By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Forgiveness is not the way a “get-even” culture teaches victims to survive.
But it is the only way to move through the anger and pain of even the most horrible wrongs, and to not let hate consume the rest of a life, said Carly Elms.
On Sept. 8, Elms opened the Franciscan Forgiveness Center on the grounds of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist in Independence to help victims recover their lives from even the worst thing that could possibly happen to them, and already her business is growing.
The philosophy is simple, though easier said than done: Replace hate with love. Her slogan: “Discover the paradox of loving until it hurts.”
Elms holds two master’s degrees, one in counseling and one in social work, as well as a certificate in forgiveness therapy from the International Forgiveness Institute, founded by Dr. Robert Enright at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“It’s a place of healing,” Elms said of the peaceful grounds where the Franciscan Sisters provide her space. “And that’s what forgiveness is. It is healing.”
It is also a very counter-cultural approach by perhaps the most counter-cultural person who ever lived, suffered at the hands of others, and died only to rise again to redeem the world, she said.
“The model is based on Christ, on how he loved us, and how he taught us to love each other,” Elms said.
Forgiveness therapy does not replace other models of mental health therapy, particularly when other disorders might be present, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But it is often a necessary complement, and can by itself lead a victim out of the dark.
Elms made it clear that human beings have a right to feel anger and rage when they are wronged. But that anger and rage will eat into a person’s soul if it goes unchecked.
“Forgiveness is about the abandonment of the so-called ‘right’ to anger and resentment, and the adoption of positive feelings and behaviors toward the one who hurt you,” Elms said.
Positive feelings and behaviors toward the one who hurt you?
“You have a right to be angry if someone does something wrong to you. But there really can’t be anything good that comes out of that. All that anger is the desire for revenge,” Elms said.
Revenge won’t heal a broken heart. The ability to forgive and to love will, she said.
Take for example the families of the victims of the June 17 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
A 21-year-old gunman, a self-proclaimed racist hoping to spark a race war, came to a Bible study with a .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun and eight magazines loaded with hollow-point ammunition to inflict the most damage on a human body, and killed nine people, aged 87 to 26.
Even before the funeral services could be held, family members came to court at the accused gunman’s first appearance to tell him they forgive him because God forgives him.
The world took note.
“A hateful person came into this community with some crazy idea that he would be able to divide,” said Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley. “But all he did was unite, and make us love each other even more.”
That’s the power of forgiveness, Elms said. And it comes from the most powerful force on earth — love, even if it hurts.
“You have got to feel pain in order to heal,” she said.
“But anybody who says, ‘Be angry instead,’ well, the anger protects you from hurt. That’s why it seems good. But that’s only an illusion,” Elms said.
Elms also said that forgiveness therapy and justice are not contradictory.
“We’re not saying you don’t have a right to justice and shouldn’t pursue that,” she said. “But people don’t always understand what justice is. It’s not revenge. Justice is supposed to make up for the wrongs to the extent possible.”
Love is still the key, Elms said.
“The way we show love is through forgiveness,” she said.
Forgiveness therapy is a detailed 20-step program to move from anger to love, she said.
Anger eats at the soul because victims not only blame the perpetrator for what happened to them. So much anger can build that victims often turn the anger inside and blame themselves and others around them. And that can lead to deep feelings of guilt and shame.
“Forgiving the person who needs forgiveness the most often means forgiving yourself, because you may have hurt yourself the most,” Elms said.
Elms said she urges her clients to get in touch with themselves, where they will find a beautiful person loved by God.
She urges them to do this through prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, as well as daily journaling.
“A journal is a form of contemplative prayer,” she said. “And when you pray before the Blessed Sacrament, you are reminded of Christ’s passion and forgiveness.”
“He died for everyone. He died not only for you, but for that person who hurt you, too,” Elms said.
And even as he was dying on the cross, Jesus forgave. His were perhaps the most powerful words ever spoken.
“This process (of forgiving) is very humbling,” Elms said.
“At the same time, you learn that you have the power to give that person what they need the most, and that Christ gave you the authority to give that person what they need the most — love,” she said.
“Christ gave us this model. He showed us what it takes,” Elms said.
“It’s much easier to hate. Anger is what causes hate, and hate is the most extreme form of anger,” she said.
Forgiveness also must be offered even when it isn’t accepted. But when it is accepted, it can change lives of both the victim and the perpetrator, Elms said.
“That is reconciliation,” she said. “Forgiveness is part of the much bigger process of reconciliation. But forgiveness is all on you. Forgiveness gives you control of your life back.”
Contact and other information about Carly Elms and the Franciscan Forgiveness Center can be found online at www.catholictherapists.com/franciscanforgiveness.