In an address I was giving the other day as I was receiving the Athena Leadership award, I spoke about Irene Laure, an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things. Although forgiveness is probably the most difficult thing asked of us, if it is something that our heart truly wants even if it seems that a much larger part of ourselves wants something else, we will be able to forgive. Irene Laure’s story is a beautiful illustration of that.
I remember the first time that I spoke about her. It was a cold dreary day in Montreal during the winter of 1989. I was preparing to walk up to the podium to give my first presentation on forgiveness and international affairs. I was to talk about the Franco-German reconciliation after World War II, which was one of the greatest achievements of modern statecraft. The presentation was highlighting the experiences of one French woman, Irene Laure, who had the courage to forgive and by this one act was able to change the face of Europe.
As I was approaching the lectern, I couldn’t help but wonder what Irene Laure must have been feeling some forty years earlier in Caux, Switzerland, when she too needed to address the assembly. How did she become such a remarkable woman?
Irene was a rebel against injustice from her earliest days. She was also taught to be a German hater having grown up in France during World War I and later suffered at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. One night during the early days of the occupation Irene was walking down the street when she heard marching boots shattering the stillness of the night. Suddenly Irene was surrounded by a German patrol, with their torchlight blinding her and their harsh orders deafening her ears. She was pointing to her nursing bag hoping it would save her. Instead she was propelled forward by the muzzle of a machine gun in the small f her back, wondering if this meant her death.
As I looked into the eyes of my audience, years later, I couldn’t help but ask myself how many of them had ever experienced living in a war zone. I knew there were diplomats and foreign service officers in the audience, but how many of them understood first-hand why and how we can hate so much. We speak of conflict so antiseptically. So often we think that once we have a treaty or policy in place, peace will follow. Governments usually don’t go further than that and certainly not to the core of the pain and suffering that is at the root of all wars.
Irene was a poignant example of a human being wounded by the atrocities of violence and war. A Lutheran minister posed a question to her asking her how she envisioned a united Europe without Germany. After a great deal of soul searching Irene realized that hatred and revenge was not going to give her what she really wanted. She also realized that hatred, whatever the reasons for it, is always a factor that creates new wars.
Irene was eventually able to see things different. There was a total transformation in her thinking. By being able to see the world through the eyes of forgiveness, Irene’s life took on new meaning She made the commitment to take the message of forgiveness and reconciliation to Germany and to the world.
Irene’s story exemplifies the possibility and potential that a change in perception and transformation in thinking can bring. This is the miracle that only forgiveness and its processes can bring to life. Irene was willing to look into her heart, acknowledge her weakness, and say she was sorry for her hateful thoughts toward the Germans. The results of her actions were profound, and Irene was not only able to build a new relationship with the Germans, she committed the rest of her life in helping to reconcile France with Germany and spread the word of forgiveness.
Irene touched my heart in so many ways, especially in understanding the power of forgiveness and the way forgiveness can not only heal individuals – it can also have a profound effect in the healing of nations.
I feel so blessed to have known the work of Irene Laure. She has truly inspired me to go to areas of conflict around the world, places where war once was, and to work with groups, who at one time may have been enemies, and bring them together, through the healing work that only forgiveness can bring.