When she was 19 years old, Philomena Lee had a baby. She barely knew the father and, having been raised in a conservative religious home in early 20th-century Ireland, had never learned where babies come from.
When her parents learned she was pregnant, they put her in a convent to have the baby in secret. And after the baby was born, the convent adopted the boy to a couple.
Philomena never saw her son again.
In 2003, when she was 70 years old, Philomena confessed to her other children that they had an older brother they’d never met. Her daughter convinced a British journalist to help Philomena find her lost son.
Eventually, they learned that his adoptive parents were American. Her son had worked in politics in Washington, D. C. and had died in 1993.
Then they learned that her son had made three separate trips to the convent where he’d been born seeking information about his birth mother.
And all three times, the convent had lied, telling him they didn’t have any information.
I want to pause Philomena’s story here and ask what you would do in her place.
I’d be furious. I would feel a deep sense of sadness. I’d want justice.
But what does justice look like for Philomena Lee? The nun who’d overseen all this was long dead. Her son was dead.
I tell you the story of Philomena Lee because she has taught me so much about forgiveness.
Let’s talk about forgiveness. So often we think of forgiveness as an external movement, something that happens between two people. If you wrong me, forgiving you is what I do when we reconcile.
But I want to suggest that we’ve got it backwards. Reconciliation, the healing of the relationship between us, is good. But it’s not the same as forgiveness.
After all, sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible. It wasn’t for Philomena. And sometimes the person who wronged us isn’t willing to change. Sometimes reconciliation can be dangerous!
But forgiveness is something we can do whether or not the other person is willing or able to reconcile. Forgiveness is a process we enter into, a choice we make again and again.
When we choose to forgive, we create a new world of possibilities. We find freedom from what was done to us. So today is about learning how to forgive.