Last week we revisited the “Jubilee Year of Mercy” which was solemnly proclaims by Pope Francis. Let’s dig a little deeper into this idea of “mercy.”
As a trait of God, mercy is the most ineffable. It is overwhelming, breathtaking, awesome, marvelous, wonderful. Yet it is also confusing, utterly beyond reason, it doesn’t make sense. It begs an explanation. Let’s first look at some key Hebrew concepts of mercy:
Get your Bible out. Go ahead, Catholics are allowed to read the Bible now. Take a look at Psalm 136. You will see that in every other line ends with the words, “His ‘mercy’ endures forever.” Here’s an ironic twist for you. Read Chapter 26 of Matthew’s Gospel. It’s about Good Friday and describes the last supper, the “Agony in the Garden,” Judas’ betrayal, Jesus’ arrest and culminates with Peter’s denial. Not a lot of good things happening to Jesus here. In Matthew 26:30 we read the line, “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” Another translation is, “They went out singing psalms.”
Guess what the psalm was? 136.
“His mercy endures forever.”
Jesus was hearing Judas, Peter, the other disciples (who were going to betray him, deny him abandon him) singing about mercy. I wonder what was going through his mind? How about “Yeah, right!”
Look at this through the lens of marriage or the love of parents for small children and consider the following poem from Lauren Whitfield:
“Lord, give me patience when tiny hands, tug at me with their small demands. Give me gentle and smiling eyes, keep my lips from sharp replies. And let not fatigue, confusion, and noise, obscure my vision of life’s fleeting joys, so when, years later my house is still, no bitter memories its rooms may fill.”
“Mercy” in the context of Psalm 136 is translated as “covenant love.” It’s not a “you and me” love. It’s “you-and-me-together …. and God.” It describes the love of a husband and wife who, following sacred ritual, enter into an intimacy from which a totally new life appears that simply wasn’t there before. You don’t throw that away easily. THAT kind of mercy.
Take a look at Exodus Chapter 34. And God passed in front of Moses, He proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. Ok, but what about justice? Justice is not “contrary to” mercy. Let’s examine this word Justice. Aquinas once defined justice as “giving someone what is their due.” Justice is also defined as “the restoration of ‘right relationship.’” Ways that we offer “what is due” are through the “Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.” Augustinian priest Father Gus Esposito spoke to the priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia about this. He asked, “How much is my heart really invested in the Corporal Works of Mercy? Do we see the Corporal Works of Mercy as a task, a duty, a bother, a “source” of my priesthood?
This is not about holding up a spiritual and pastoral measuring stick and convincing yourselves that we’re doing a lousy job. Nor is it about thinking about how much more you need to do or how many more activities you need to schedule. It’s not “What else can I do?” The danger of measuring what you are doing is that you could end up being “too” busy doing “godly stuff” instead of doing the “stuff of God.” This can lead to saying “it’s enough.” Then you’ll stop. You’ll cease progressing. You won’t become what you could have become. You will not only neglect the needs of our brothers and sisters, you neglect our own needs. “Nemo dat, quod non habet” or “You cannot give what you don’t have.”
It’s not just giving “some” help, to “a” person with “a” particular need. It’s giving to Christ. So what does it look like? As I outlined in my homily last week, it’s about doing what you like doing, what you do well and what you do easily. I once heard the story about a Spanish-speaking seminarian who was a woodworker and carpenter. He was stationed at a poor, inner-city parish. He would go door-to-door with a hammer in his hand, speaking Spanish to people coming to the door. He asked if they needed anything repaired and if they needed any food. People were delighted that someone just asked – and asked in their native language.
What helps me to do this? Detachment of self. Not counting consequences. Not asking “who is responsible for this?” If we can detach from the circumstances, opinions, rules, reputations and our needs at a particular moment and ask, “What’s really going on” in this person’s life. Also, check your emotions. Sometimes God pulls at our heartstrings. Consider Luke 24 when Jesus was walking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They later recounted, “Were our hearts not burning …. ” realizing we were walking with Christ and didn’t know it. This is known as “restlessness (“Our hearts are restless …..”) and can be addressed when heart, mind, reasoning and will are all pointed to works of mercy.
How can we improve? We need M – E – R – C – Y:
M ary. Why can’t I go directly to God? Consider what is written in Lumen Gentium – the Vatican II Document on the Catholic Church: “Mary has proceeded us successfully in the journey of faith.” She’s a guide, pathfinder, spiritual consultant, an expert on “how to get to Christ.” For guidance we always speak to someone who has done it previously and done it well. She was given to us for this purpose – by Christ!
E ucharist. Gives us first the sentiment – then the motivation – and then the desire for heroism. St. Peter Jullian was a French Catholic priest, founder of two religious institutes – the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers and Brothers and the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament. He was known for “Works of Mercy” of love and a strong love for Christ in the Eucharist. However, his Eucharistic spirituality – and those heroic works – did not spring full-grown from some mystical experience, but progressively over years.
R econcilers in Reconciliation. You can’t do this without regularly partaking in the Sacrament of Confession (More on this next week).
C harity. This is about living, in a natural and human (“incarnational”) way the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. It is rarely easy and never convenient. People in need don’t say, “Gee, today I think I’ll starve and go hungry and then go to visit the church.” It’s not about inconvenience, it’s about detachment.
Y es to God or it’s fluff and fleeting popularity. Our actions must be personal and correspond to what the Father (not the pastor, not the bishop, not the parishioners) is asking of us.” A closed heart keeps us from experiencing ourselves (first) before we can experience others. And the key that unlocks this dark cell is charity.” (St. John Paul II)