The Benefit of the Doubt

Sr. Donna McGartland

Today’s post is from guest contributor Sr. Donna McGartland. Donna is one of the authors in Love Tenderly: Sacred Stories of Lesbian and Queer Religious published by New Ways Ministry.

Today’s liturgical readings for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time can be found here.

One thing I seldom pay attention to during Mass is the opening prayer. Today is different for some reason: “Look upon us, O God, Creator and ruler of all things, and, that we may feel the working of your mercy, grant that we may serve you with our heart.”

I must admit I had to read it a couple of times to fully allow its depth to sink in. It helped me to rephrase it:  “Look on us, O Creator, that by serving you with our heart, we may feel the working of your mercy.”

This prayer touched something in me deeply. It is by serving God with our heart (not hands or head) that we see God’s mercy at work.

How do we serve God with our heart? Today’s first reading from Sirach gives the perfect answer! It is not by living with wrath and anger nor by seeking vengeance. It is by living with an attitude of forgiveness. “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice” the author writes. “Remember the Most High’s covenant and overlook faults.”

I’d like to tell you a story about a friend who passed away last year.  She was an elderly nun who was loved by all in her parish. She knew everyone by name and was a person who had an incredible ability to love everyone! She was the type of person who made you feel special and important. When she was no longer physically able to remain in the local convent, the parish had a celebration to honor her. When asked during the event what words of wisdom she had to offer, she simply responded, “Always give the benefit of the doubt.” These words of wisdom were her secret that freed her to love everyone for who they are, no matter what!

“Always give the benefit of the doubt.”  When you do that, there’s no need to forgive because there was no offense in the first place. By embracing that advice, we can truly serve with our hearts and see God’s mercy at work through them.

Consciously giving the “benefit of the doubt,” I find myself feeling much freer and less offended when injustice is present. I can distance myself from their action and see their reality differently. I’m not making excuses for the other’s choices; I am reframing their action in such a way that I realize they don’t even have a choice because they are not free within themselves.

LGBTQ+ persons (including me), persons of color, immigrants and so many others on the margins of society often find themselves targeted by persons who are angry, righteous, even bigoted and filled with hate. Their actions are not acceptable but that doesn’t have to take away my inner freedom. Rather than taking on their hate and allowing it to negatively impact me, I try to remember to give the “give the benefit of the doubt” and, when I do, I see the “other” as the victim of so much hate and pain, a victim who has absorbed so much of it that it has become their life.  I don’t want to give them that much power. And in my change of attitude, I know God’s mercy is at work through me!

–Sr. Donna McGartland, September 17, 2023

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