmed me.
We stared at each other. We cried and hugged. It was an intensely emotional experience. I hope that he will accept the forgiveness that is reaching out to him.
Several weeks later I called him at his mother's house to see how he was doing. He said he was doing okay but that it was tough and he was trying to stay clean and stay away from young boys. I haven't heard from him since.
- Henry Robert Engles