The publishing company I work for recently released the U.S. edition of The Church of Mercy by Pope Francis. This book conveys the pope's vision for a church that could become a healing force in the world simply by communicating and demonstrating the mercy of God.
Little wonder that the word mercy beat in my heart for weeks and along with it the question: What does mercy look like? How might I become a person of mercy? In the Christian vocabulary, mercy is a forgiving response to wrongdoing; it is God's countermove to our sin.
Having lived intentionally as a Christian for more than 40 years, I have avoided the easily labeled sins, acts that would require my arrest or resignation. Yet, I am a persistent sinner. When a reporter asked Francis, "Who are you?" and he answered, "I am a sinner," I knew that at least I'm in good company. Our pope has named, however, the grand antidote to sin, which is mercy.
As I move through this day, how will I live mercifully? What words and actions will express to others around me the mercy Francis is talking about? In a given day, I do ordinary things, and I traverse a fairly unexciting landscape. My mercy will not show up in grand gestures, and most of the time mercy reveals itself in fleeting moments.
For example, mercy gives you his seat on the bus, acting as if he was about to get up anyway rather than making you feel that he is doing you a favor. Mercy does not let out that sigh -- you know the one -- the wordless disapproval toward the person in the check-out line ahead of you whose card didn't swipe, or who can't find her coupons, or whose toddler is having a meltdown. Mercy offers quiet sympathy and does not convey with her body language that this holdup is ruining her day. Sometimes mercy chooses not to send back the food that isn't just right, simply because the waitress looks overwhelmed.
When mercy has been wronged, the offended one does not make it difficult for the offender to apologize or ask forgiveness. In fact, mercy does not wait for the other's action but forgives so quickly that the person needing forgiveness is freer to ask for it. Likewise, at work, at home or in the classroom, mercy creates an atmosphere in which a person feels safe enough to admit his mistake or ask a question. And if mercy must correct someone, it pains her to do it, and she does so gently, without vindictive relish.
Mercy makes a habit of giving others the benefit of the doubt. Mercy is not in the habit of sending deadly glares at people who are annoying. Mercy gives charitably, knowing that eventually someone will take advantage of his generosity. Mercy welcomes you, fully aware that this act may disrupt her own plans.
Mercy relinquishes control when doing so allows another person to grow and learn. Mercy makes it his business to help others succeed. Mercy clears the way for others, so that they can walk on an even path, no matter how halting their steps or injured their souls.
In all these situations, mercy treats power as a sacred trust. I can be merciful because I have some sort of power, the means to affect another's life, if only for a moment. I act mercifully when I use my power to do kindness in this world.
I was at a conference recently, and it was interesting to observe how the well-known, powerful people wore their power, how they responded to others' admiration, how they spoke to those who were not so well-known or admired. Some used their power to make room for others and invite their voices; others used their power to dominate the space and the conversation.
In my own work, I have achieved a certain level of expertise and others' respect. When I sit in a room with colleagues, they feel the weight of my opinions. With a sentence or a glance, I can crush or I can encourage. I can open up the conversation or shut it down.
Most of my sins involve failure at mercy. Whether through my unhopeful opinion of someone, my silent sentences that criticize him, my words grinding away in the privacy of a moving car, my neglect to help, or my refusal to notice when help is needed -- each failure of mercy denies the community a bit of healing that might have happened.
Thus, mercy has become my new sin detector, a personal barometer. "Am I showing mercy?" makes for self-assessment that is simple, direct, and difficult to misinterpret.
[Vinita Hampton Wright is senior editor at Loyola Press, a novelist, and a facilitator of workshops on creativity, writing, and Ignatian prayer. She and her husband, Jim Wright, live in Chicago.]