Yesterday, I began a review of Mercy Matters: Opening Yourself to the Life-changing Gift by Mathew Schmalz. As noted, the book is a perfect was to reflect upon the Year of Mercy, which officially ends Sunday, consisting of a series of vignettes from Schmalz' life that he retells with a view toward discovering how mercy was operative in those moments.
Schmalz recalls "the night of the salmon burgers," an evening some time ago in which he sliced his hand and had to go to the hospital. The evening became the stuff of family storytelling, but over time, he discovered that he and his wife had wildly different recollections of what that evening was like, and the measure of that difference was sufficient to cover some resentments. "But our memories were so different, and it was clear that neither of us was feeling very merciful toward the other. The memory — thinking about it, talking about it — brought tensions to the surface that we avoided confronting," he writes. I suppose this is something we all do, in ways large and small, and usually with the people closest to us: To avoid a confrontation, we ignore tensions that would be harmless if faced, but can keep resentment alive for years if not addressed. Mercy is the key that unlocks the tension in ways that diminish the hurt and the harm. It is a homely lesson, in the strictest sense of the word.
The book contains other stories. He recounts going to India and befriending a blind man, visiting a Catholic mission, a host of unintended consequences, and how a priest who at first seemed harsh in his assessments, was really teaching Schmalz about the potential for generosity to be socially disruptive. Another chapter, also set in India, reflects on the need to accord dignity to those who are also in need of mercy, in this case, people suffering from leprosy. He recalls Mother Teresa's saying that "think of the poor as Jesus in disguise," and then he writes:
But when I reflect more deeply on Mr. Prakash and the word of Sumanahalli, there is another phrase that seems more appropriate. It's actually a line from St. Ignatius of Loyola's favorite prayer, the Anima Christi: "O good Jesus, hear me. Within thy wounds, hide me. Separated from Thee, let me never be."
The wounds of Christ are points where Jesus' own woundedness opens up to let us in — and it is in and through Jesus' wounds that we can experience God's merciful love for all of us. At Sumanahalli, leprosy-affected persons aren't simply "Jesus in disguise," they are Jesus. They have dignity not in spite of their wounds but because of them.
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I can hear the voice of the late, great Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete saying, "Yes, yes. This is not a metaphor. If the poor are not Jesus than there has been a dis-incarnation."
One of the most interesting stories recounts the reactions of his students to the Boston Marathon bombing. One astute student posed a challenging question: "Does our talk about forgiveness run the risk of making a moral decision that should be left to the injured, and the families and friends of those who were killed?" In our culture, which often mistakes vicarious emotional experiences for the real thing, the question is apt. Schmalz goes on to explain, and commend, the decision by an anonymous individual to pay for the perpetrator who died, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, to be buried properly, and the decision of an interfaith alliance to provide a place to bury him: "They brought us mercy by taking on a burden none of us could bear."
While reading the book, one catches glimpses of spiritual insight that do not pertain only to mercy, but which reveal the way mercy is the foundation of any authentic Christian spirituality. When his father is facing inoperable cancer, Schmalz prays for a merciful death. He observes, "I didn't think that I could actually change Jesus by honoring Him — But I did think that the process of honoring Jesus could change me, and help me find a way through my feelings of helplessness in the face of my father's impending death." We pray to a God whom we know to be omniscient and omnipotent. Surely, when we pray "Thy will be done," it is not to affect His abilities to achieve His will, but to get the only creatures who can frustrate God's will, ourselves, out of the way. In this sense, you could say praying the "Our Father" sincerely is always its own answer.
"We Catholics carry a lot of baggage: suitcases and backpacks stuffed with souvenirs of hurt; satchels and briefcases filled with spreadsheets tallying offenses; purses and wallets crammed with emotional IOUs and invoices for promises made but never kept," Schmalz writes. "And when Catholics consider going to confession — or to church — they often have to figure out what to do with that baggage. Not being able to carry that baggage — or to leave it behind — is one reason why people stay home." My Jewish friends assure me that Catholics have not cornered the market on guilt, but Schmalz is right that the Church needs desperately to reestablish its credibility on this central doctrinal claim, that God is merciful, or else people will stay away, indeed, they should stay away. If all the church has to offer is a wagging finger, a scolding sermon, and a sense of moral superiority, we have strayed far from the kerygma of Jesus Christ.
The Year of Mercy comes to a close on Sunday. Late yesterday afternoon, I walked through the Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica and I prayed for a particular mercy for friends confronting a grave illness. Earlier in the year, walking through the Holy Door at St. Matthew's in Washington, I prayed for other mercies on each Sunday. Lord knows, my personal need for mercy is exceedingly large. All this year, the church has listened to the Gospel of Luke which is aptly called the Gospel of Mercy. And, for me, Schmalz' book helped broaden my understanding of the ways mercy affects the spiritual life in all its variety, and also helped make mercy real, less ethereal. In this hurting world, Pope Francis reminds us, the church must be a field hospital of mercy because God's essence, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is mercy. Any pastoral program or theology that forgets that, or minimizes it, is where we find a lack of orthodoxy. The Holy Year is ending, but the need to keep the merciful gaze of Jesus before us never ends.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]