The Nun Who Taught Me About Forgiveness

Thoughts on the power of words to wound—and to heal

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Sister Rosemary Lynch was the only human from whom I’ve sought divine forgiveness. I’m not Catholic. When I met her, I was in a hybrid Buddhist/Taoist/Pablo Neruda phase.

I had written a story for the Las Vegas Sun about two women who were war refugees. Sister Rosemary was my connection; she and Sister Klaryta Antoszewska ran a refugee outreach from a house in west Las Vegas.

My story told the tale of two women who had come from different sides of the Russian-Chechnyan conflict and had escaped together. They’d bonded in a way most of us could never understand. They’d suffered through the deaths of their families, escaped by stowing away on a plane, landed in Mexico, sneaked across the U.S. border and were sent to a California jail. Finally, the two of them were driven to Las Vegas, where Sisters Rosemary and Klaryta, two aging Catholic nuns, helped them.

Other than the nuns, the refugees were at first each other’s only friends. But once they moved into a home together, got Strip hotel cleaning jobs and began a new life, their national and philosophical differences re-emerged, and they began fighting. They carried their feud into the halls of the hotel where they worked, and into the home they shared, and re-created the conflict on a smaller scale. I thought it spoke to the odd turns of human nature.

Sister Rosemary called me after the story was published. She was unhappy. The subjects of the article were unhappy. “They didn’t know you were going to write about their fighting,” she scolded me. “Why would you do that?”

My heart sank. I mean really, really sank. I am, perhaps particularly for a journalist, a bit thin-skinned, and frequently wrestle with the ethical questions writing stories poses. But truth is often unpleasant, and in the end, we can learn from such stories; They can give us empathy and perspective.

“Because that was their story,” I said, “and I thought it was meaningful.”

Sister Rosemary told me that one of the women in the story had cried when she read it.

Then I, too, began to tear up. I really hadn’t meant to cause any more grief to two people who had endured a lifetime full of it.

Why did I write it? Later, I’d debate and re-debate that in my head.

But at that moment, I said to Sister Rosemary, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt them.”

She was silent, and in her silence was pissed-off-ness. Quiet nun pissed-off-ness. I rattled on, trying to explain to her and to myself why I found the details of their story worth publishing.

And then this came out of my mouth: “Do you forgive me?”

I was dumbfounded to hear those words come from me, a non-Catholic, to a Catholic nun, about a story that later was positively recognized by the Nevada Press Association. To this day I attribute it to the intangible, supernatural power packed into that spitfire woman, a righteousness that extended way beyond any church. She was serious about helping people; spartan but effective in a ratio so many religious leaders have reversed.

“God forgives you,” she said.

Somehow that wasn’t the point. I said, “Do you forgive me?”

Pause. Long pause. I remember looking out the window, the sun shining, thinking that I was a nut job—a spiritual wanderer long at odds with the Vatican asking an angry nun for forgiveness.

She took a frustrated breath. I can still hear it. “Yes. I forgive you.”

It was the last time I spoke with her.

Nearly 10 years, hundreds of stories and countless ethical debates later—and not a bit less sensitive—I got up one winter morning in 2011 to write. But first, I perused the news online with a cup of coffee.

Sister Rosemary Lynch, 93, founder of group against violence, dies after car hits her.

Lynch … was walking with fellow Franciscan Sister Klaryta Antoszewska in their Las Vegas neighborhood Wednesday … when a car backing out of a driveway hit her and she fell.

It seemed absurd—the way that life and death frequently do. A random brush from a car taking out such a powerhouse of spirit. My tribute to her will always be in respecting, if not fully understanding, the power of forgiveness. And the power of the truth.