Almost 10 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 was, motioning for me to come talk to him on the porch outside the library.
After some small talk, he told me he's tried but simply can't believe that God has forgiven him for what he'd done. As he nervously chain-smoked, he began to let me know that he spent several years in Miami as a pimp for boy prostitutes. He told me he can still see their faces, mostly runaways he took advantage of. Martin was ashamed of the terrible acts he committed against these fragile teenagers.
Tears began to well up in the older man's eyes. He was sitting there in a flannel shirt and overalls as his eyes seemed to pierce my conscience. No doubt he was looking to see if I'd condemn him as much as he condemned himself.
He told me that all week he'd been trying to talk to someone about this but no one wanted to hear him out. I could tell that this man was engulfed in remorse; his hands began to shake as he asked me if I thought God could ever forgive him for his horrible sins.
As I listened to his story, I wondered if this kind of thing happens very often at monasteries and if there was some convenient way that I could excuse myself from this conversation.
But I also heard a man in pain and a man who believed he's beyond God's love, and I knew that this was simply untrue. I needed to make it clear to him that we all can be forgiven.
As he glared at me, waiting for an answer about whether he could be forgiven, I let him know that when I was a teen I was sexually abused by an upperclassman. I told him that this young man traumatized me to an unfathomable degree. I told him how I hid what had happened for years out of my shame and my guilt, believing that somehow I'd asked for it and that no one would understand or comfort me or help me process what had happened.
I tearfully told Martin that this man never said he was sorry and in fact 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 when two people connected on a level much deeper than what's normally experienced.
Martin and I seemed to have a bond, and I know he began to see me as one of his victims. He began to shake and cry. To some degree I envisioned him as the man who molested me, hoping deep down that someday that upperclassman would seek forgiveness for what he did to me like Martin was now.
I told Martin that God loves him, and while what he'd done was terrible and couldn't be taken back, God's mercy is bigger than all of us. All he needed to do was ask for forgiveness and it would be his. Martin was listening but seemed unconvinced. He wanted to believe.
He stared at me for a long while, and then he said, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." He was bent over and slouched, with enough weight on his back to crack the guest house bricks.
At once I knew he saw me as two beings — one of his victims but also as an angel of mercy — so I said, "Martin, I forgive you." As I told him this, I realized that I was also forgiving the man who'd harmed me.
We stared at each other. We cried and hugged. It was an intensely emotional experience.
Several weeks later I called Martin at his mother's house to see how he was doing. He said he was OK but that it was tough. He was trying to stay clean and stay away from young boys.
I haven't heard from him since.
Contact Henry Robert Engles: [email protected]