One of the big events in the news right now is the horrific shooting massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. On July 20, James Eagan Holmes opened fire during a premier of the new Batman movie, killing twelve and wounding fifty-eight more. Of course, we grieve for the dead, hope for a speedy recovery for the wounded, and send love and prayers to everyone involved. Here, though, I want to focus on one man wounded in the shooting who has brought light to the darkness: Pierce O'Farrill, who has forgiven Holmes and thus has reminded us all that, in his words, "there is a Light that shines brighter than the darkness ever imagined."
O'Farrill has vivid memories of what happened that night. As Holmes sprayed bullets all over the theater, O'Farrill was shot in the right arm and left foot (requiring surgery) and was also hit with shrapnel in his chest. He recounts in chilling words the experience of seeing the killer at work:
I remember everything, every little detail. There was no doubt when he came in, what I saw wasn't all the way human. There was a dark presence in that room when he came in. When he stood above me, I felt that evil presence. He fired a couple more shots and the truth is, at that moment I thought I was going to die. But God came in, and all of a sudden the killer just decided to stop.
One might expect O'Farrill to be filled with anger and hatred toward Holmes after what he experienced. But he has chosen a different response. True, he does believe that Holmes is accountable to the law of the land, saying that the shooter should get life in prison (though not the death penalty). But when asked in the hospital how he feels about Holmes as a person, it is clear that while he may have felt an "evil presence" surrounding Holmes in the theater, in his mind the shooter himself is still a child of God. O'Farrill speaks of him with deep compassion and says he has already forgiven him for what he has done:
I'm not angry at him. I'll pray for him. This is going to be hard for people to understand, but I feel sorry for him. When I think what that soul must be like to have that much hatred and that much anger in his heart — what every day must be like. I can't imagine getting out of bed every morning and having that much anger and hatred for people that he undoubtedly has.
Of course, I forgive him with all my heart. When I saw him in his hearing, I felt nothing but sorrow for him — he's just a lost soul right now. I want to see him sometime. The first think I want to say to him is "I forgive you," and the next is, "Can I pray for you?"
Indeed, it seems that O'Farrill's primary response to what happened has been to be truly helpful to everyone involved. He has, as we can see, committed himself to helping Holmes rediscover his lost soul. He also helped Bonnie Kate Porciau, a fellow victim of Holmes whom he met at the hospital. At her request as they lay in adjoining stretchers, he read scriptures to her, and later came to her room to pray and sing "Amazing Grace" with her. He says, "It was very powerful and special….We definitely share a bond."
Finally, he has offered help in the form of sharing his experience with the members of his church and, through the media, with the world. O'Farrill's pastor, Ryan Heller, speaks of how he has gotten everybody talking about the power of forgiveness:
Some of the other survivors have said that they can't or won't forgive. Reporters are contrasting him against other survivors so it is important to understand what Jesus says about forgiving. While so many people are questioning God in this time, Pierce is a light in the darkness. His faith is increasing, growing and maturing while many are in doubt. Pierce is like a rock.
A close friend of O'Farrill's, John Fruend, speaks of how O'Farrill sees this incident as an opportunity to share the message of God's forgiving love:
Pierce believes God had him in the theater for a reason — to tell God's message and use this as a forum. For him to say [he forgives the shooter] with all his wounds and pain is amazing. It moves me every time I think about it.
Indeed, as a result of O'Farrill's speaking out, more and more people are now hearing the message that, in Heller's words, "God wants us to live lives of continual forgiveness." Even Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who would probably be politically safer if he took an uncompromising "no mercy" stance toward Holmes, has been inspired by O'Farrill's example, saying that "The outpouring of light and love is so much more powerful than any darkness."
As a student of A Course in Miracles, I am deeply moved by this story, as I am by all forgiveness stories. The cynic may say that O'Farrill, as a deeply committed Christian, is just using the media attention to bring more people into his church. Of course, I can't see into his deepest motivations, but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I see no reason to question his sincerity; it seems that he has a genuine desire to love his neighbor as himself, to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to be truly helpful to "the least of these, my brethren."
And that is what strikes me most about this particular forgiveness story: O'Farrill's commitment to helping others, and in particular his extension of forgiveness to Holmes as a means of helping Holmes heal. Oftentimes, when people speak of forgiveness, they say they forgive for the sake of their own peace of mind. I've even heard some people say that forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person; that it is solely about our own peace. It is simply our own letting go of our emotional baggage around what the other person did; relieving him of his emotional baggage is not part of the equation.
Of course, forgiveness in the Course is in part about finding our own peace. This is one of the great gifts forgiveness gives us. But Course-based forgiveness is about more than that; in fact, it is primarily about lifting the burden of guilt from the other person's mind. It is a relational act, an act of healing the other person, and this in fact is how we ourselves are healed: "And in [your brother's] glad salvation you are saved" (T-25.III.5:7).
That is what I see in O'Farrill's story. He isn't just forgiving for the sake of his own peace of mind, though of course that is part of it. His forgiveness of Holmes is an act of extending love to this "lost soul" who desperately needs healing. Filled with compassion, O'Farrill wants to meet Holmes in person. He wants to tell him to his face that he forgives him. He wants to offer him healing prayers. He wants to lift the burden of anger and hatred from his brother's heart. He wants to heal his suffering brother's wounds and bring him back to the loving embrace of God.
Not everyone welcomes this forgiving stance toward Holmes, as I have seen when reading comments on O'Farrill's story. While there are many who praise him for what he has done, others condemn him for (apparently) dishonoring the dead and letting the killer off the hook. On a human level, I can understand the anger in these responses. A terrible thing has happened, and it will take time for people to heal. But in response to those who would condemn O'Farrill, I would gently ask: What harm can forgiveness do? It doesn't mean setting Holmes physically free to kill again; rather, it means setting his mind free so that he will never want to kill again. Surely the healing of Holmes's mind can only be for the good of everyone involved. What better way could there be to prevent future massacres than healing those who commit them, especially if this healing is the doorway to healing for all of us?
O'Farrill wants to share with the world that this is the way to God: living a life of "continual forgiveness." This, according to his friend John Fruend, is why he was in the theater that night: to provide an opportunity to share God's message that forgiveness is the light that shines away even the deepest darkness. I for one am grateful for the message he has shared, for his decision to be a light in the darkness. Thank you, Pierce O'Farrill, for being a beacon of forgiveness in Aurora — a city whose name literally means "dawn."