Review: Mathew Schmalz's book 'Mercy Matters'

by Michael Sean Winters

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Mercy Matters: Opening yourself to the Life-giving Gift is not the kind of book I normally review because it is not the kind of book I normally read. But, I am very glad I read this book and I am delighted to be able to recommend it. I joke that I am religious but not spiritual, and there is truth in the joke. Books that touch on theology and politics and history are my normal fare, not books on becoming a better Christian. But, the author, Mathew Schmalz, was on a radio show with me some time ago and he kindly sent me the book. It arrived just when I was thinking about the Year of Mercy and how this year, which closes on Sunday, may be a part of the renewal of the church.

Schmalz is a professor of religious studies at College of the Holy Cross*, and his deep learning runs through the book. It consists of a series of personal accounts that could have been penned by anyone, but Schmalz's learning brings a deeper perspective than most of us could achieve. And a more accessible perspective, too. He is a teacher as well as a scholar, and what he aims to teach in this book is how mercy is encountered and lived, using stories from his own life to illustrate the theological reality at hand.

Schmalz's opening chapter reflects upon several events in his last days before his decision to get sober. People in AA talk about the need to be "brutally honest" and he has mastered that need. He recalls getting drunk with a homeless man and his friend, and that he bought the booze, and that they drank in an empty lot. "The next day, I realized that alcohol wasn't exactly the universal solvent that could dissolve distinctions of race and class — after all, I woke up in a bed, with a blanket, and there was a roof over my head, even as terrible as I felt," he writes. "But maybe, I thought, just maybe I had performed an act of mercy, beyond simply buying the booze. I had shown the homeless that I cared, that I was willing to share. It was the mercy that mattered — not the uncomfortable fact that I couldn't remember anyone's name." Grace was stalking him.

He recalls a party he threw, about which he could remember very little, and the next day, sitting on the floor surrounded by bottles, he called the Alcoholics Anonymous Helpline and said: "I'm an alcoholic, and I need help." He continues:

It was a mercy to be able to say that — to admit what I had tried so long to hide. As my sobriety developed over the years, I would learn words to describe that experience: "moment of clarity," "jumping-off point," "powerlessness." Sometimes it's not that we're open to mercy as a conscious choice; it's that we are opened to mercy by circumstances beyond our power to control or grasp. Grace is not automatic, of course, but sometimes it takes hopelessness for us to see that hope has existed all along, albeit in different ways than we were capable of imagining.

Stories of sobriety — like stories of conversion — are all different, but they're all the same. They're stories of mercy — stories about love and hope entering into the seemingly most desperate situations after we finally surrender to ourselves and to God.

St. Augustine makes an appearance in this chapter. And, his mom. Schmalz tells us that, "St. Augustine's Confessions is often passed around in recovery circles just as it is in Catholic ones: if you're a Catholic in recovery — it's required reading." I didn't know that. He recalls the scene in which St. Monica goes down to the cellar for some more wine, and her maidservant calls her "Boozer!" Saint Monica never drank again. No wonder she is the patron saint of alcoholics. But Schmalz not only recalls the story, he explains the theology: St. Monica received " 'actual grace', a supernatural impulse that allows us to act, to respond to God's call." And, sometimes, it is a maidservant calling her mistress "Boozer!" that evidences that grace.

He closes the chapter with the observation, "I'm sure that someone was praying for me: I had reached a place where only prayers could find me." As I say, this is powerful writing, drawing theological insight from the circumstances of his life.

Schmalz's second chapter starts at a high school reunion, when he runs into Zach, a student he had barely spoken with 25 years prior when they were both students, and not at all in the intervening years. But, he had a memory, an ugly memory from their association as he writes, "And Zach obviously remembered me. I wondered how vivid and accurate his memories were. I wondered whether Zach was planning to punch my face in." Mat recalled countless cruelties and bullying he had perpetrated on Zach as he eyed him warily. In the event, it was Zach who wanted to apologize for hitting Mat, a hit Mat did not recall but was sure he deserved. "Sins are funny things — they have a long half-life," he observes. "They hide, they wait, but they inevitably reemerge to get their own satisfaction — or our own comeuppance." He recalls the Baltimore Catechism definition and does not cut himself any slack because of his youth: "I knew what I was doing — even though I was a child. But I did not fully understand what I was doing either. Even now I don't know, exactly, why I bullied Zach. But what I can say is that Zach and I had that odd combination of similarities and differences that made connection and conflict possible. If I felt angry, unloved, frustrated, I found that I could make Zach share in those feelings."

Yet, it was Zach who showed mercy to Mat. It took Mat awhile before he apologized to Zach for the bullying: "I didn't apologize to Zach when I had the chance at the reunion. Being shown mercy is humbling; it exposes you and reflects back your vulnerabilities." It happened on the phone. Words, gentle words and memories from childhood, passed between them. "Just remember, I always thought of you as a friend," Zach said. Reconciliation is an instance of mercy, too.

I shall finish this review tomorrow.

*Updated to clarify the college's name.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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