Sunday, August 19, 2012

Have Mercy

I find myself in the midst of a contentious situation (for once not of my own making),  from which I cannot extract myself, beset on all sides by people with injured feelings.  Each has a point, none is entirely blameless; despite great effort, nothing much seems to change and the chasm that has opened up seems to widen daily.
Reflecting on the utter impossibility of the situation, I came across the following quote this morning:
 Our Lord said to Saint Faustina: "I demand of you deeds of mercy, which are to arise out of love for Me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to excuse or absolve yourself from it."
Good advice from the Saint of Mercy.  On paper it looks relatively simple, a bright-line rule even the Pharisees couldn’t get around by trying to redefine neighbor to suit themselves.  You will recall that Christ saw neighbor from the standpoint of us, a result of  our own actions, not based on contract, law, country or formal relationship.  Christ, it seems, wanted us to remember we are all neighbors and thus, we all have a claim on each other’s mercy.

I think we have a tendency to think of mercy as something grand and noble and in some way vaguely romantic.  None of us, faced with the question Will you show mercy?  would hesitate to answer in the affirmative—at least in theory.

The problem is, we don’t often stop to think what that really looks like.  We want to pick and choose the ways in which we will show mercy, preferring, I think, in our broken state, the ways in which we come off as magnanimous and pious and justified.  The ways we find comfortable and rewarding.  Our ideas redefine mercy as surely as the Pharisees tried to redefine neighbor.

It’s relatively easy for example, to gin up interest in sending a contingent from a wealthy American parish to a small, third-world hospital to provide monetary assistance and short term volunteer help.  It’s relatively easy to get families caught up in the joy (and spending) of Christmas to buy a few toys for disadvantaged children or lonely adults. 

It’s harder, but still relatively easy, to play on our vanities: to ask us to forgo our preferences or give up our pride and “be the bigger man” in settling disputes.  Much more difficult to get us to swallow our pride and accept a situation we do not like—but which is not inherently evil-- for the love of others and the good of a community—and to do so in merciful silence and love.

Mercy, truly an outgrowth of love, becomes a way of life so long as we open ourselves to its practice and are willing to be inconvenienced—even hampered in our preferences--by the inpouring of grace.  The Good Samaritan, recall, interrupted his journey, expended himself physically, exposed himself to danger (were the thieves still about?) and gave of his resources to help the injured man.  He even had to convince a completely uninterested stranger to take a financial risk and act against his own interests to do the good required of him.  There’s no record that anyone, even the injured man, ever thanked the Samaritan, for thanks is not always a correlate of mercy. And the Samaritan had to show up again—mercy is not always a one-time thing.  Mercy, remember, implies relationship, relationship through God.

Taken that way, mercy becomes an all-consuming and very risky business.  As Saint Faustina records, it is a business of every moment, for every person.  It is also a self-forgetting business, for mercy, like love, puts the good of the other first.  And it is good defined by God, not by our own preferences.  God asks that we be merciful, not in command. 

How many chances for common mercy do we miss because we are too caught up in ourselves and our agendas, bent on getting what it is that we want out of life? The Cohen and the Levite were like that: they both had very good reasons for leaving the injured man at the side of the road—risking ritual impurity was risking their livelihood and position.  But they ended up on the wrong side of the story because they put themselves first.  In the Christian life, starting with I want is not the way to begin.

Common mercies can be simple: letting someone ahead of us in line at the market or the merge lane.

Common mercies can be joyful: volunteering to bring food to a shut–in.

Common mercies can be frustrating and time consuming: volunteering to tutor the disadvantaged kids who live only a few miles from our comfortable, suburban parish and showing up week after week at the appointed hour even when there seems to be no progress.

Common mercies can require sacrifice: skipping the Sunday tennis tournament to be at mass and then spending  the day with family, giving witness to the primacy of God in our lives.

Common mercies can require involvement: standing shoulder to shoulder with a friend in trouble rather than just pointing out where he’s gone wrong.

Common mercies can be difficult and painful and humbling: bearing with a relative (or boss, or spouse or friend or priest) who strikes all the wrong notes but to whom you are bound by community in neighborliness; and finding a way to make it all work—which is what I would like to whisper to all those around me in this maelstrom of discontent. 

We are all broken and in the ditch.  We all need mercy.  The only place to get it is from God through the hands of each other.  And if I am any measure, the mercies I least want to extend are the ones I most need to, for I desperately want mercy too.  In fact, I depend on it. 

The mercies that are hard for me to extend are hard because I recognize in the brokenness of the other a brokenness in myself that is too painful to acknowledge.  Easier just to ignore it, turn away and invent perfectly good excuses for why I am (not) doing what I am (not) doing.  And pointing out, quite reasonably, that I’m really the one in need of mercy: poor, injured me.

 I repeat: we are all broken and in the ditch.  I am not expected to demand mercy, I am expected to give it without ceasing and in giving it, find the greatest mercy of all, the very Source of Mercy Himself.

I demand of you deeds of mercy, which are to arise out of love for Me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to excuse or absolve yourself from it.

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