If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Luke 6:29
Until recently I had absolutely no idea why, in the Rite for Confirmation, the Bishop would slap the cheek of the person being confirmed. Thanks to my daughter’s recent reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation and the excellent formation she has been receiving, now I know. It’s a reference to the hardships that Christians will face in their journey and Our Lord’s words in the Gospel of Luke (above) to turn the other cheek.
The funny thing is as I have been reflecting on this, and my sense of moral outrage each time I am (metaphorically) slapped for professing my faith, that I have come to see that part of the profound lesson Jesus is teaching me is that: it’s not about the slap.
How so? If someone “slaps” me, doesn’t it require a “just” response and give me permission to bite back? This of course is the point where I then say, well I’m supposed to be a doormat and just roll over and take it with a smile on my face. A bit like this:
Now I realise, when someone “slaps” me it is actually calling me to a deeper sort of justice. A justice which requires not a simple retaliation with the “eye for an eye”, but rather seeks the heart, where the person who hurts another can be seen as the truly wounded one. Where I can see the wounds in myself, and see how this person is truly needing to be pitied. This does not therefore mean that I do nothing, in fact “turning the other cheek” is not a passive action.
A person who acts in a way which is hurtful to others, is a person who is sick themselves. They are unable to see beyond their own pain and appreciate the dignity each and every created human person deserves by virtue of having been created and willed by a loving Father and brought into existence by His love. They are spiritually sick. Needless to say, I am that poor person too at times. The thing is, I have “slapped” others myself through my own selfish desires and sin. So, how is it that I find it so hard to see this in others, to use the same standard of giving myself another chance, but I don’t extend that to others? Jesus knows us so well, which is precisely why he was clear about this one. It isn’t about the slap. Look beyond that harmful arm to the person it’s attached to. See their pain, their deep spiritual poverty and the ways that they are already experiencing hell on earth through hurting others and isolating themselves.
To use a boxing analogy, it takes effort and discipline to lean into the hit. There is a whole lot of theories behind why it is better to take a punch leaning into it, rather than trying to lean away from it, but the bottom line is that it is less detrimental to the person getting punched to lean into it. It hurts less, it is more likely that you’ll win the match, and you are acting in a more proactive way. You are saying to your opponent: I don’t fear you and you are not going to destroy me despite your best efforts. Your pain is worse than mine, and I am going to pray for you as you need it more than I do.
Perhaps one of the greatest examples of someone who knew this truth was St Maria Goretti. In a short time on July 6, the Catholic Church celebrates her Feast Day. Maria was only 11 years old when she was stabbed to death by a 20 yr old attacker who attempted to rape her in 1902. As she was being taken by cart to the hospital, she told those near her, “I forgive him”. If she didn’t see past this atrocious crime to the poor state of her assailant, how could she have forgiven him? But it doesn’t end there. Her attacker, Alessandro Serenelli, remained bitter and unrepentant for many years, until a dream in prison with Maria in it caused him to completely change his life. He was present for the canonisation of Maria in Rome and sat next to her mother for the ceremony.
Part of a letter he wrote is a telling example of how he changed during his life:
Perhaps it is time for us all to look at and beyond the slap, not denying it hurt, not repressing it with a “forgive and forget” mentality, but openly acknowledging it and seeking the grace only Jesus can give us to truly look at the sad state of those beyond it. Pray for them. Pray for mercy on yourself too that God would be able to show that mercy to you for those times when you have slapped, whether deliberately or unknowingly.
St Maria Goretti, pray for us!