When Mercy Is A Bad Word

Last year my ten-year-old niece Lucy came to stay with us for a week.  At the end, she announced to her mother: “Aunt Grace taught me two new bad words!”

“Oh?” queried her mother.  “What are they?”

“‘Crap!’ and ‘Mercy!’” she replied.

“Mercy is not a bad word!” exclaimed her mother.

“Well,” retorted Lucy, “Have you heard how she uses it?”

In Lucy’s honor, I am writing today about other abuses of the term mercy.

*            *            *

When my mother was diagnosed with a mystery illness and I had to walk away from my life as I knew it, I had to give up a lot in a very short time.  By far the hardest were my ideas about my own virtue.

I had always fantasized that I would respond to any call to sacrifice with heroism and grace.  But the reality was less pretty.  The first few weeks showed that, far from being the poster person for patience and trust, I was lucky to not find myself on a Wanted poster.  Let’s just say that word that sprang most easily to my mind and lips most mornings was not “Fiat!”

There is a starter mercy in being stripped of our illusions, and in seeing our sins and shortcomings for what they really are.  In today’s First Reading, the Israelites are healed when they look on the image of the bronze serpent, the symbol of their sin.  They have to look at it, but also beyond it, to God’s healing power and mercy.

It would be false mercy to downplay or deny sin, to pretend that these venomous serpents are harmless or cute or that they can be kept around safely as pets.  If we keep and feed even the little sin-serpents, they will become bigger.  There is another (extended) family story about a pet boa constrictor that escaped his bedroom cage.  Neighborhood pets started disappearing, and when they finally found him he was over six feet long…

Like the bronze serpent, the Cross shows us that sin is real and has real effects.  But it also shows us that Love is more real, and its power is greater than sin.  It is Jesus that saves, love that perfects—not self-mastery or heroic effort on our part.  We are not to make an idol of our sins, but nor are we to make idols of our virtue.

The Son of Man will be “lifted up” to reveal a Love that would literally rather die than live without us.  Love is not an abstraction, nor is it an action item.  Love is a Person.  Jesus did not come to give us techniques to better either ourselves or even the world around us, He came to give us Himself.  “I AM the way, the truth, the life”: “Come to ME—I will give you rest”; “I AM the gate/the Good Shepherd/the door/the Bread of Life.”  It is intimacy with Jesus that is the center of the Christian life.

Mercy is not merely the cancelling of a debt, the adjustment of the scales of justice or a “reward” ticket into an eternal amusement park.  Rather, mercy is receiving the gift of God Himself, who pours His life and His love into us, restoring our capacity to become like Him.

Naturally, when we receive the love of Christ it will flow from us to love of others.  Works that are divorced from this love, however, have no value whatsoever.   Imagine a man who set about to be the perfect husband—who fulfilled all of his duties meticulously, but who had no actual love or tenderness for his wife.  We would find this off-putting, not inspiring.  If I serve others (or ostensibly Christ) only to perfect virtue, to be some sort of moral hero, it is only my ego that is being served.

Madeleine Debrel writes that the Christian must not only “accept the fact that he will not seem like a hero but that he will not be one.”

All of the saints, without exception, reach a moment—a turning point perhaps—in which they must accept and embrace their own nakedness, their spiritual poverty, the realization that without Christ they can do nothing and in fact would be nothing.  We can have a hard time appreciating the centrality of this poverty and the awareness thereof, since we usually see the saints doing quite a bit—more than us in fact!

Saint Therese of Lisieux, whose central message was a radical trust in the mercy of God, addressed this question.  She had been writing to her sister about trust in God’s mercy, her confidence in God’s love despite her littleness.  Her sister questioned her on this, knowing well that Therese in fact was a “big” saint.   But Therese insisted adamantly that it was not her virtues but only her trust that made her so.  Virtues can in fact “render one unjust” if we rely on them to reach God. “Even if I had on my conscience every imaginable crime, I should lose nothing of my confidence; rather I would hurry, with a heart broken with sorrow, to throw myself into the Arms of my Jesus.”

Suggested action: Look at a crucifix, and see in it what sin does, and what His love does.

 

 

Quotes:

St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “When we look at ourselves, we are saddened by our failings; when we look at God, we rejoice in His love.”

“One of the capital truths of Christianity, almost unknown to anyone today, is that the look is what saves…when we sense ourselves incapable of the elevation of the soul fitting to sacred things, it is then that the look toward perfect purity is most effective… There are those people who try to elevate their souls like someone who continually jumps from a standing position in the hope that forcing oneself to jump all day—and higher every day—they would no longer fall back down, but rise to heaven.  We cannot take even one step toward heaven.  The vertical direction is forbidden to us.  But if we look to heaven long-term, God descends and lifts us up.”  –Simone Weil (quoted in Magnificat)

Saint Therese again: “We should like to suffer generously and nobly; we should like never to fall.  What an illusion!  What does it matter to me if I fall at every moment!  In that way I realise my weakness, and I gain thereby.  My God, Thou seest how little I am good for, then Thou dost carry me in Thy Arms…”

Ite Ad Joseph!

Behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

I recently finished the first book in the novel Kristin Lavransdatter. Laverns (father of the main character) strives to be a good father to his daughters, to love them and teach them to God, the Church, their family, and their neighbors, especially the poor. I am amazed that the struggles of fatherhood do not look that different whether you have daughters in 21st-century America or 14th-century Norway. Over the past year and a half I have wrestled with, prayed through, and pondered the questions: what does it mean to be a good father? Am I a good father? How can I become a better father? And often a simple answer comes: Be like St. Joseph – Sleep more and talk less! (I need help with both – just ask my wife)

But this answer – although both humorous and true – only skims the surface. More than his affinity for rest and silence, in St. Joseph we find a friend who was patient, humble, just, merciful, and attentive and obedient to the will of the Lord. He – like all of us – encountered difficult and unexpected situations in his life, and followed the Lord onto uncomfortable, even painful paths on which he would otherwise not dare to trod. He wants to accompany us on the difficult roads of this life, to protect and guide us as he protected and guided Jesus and Mary.

I do not know if Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati had a devotion to St. Joseph, and cannot confess intimate familiarity with his writings. Based on his attraction to his friend Laura and his love for the faith, I imagine that he would have had both a love and respect for St. Joseph, and a deep desire for fatherhood. This desire was frustrated by his parents and his illness/death – yet neither of these roadblocks kept Bl. Frassati from following the Lord and knowing joy even in the sufferings.

What would St. Joseph’s path been had the Father not chosen Him to father His Son? Would He still be a saint? How would he have responded to the challenges of life? And Bl. Frassati – what other great deeds would he have done had he not gone Home at such a young age? As Erin said last week, these final days of Lent can be the hardest. So today during your prayer, turn to St. Joseph and Bl. Frassati, and ask them to pray for you to be open to the will of the Father in your life, to allow Him to lead you into – and out of – the valleys of tears, trusting that He is near, and He is bringing you closer to His love through it all.

Pax et bonum,
Andy

Mid-Lenten Lethargy

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Prayer_for_Death_in_the_Desert_-_Elihu_Vedder_-_overall

We are now over halfway through Lent, right in the midseason slump—past the novelty of our Lenten resolutions but still a ways away from Easter. It feels sometimes like we have to push ourselves to get through these last few weeks. But in reality, we are called not to simply “muscle through” our discomfort in this moment; rather, we are called to use this as an opportunity for a deeper relationship with God. We are asked to dwell in our discomfort, to allow ourselves to actually feel it, and to be attentive to what it shows us about God and about ourselves.

The purpose of fasting is not to prove our endurance; it is to awaken our desire for God, to develop an awareness of our hunger for Him. The disciples did not fast when Jesus was with them because they were already in the presence of the One who fulfilled the deepest longings in their hearts.

We are feeling the strain, now, of going without our chosen distractions. The things we normally use to numb ourselves from pain are no longer there, and so we are forced to entrust ourselves entirely to God’s care. We take a leap of faith that He will show up to fill the void, and in doing so we open our senses to perceive Him.

If you feel like you’re failing at Lent, maybe that’s the point. In recognizing our weakness, we learn how to depend on God. In these last few weeks of Lent, He wants to meet us in the desert. Rather than trying to push ourselves through the rest of the journey, let us call out for God and ask Him to carry us the rest of the way.

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
Many are the troubles of the just man,
but out of them all the LORD delivers him.

He watches over all his bones;
not one of them shall be broken.
The LORD redeems the lives of his servants;
no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.

—Psalm 34:19–21, 23


Image: Elihu Vedder, Prayer for Death in the Desert / PD-US

Do You Want To Be Well?

There was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now there is in Jerusalem at the Sheep Gate
a pool called in Hebrew Bethesda, with five porticoes.
In these lay a large number of ill, blind, lame, and crippled.
One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.
When Jesus saw him lying there
and knew that he had been ill for a long time, he said to him,
“Do you want to be well?”
–John 5:1-16

*            *            *

“Do you want to be well?”

Funny guy, this Jesus and His questions.  It shouldn’t take Omniscience to figure that someone who has been ill for 38 years, waiting by a healing pool, wants to be well!

But perhaps He knows that something happens when we bring our desires (or anything else) into dialog with Jesus.

Years ago, I sent my friend an article I had read.  “You have to read this!” I exclaimed, “It is the most beautiful thing I have ever read!”  A little while later, I asked if she had read the article yet.  “No,” she admitted, “because I already know what it is going to say.”

I was appalled.  But in fairness, I do the same thing to God on a regular basis.  Rather than bringing something to prayer, I think about it and come to my conclusions about what God would probably think of it.

But if we’ve read anything about Jesus, we know that He is a God of Surprises.  The words most used about His teachings and actions are “astonished” and “amazed” and “nobody else speaks as He does.”  He says, “I make all things new.”  There’s no divine title, “Lord of the Everlasting Same-Old Same-Old.”

Over and over in Scripture, we see seemingly simple conversations completely transform people.  When Jesus tells the “Woman at the Well” about her five husbands and current non-husband lover, the woman declares Him a prophet and runs to tell the town “I met a man who told me everything I ever did.”

Let’s be real.  Human nature being what it is, surely there were other people in town who could tell her exactly what her sins were! But there is something different about the way Jesus speaks to us of even our sins.

I spent a lot of time writing about today’s Gospel and had a few thousand words on paper, different themes and different stories, some funny, some poignant.  I was torn over which direction to go, which stories to include, and finally in frustration I threw up my hands and prayed, “Lord, what do YOU want me to say?”

“That’s a better question, isn’t it?” He said gently.

I have a few decades of Catholic practice and a Master’s Degree in Theology under my belt.  But my life only changed “for real” in a radical way when I committed to a daily prayer time, a set (and non-negotiable) time for God to show up in my life.  A time for not just talking about God, but for talking to Him.  A time for listening to what He had to say back.  A time for Him to reveal what is in His heart, and also what is really in mine.  I am consistently surprised by both.

The Christian life is a romance, not a hostage situation.  God waits for your consent, and He invites consent by awakening your desires.  “Do you really want to be well?”

My challenge to you today is to carve out some time to let God ask you this question directly.  It may be that He has more to say to you than I ever could. 😉

From Saint John Paul the Great:

“Do Not Be Afraid…” 

“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle.

It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.”

Faith

From Today’s Gospel (John 4):

Now there was a royal official whose son was ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, who was near death.
Jesus said to him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.”
The royal official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
Jesus said to him, “You may go; your son will live.”
The man believed what Jesus said to him and left. While the man was on his way back, his slaves met him and told him that his boy would live. He asked them when he began to recover.
They told him, “The fever left him yesterday, about one in the afternoon.”
The father realized that just at that time Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live,” and he and his whole household came to believe.

Three thoughts on today’s Gospel:

1) Jesus’ response can sound like an admonition (Unless you people…), a scolding for the people’s lack of faith. But what if it’s not? What if Jesus is rather acknowledging the reality that the people’s faith is based on an encounter with Him that reveals Him as Healer, Prophet, Savior? In other words, “You people will begin to believe in me, once I reveal myself to you.” He knows us, and continually acts to reveal Himself to us in a manner that will draw us to Him.

2) God often intervenes in our lives in ways we would not expect. The official first wants Jesus to come to his son and heal him there in close physical proximity – perhaps thinking of the recent sign that Jesus performed at the wedding feast in Cana. And yet Jesus chooses to act in a different way, sending the man on a 1-2 day journey home, with “only” a promise of healing. Jesus shows the official, the town, his disciples – and us – that even His words have power, even His voice can heal and bring life.

3) Our faith is progressive – that is, we should progress in faith through every encounter with our Lord. St. John notes that the official first believes in Jesus’ word “Your son will live,” and then again after he receives confirmation that his son was healed at the time when Jesus spoke the promise. Every day, God reveals Himself to us in love as Father, Son, and Holy, Spirit. Every day, He invites to believe in Him again, to draw close Him, to be transformed.

Blessed Pier Giorgio, pray for us today – that like you, we may receive God’s actions and words in our lives, and respond in such a way to increase our faith and lay down our lives for others.

Pax et bonum,
Andy

With All Your Heart

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASixteen years ago today, I stood in a white robe before the bishop as he anointed me with chrism and spoke the words of Confirmation: “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” I still remember the joy I felt walking into the church that day, feeling the presence of so many saints rejoicing over me. I was ready to take part in the mission of the Church, to follow those saints toward Heaven. I didn’t know how God would call me to serve in the years ahead, but I trusted in Him to lead me forward—and that was enough for me to say yes to the journey.

So many journeys start with a “yes.” There is no way for us to know every detail of the adventure that awaits, but if we know that the one who invites us is trustworthy, then we can accept the call with joy. Our relationship with God and our trust in Him are what allow us to do His work and keep His commandments. In today’s Gospel we hear that the most important commandment is to love God, and then to see and love God in others and within ourselves—because without a foundation of love, all our efforts will be fruitless. If we don’t love God with all our hearts and all our understanding and all our strength, then we won’t be able to trust Him to lead us, and we won’t be open to receiving His grace.

He is One and there is no other than he.
And to love him with all your heart,
with all your understanding,
with all your strength,
and to love your neighbor as yourself
is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.
—Mark 12:32–33

In Confirmation, we actively choose to follow God in a public way, opening our hearts to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit and offering our lives to be used as God sees fit. But before we choose Him, He has already chosen us. The graces we receive through the Sacrament are meant to be used as resources for the mission on which we are sent, and He sends us gifts that are particularly suited for us. All we need to do is to be receptive, to open our hearts just a crack and allow His grace to flood in. We are called to do things that might seem impossible on our own, but when we remember the graces that have been given us, we realize that we are armed for the task.

We are called and chosen. The unfolding of our lives is not a random set of coincidences; rather, every moment carries great purpose and meaning. God has recruited us as unfit soldiers, yet by grace His will shall be done in us.

I will heal their defection, says the LORD,
I will love them freely;
for my wrath is turned away from them.
I will be like the dew for Israel:
he shall blossom like the lily;
He shall strike root like the Lebanon cedar,
and put forth his shoots.
—Hosea 14:5–7

Reflect today on the journeys God has led you on in the past and where He might be calling you today. Are you ready to say yes to Him, to receive whatever He gives? Lay out your worries before Him so that He can demonstrate His love for you. Turn your attention toward this most important commandment and nurture your relationship with God. Let Him show you how loving and trustworthy He is, so that you can say yes to Him with all heart, all your understanding, and all your strength.


Image: Hermann Hammer, Sacred Heart of Jesus on Pinus Cembra in the Stubai Alps between Salfains and Grieskogel / CC0 1.0

Close

For what great nation is there
that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us
whenever we call upon him?
– Deuteronomy 4:7

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
– Matthew 5:17

Sisters and brothers, in this season of repentance, I pray that we also take a moment to reflect on the Eucharist so that, upon receiving forgiveness, we sprint to receive Jesus’ body and blood with new eyes and refreshed hearts.

Today’s readings remind us of Jesus desire to be in a state of intimate relationship with us. He calls for repentance, yes, but not as king demanding a show of loyalty and obedience, but as a friend who misses us. The Israelites found cause to praise the Lord for His closeness even during their 40 years in the desert. The Lord had just given them His commandments, and they saw them as a sign of His closeness.

How much closer is the Lord now?! We have the Eucharist! We are temples of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us! If the Israelites could give thanks for God’s closeness, how much more we ought to express our gratitude!

Say a prayer of thanksgiving today for the Lord’s closeness. Go to Confession. And then sprint to receive Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament at the foot of the altar as often as you can from now until Easter.