Over the years, I have tried to replace the things I have stolen or broken. In an effort to change, I made direct amends to those I have harmed, “Except when to do so would injure them or others.”
A friend asked me, “Do you think there will ever be a time when you don’t feel you have to pay back?”
And my answer was, “No.”
Yesterday marked the close of Yom Kippur. And though my faith has branched in different directions, I still remember where I came from and I remember the lesson of my heritage. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement; it is a day of forgiveness as well as a day of remembrance.
The definition of atone is to make reparations for an offense or crime; it is to make up for an error or deficiency. But atone also means to reconcile and be brought into harmony, which is why I atone for my sins—so I can reconcile and find my own harmony.
When I was young in my sobriety, I went on a retreat in the town of Sag Harbor. The retreat was run by a Franciscan Priest. He was kind and soft spoken. He had a friendly smile; the kind no one could ever forget, and he made sure to speak to everyone in attendance.
At the time, I was not spiritually aware. I was angry and locked in the endless arguments that rambled inside my head. I was sober in name more than in heart, but nevertheless, I was sober.
The retreat was beautiful . . .
Dark natural wood shingles dressed the sides of the large, slate-roofed house. There was a covered front porch with white columns. There was a porch in the back, which overlooked the Northwest Harbor on the eastern end of Long Island. The surrounding was peaceful. There was tall grass by the water and the bay was quietly serene. The bedrooms were simple, but the entrance was extraordinary with high ceilings and dark mahogany walls.
The other attendees were like me. They were looking to rid themselves of their past and come to peace with who they were.
I was caught in the mixture of my own insanity and I was unsure whether I would ever be comfortable enough to sit in a room by myself. The idea of silence was frightening to me because it left too much room for the voices of my insecurity.
I sat with the Priest after one of the reflection meetings. I suppose something I had said caught his attention.
After the session, he approached me. He put his hand on my shoulder and all the kindness in his heart leaked through his eyes.
“Son, I don’t know what you did. But whatever it was . . . you’re not doing it now,” said the Priest.
“It’s okay to let go now.” He told me.
But I was too afraid and I did not know how to let go.
I recall the tenderness in his voice. It sounded warm, the same as it would when a father comforts his only child.
The priest suggested, “You can do one of two things. You can hold on to what’s inside you and let it burn you up, or you can let it go, and then you will never have to be that person again.”
He told me, “You have the choice.”
He said, “I can say, ‘your sins are forgiven,’ but if there is no forgiveness if you never forgive yourself.”
I was trying to be too many different people at one time. I was uncomfortable in my skin. I was awkward, and because I saw myself as awkward, I assumed everyone else saw me the same way.
I do not say I was victimized—however, I do say I victimized myself.
There is nothing uglier than the face of anger. And at my ugliest, I was filled with so much fear that I was on constant alert. I saw everyone and everything as a threat because I knew the lies I built myself on were hollow and weak.
And weakness . . . that too is an ugly face.
I hated, but I hated perfectly so I could survive in the world I created.
One night, I held a .357 magnum and pointed it in a man’s face from a car window. I leaned out from the passenger side and aimed at the man in a car next to me.
I watched his eyes change and almost turn childlike—as if God himself was about to call him home. His jaw dropped, and as his mouth opened, his body froze with his hands slightly raised at his chest.
I felt something in that moment.
I felt an overwhelming sense of power; I felt an evil sense of retribution, and while my thumb pulled back the silvery hammer, and my index finger gently caressed the trigger, I felt what it meant to stand on the other side of fear.
I watched a man fear for his life and I laughed . . . When I lowered the firearm, I saw him quiver. His breath shook, as if he were thanking God for his survival.
The man said nothing and I just drove away.
In truth, I had no intention of firing. This was just done to prove a point.
I wanted someone else to have the fear. I wanted someone else to feel the outrage and pain. But more, I wanted someone else to feel like a victim so I could go home and feel justified.
I explained this story to the priest while at the retreat. He listened, but he never flinched. He never stood up or walked away. His eyes did nothing else but leak kindness as he listened to my confessions.
“There’s a way out of this,” he told me. “I promise you.”
It felt good to be heard.
I carried my pain for too many years. I carried guilt and shame, but rather than carry these things, I return them now.
Forgiveness means nothing if not from within. This is why I atone for the sins I have committed. I atone to make up for my errors so I can reconcile and find harmony.
A friend asked me, “Do you think there will ever be a time when you’re even with the house?”
“I believe in paying back,” I answered. “I always pay what I owe, and since I’m not sure how much I took, I guess I’m not sure how much I owe. Besides, I would rather settle up now than wait until later and get hit with the interest.”
I pay back because I want to be a better than I was yesterday . . .
In a conversation with the Son of Man, Nicodemus was told, “Except a man be born again, Nicodemus, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
Confused by this, Nicodemus asked, “Born again? Can a man enter his mother’s womb a second time?”
To which, Jesus replied, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh. And that which is born of the spirit is spirit.”
He explained, “Do not wonder that I say you must be born again. The wind blows where it will. You hear it, but yet you do not know from whence it came or whether it goes. So it is with everyone that is born of the spirit. For God so loved the world that he sent his own Son that who so ever believed in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. God sent his Son to the world; not to condemn it, but to save it.”
I am not born again . . . but I do understand what it means to be cleansed.
Step eight of twelve in the Twelve Step Program says, “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”
Step nine says, “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
These are not one time steps. They are lifetime steps and I would rather atone for my mistakes on a daily basis than allow them to add up and hold me back.