The rest of the world has waltzed its way into Easter and last Sunday celebrated Divine Mercy Sunday. Except for the brief and beautiful time of the Vigil and a concentrated effort of will to keep the Octave as a feast, I have found myself, for many reasons, stuck in the garden. Not the garden of our fall or the garden of our redemption—for Joseph’s newly hewn tomb was in a garden—but the garden in which Jesus agonized. Not my will but Thine be done. Not always an easy prayer to pray, especially when it hurts.
That garden provides, I think, a good perspective to meditate on God’s mercy.
Mercy, like love, is a word we often use and do not so often think about and the two are intimately connected. It took me a long time to figure out that love was not just an emotion—though it can come clad in one. It’s not, in its purest form, reciprocal—because too often love for the sake of being loved is not really an encounter in the other person, it is an encounter with self. I will love you in order that you will love me in return. That’s a commercial arrangement, not love as God expends it.
Love is—to use the best definition I’ve encountered—willing the good of the other as other, without thought to oneself. It’s a high standard and not much of what passes for love in this world meets it. And even that tidy definition leaves out a few important details—like defining the good and the other. Meditating on what it means to love God and love others could be an occupation for a lifetime.
But love isn’t meant to be a meditation. It’s meant to be an action and an act of the will, a purposeful entering into the life of God, however imperfectly we do it and however poorly we understand it. The biggest daily acts of our love may not always be the sweeping, grand gestures for those we cherish and who love us back in the more conventional sense. Love often lives, instead in tiny things we do for those we don’t even know. Love surfaces in a smile at the unbalanced homeless man at the corner, for instance, the one whose eyes no one meets, the one most of us avoid, the man whose name no one knows: a moment in which for the tiniest flicker of an instant, we encounter him not as a smelly inconvenience but as a man and a gift from God in whom a bit of Jesus lives. All in the momentary meeting of eyes. Love.
Mercy is likewise. Too often when I think of mercy, what I want is for God not to give me what I have earned or what I deserve but what I want even out of my brokenness. I don’t want to be sick, God, it’s too much pain and trouble and it interferes with what I had planned to do and besides, it hurts. Please heal me God. Have mercy.
But God’s mercy, like His love, operates on a different level. Like love, mercy is willing the good of another as other—for the other’s own sake. And the best definition of God’s mercy I’ve yet encountered is this: Mercy is the act of entering into the suffering of another to assume the burden and share the suffering. God’s greatest single act of mercy was on the cross—where He assumed the burden of that sin which causes our suffering and relieved us of it. It reminds me that what I see as my burden and what God sees may be very different indeed.
Taken from that perspective, God’s mercy can look both severe and peculiar indeed. On Divine Mercy Sunday, we pray: Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself.
It’s more a statement of faith in my life than a petition. At any given moment, I’m not even sure what my will intends, let alone God’s so I have no idea what I am really asking for. The best I can do is to affirm that God, in His mercy, will provide what I need, even if I do not recognize it at the time--and I promise to look with eyes and clear and wide-open as I can. I promise to try to be present and attentive even when I do not understand. Even when it hurts.
Looking at the cross, I know with the heart of faith that no matter what my circumstance, God’s mercy is active in it. Always. Perhaps not in creating or adjusting the situation I find myself in, which is always an intricate dance of my will and His and others’. But always, always, there is mercy in His taking me through it. For mercy serves to bring me closer to God and conform me more to His life. Mercy is the road I travel in seeking companionship with God, for the roads of love and mercy are intertwined and there are no others. And as there is no limit to God’s mercy, there is no circumstance in which I may not find it. None.
There is mercy in Peter’s affirmation of Christ. And mercy in his denial of Him.
There is mercy in Paul’s martyrdom and John’s peaceful death.
There is mercy in success. And mercy in failure.
There is mercy in healing. And mercy in sickness.
There is mercy in riches. And mercy in poverty.
For mercy is not a commodity to be sought, or a situation to be achieved, it is, like love, a relationship. It is, like love, an entry into the life of God, whether we give it or receive it, for only God, who needs nothing and still chooses us can truly enter into our suffering and help to lift it with no regard for Himself. And only through Him can we do this for others.
Mercy isn’t always the absence of suffering. Mercy is God’s presence as we go through suffering, just as it is as we rejoice. If we look for mercy to be the elimination of suffering, we will be disappointed; even a child will tell you life embraces suffering. As Christians, all of our faith points to the cross, and it is there we find perfect mercy—not in the absence of suffering, the avoidance or the remedying of it of it but in the transformation of it—and thereby, the transformation of all of life. The good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, the roses and the thorns.
There is Mercy after Easter, unlimited, unfathomable, glorious mercy. And because of that, there is mercy in the Garden. Wherever. Whenever. Always.