“Poggio Bustone: Knowing We are Forgiven”

Joyce and I are trudging up a very steep rocky trail near the top of a mountain high above the Rieti Valley in central Italy. We left our friend Evelyn down at the end of the road at the monastery of Poggio Bustone. The drive up the winding mountain road with sheer cliff drop-offs was plenty enough adventure for her. It’s only 900 or so more feet of elevation gain to the top of the mountain, where lay a more primitive monastery. Right! Only 900 feet! Practically straight up the mountain…

About 800 years ago, Saint Francis also climbed this mountain. Only he did it barefoot and without a trail! It was a time in his life when he realized he could not go on without feeling God’s complete forgiveness. You see, his early life was filled with riotous living, drinking, partying, orgies and, even worse, fighting in battles against neighboring towns. Although there are no direct references, I am convinced that he must have experienced violence, even killing or wounding other men.

In his early twenties, he began to turn his life over to God, but he had to know he was forgiven for the unconscious actions of his former years. So he climbed this mountain, found a cave near the top, and sequestered himself away from the world to seek complete forgiveness. He was determined not to leave that cave until he knew for certain that he was forgiven. We don’t know exactly how long he meditated and prayed on that mountain, but we do know that he finally received a clear message from God: he was completely forgiven. Thus began a new phase in Francis’ life. He no longer had to carry the heavy burden of his past transgressions.

Like most things and places of Saint Francis, the original cave has been transformed into a small chapel. It’s just too high and steep to be made into a “proper” cathedral. Yet it still retains a certain rustic simplicity and sacred feeling as a place of pilgrimage for the few hardy souls willing to make the trek.

And, like Saint Francis, Joyce and I, a few years ago, were also climbing the mountain to seek forgiveness. We have often spoken about the unconscious actions of our younger years. I have always considered Joyce’s misdeeds as “lightweight.” Like once she stole a piece of fruit from a neighbor’s tree, and her parents marched her down the street to apologize. We both, on the other hand, have considered many of my teenage acting out to be a bit more major, and some could have been punishable by prison time. I have stolen things, unfortunately a lot of things. I have been mean. I have engineered some “pranks” that have ended up nearly scaring people to death. I could go on, but perhaps you get the picture.

Tired from the climb, we arrived at the simple stone addition to the original cave. We opened the rough-hewn wooden door and entered the cool interior. We were alone. It would have been completely dark except for a shaft of light coming in from a tiny window up high on a wall. We found a place to sit in front of a crude altar, and began to ask for forgiveness.

Bottom line, both Joyce and I expected me to be sitting in the primitive chapel for a long time. Perhaps Joyce would feel forgiveness, and then she could do some sightseeing or sunbathing outside while she waited for me to finish my big ordeal.

But that’s not what happened! Instead, I closed my eyes, preparing to list off my offenses. Within minutes, I felt complete forgiveness for all my actions! My first thought was, “Wait. This was too easy! I haven’t worked and sweated hard enough to earn complete forgiveness. I haven’t even gone through the whole list.” But I still felt an almost overwhelming sense of God’s unconditional forgiveness. I felt light as a feather with the divine assurance that nothing I have ever done could keep me from my worthiness for divine love.

There is a famous line from the Course in Miracles, “God does not forgive because He (She) never has condemned.” I have been the only one condemning myself. The Divine Presence is forgiveness. Forgiveness can never be earned. It is freely given at all times.

So many of us, as children, have been misled into thinking we needed to earn our parents’ love and forgiveness. If only I was better behaved, or did things right, or apologized more, then I’d prove my worthiness to mom and dad. We then make God into a higher version of our parents. But this is futile. The Great Spirit loves us no matter what we’ve done. God sees all our actions, in the great experiment of free will, as a holy learning and growing process.

Joyce was, needless to say, surprised to see me stand up and leave the chapel after only a few minutes. Her first thought was, “Oh dear. The task is just too hard for Barry. He had to give up.” Outside, when she heard my experience of spontaneous forgiveness, she smiled and embraced me in one of her wonderful hugs.

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