Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Trouble With Mercy

The Jubilee Year of Mercy is coming, and while it is still some months off, I find myself thinking about it quite a bit, actually. ‘Mercy’ has been the word of Pope Francis’ papacy. Sometimes misused, sometimes abused, it is nonetheless the word we are being asked to contemplate and consider by our Holy Father at this time.

Incidentally, it is sadly typical of our unreflective era that, because some in the Church have misused ‘mercy’ to mean cheap grace or moral relativism, others in the Church have reflexively rejected the word and recoil away from its use. This is the great unwisdom of our era, the endless swinging back and forth of mindless pendulums, the mechanical ricocheting between seemingly opposing positions. This kind of senseless automatism is unworthy of rational minds and grace-filled hearts.

Meanwhile, God’s mercy is indeed at the very heart of our Catholic faith. To correct a misuse of a word requires using it properly, don’t you think, not rejecting it out of hand? In the service of that, may I recommend my book Going Home: Reflecting on the Mercy of God With Catherine de Hueck Doherty? It is all about the parable of the prodigal son, and the depths of God’s mercy that it reveals to us, drawing amply on the insights of Catherine Doherty in service of that. It would be good reading in preparation for the year.

Here is a brief excerpt from the chapter “God’s Panhandlers”, which deals with our struggle to receive and live by the mercy of God:  

The trouble with mercy, you know, is that it gets out of hand. I mean, we start by accepting that God is merciful to us. That’s a stretch, but most people can get there at least. Then we manage (barely) being merciful to those who we like or sympathize with, those whose situations are pitiable or who are obviously victims themselves of life’s tragedies.

But God asks more of us. Mercy grows, or it dies. Mercy expands, or contracts. To be merciful to the one we don’t like, to the ones whose situations inspire no pity at all in us. To be merciful to the evil-doers, the perpetrators, the blackest villains, whoever we may consider them to be. To be merciful to the ones who have no mercy themselves. To be merciful towards the ones who hate us or hurt us and don’t seem to care, much, what harm they do. To be merciful in the face of horrific injustice and oppression and wickedness, to everyone involved.

No, we cry! We want justice, not mercy. We want revenge, payback, we want to see them suffer—whoever ‘they’ are. In the tumultuous year of 1968, Catherine was deeply stirred by the protests and violence around the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and what she and many at the time saw as the brutal response of the city authorities [whether or not you agree with her assessment of that event, her point remains, and is a deep one]:

And then there is the terrible word, mercy. Did you ever stop to think what price mercy? Justice and mercy. Put them together. All of you cries out for justice, so that justice may be made to take place. But is there somebody who is merciful to Mayor Daley, to the police of Chicago? And yet the terrible words, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find mercy.” 

Justice tempered with mercy is Christian. But it just tears your guts apart and throws our intestines out on the floor because it is awfully difficult to be merciful. To the whites when you’re black or Indian. To the Mayor Daleys and the police brutality. To Hitler and Stalin. In our Mandate it says identify with the poor, identify with Me [Christ],  which poor may be Stalin or Daley. They’re the acme of poverty. In the slums they are richer than them. [1]   

Oh, how we resist this, we in the hyper-polarized world of the 21st century. We who align into camps so readily, who spew hatred and venom at our opponents so freely, we who have raised factionalism and partisan division virtually to the level of neo-tribalism. We who are so quick to deride, despise, hate those who we disagree with.

Mercy calls us to cleanse our hearts from hatred, to allow God to remove from us anything that prevents us from loving anyone. Receiving and living by the mercy of God calls us to a totality of forgiveness, a surrender of all anger and violence that is nothing short of crucifying. No wonder we resist it, instinctively. We know we will have to lay down everything, every grievance, every hurt we hug to ourselves, even to the most mortal wounds we have borne.

Here too, in this very struggle, this very hesitation, mercy meets us. Here too we are God’s panhandlers, begging for the coin of his grace to help us. Here too, the Father comes out to us, when we are filled with rage and bitterness, when we are quaking with fear, when we are paralyzed with indecision, when we cannot quite go in. With infinite gentleness, with boundless tenderness, He looks upon us and says, “My son (or daughter), do you not know that everything I have is yours? Give me your sickness and sorrow. Give me your hatred, your fear, your bitterness of spirit. I will give blessing.”

“Enter into my joy.”

Read the rest here.


[1] Talk given in MH dining room, March 31, 1969.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

How Can One Be A Pacifist?

I am doing a tremendous amount of research in Catherine Doherty's writings these days for a project I'm working on (OK, it's my next book, but I'm not able to say what it is yet!). As a result, I come across gems from her now and then that seem worth sharing, so I'll do that from time to time.

This article is from 1970, and of course her specific examples and some of her vocabulary are slightly dated. Don't let that distract you--the woman is saying something here that badly needs saying in our own time and place, with our own issues and problems. She is deep, and is going deep in this article. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Not Counting the Cost

Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.
Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
Pray always. I will be your rest.
The Little Mandate of Madonna House


Love... love... love, never counting the cost. – We are going through the Little Mandate, the core words of our MH vocation, each Tuesday on the blog. Today we come to this most challenging sentence: love without ever counting the cost.

The three-fold repetition of love is not without meaning here. It implies a choice made over and over again in life. To choose to love is not a one-time affair; it has to be done every day, multiple times each day.

It sound cheesy and hippie-ish to say it, but it is my firm conviction (and in fact the clear teaching of Christ, which is rather more important) that this is the answer to all the world’s woes and the terrible evils of our time. To love without counting the cost, to love without measure or limit or end to our love.

It sounds like a hippy slogan (‘All you need is love, da da da da daaaa!’) because our notion of love is so poor and sentimental. Love for us is either warm cozy feelings and puppy dog cuteness or it is eroticized display. But neither of those things is love, particularly. You may have warm feelings or sexual desire for this or that person, and neither of these is contradictory to love, but love itself is neither of those.

To love is to desire the good for the other, and to pursue that good, to choose that good as if it were one’s own deepest good. In our world today, we think ‘love’ means never hurting anyone’s feelings, but this does not stand up to a moment’s analysis, does it? Some of the best things that have happened to me have involved very hurt feelings on my part, painful realizations of truth about myself or about life. It is not love, but cowardly selfishness, that seeks to protect the other person from some difficult truth lest their feelings be hurt.

Love and truth walk hand in hand. We cannot really know the good of the other nor pursue it as if it were our own if we do not know the objective truth of things and the subjective truth of where this person is, what their life is like. Love involves a lot of listening, a lot of careful and compassionate attention to the other.

And love requires interior integrity, my own fidelity to the Truth about reality. As a Roman Catholic, I firmly believe that truth about reality is revealed by Jesus Christ in Scripture and Tradition, preserved and handed on faithfully by the magisterium of the Catholic Church. And so a loving choice can never be a choice to compromise that truth or deny it in service of ‘friendly relations’.

At the same time, as love requires truth, so truth requires great love, great generosity, great kindness and gentleness and mercy. All of which comes at enormous cost, if we take any of this at all seriously and actually put it into practice. It is the hard and narrow path of the Gospel, and there are so many easier ways to live, constantly available to us.

The way of false tolerance, where we just pretend that everyone’s OK and that nothing really matters anyhow. The way of anger and harshness, where we set ourselves up as a little tribunal of judgment of everyone (and this is hardly limited to, or even especially typical of religious people these days – it is epidemic). The way of retreat into an enclave of like-minded friends. The way of oblivion, selfish concern for one’s own affairs.

And probably a half-dozen other easy ways, none of which do anything in the slightest to heal the world’s ills and make everything so much worse, really. To assume the cost of real love, real compassionate service, real sacrifice and real giving of oneself to everyone God puts before you, and to not ‘count’ that cost—that is what heals the world.

And this ‘not counting’ means that there is never a time that comes when we say ‘no more love for this one!’ Never a time when anyone can do anything, no matter how heinous, that would remove them from the circle of our love, our concern, our compassion, our prayer, our desire for their good. And that is of the utmost importance—it is too easy to write people off these days, to join the baying crowd of condemnation or to consign people to the outer darkness of our contempt.

But if we think hard and clear about that, that is the culture of death in action, isn’t it? The culture of death says that the value of a person is contingent on what they do or can do—fetuses and the disabled or elderly are less valuable and so can be killed, and so forth (to put it rather baldly). But if I decide that your value is lessened, that you are not worthy of my compassion or love because of some misdeed or sin, then I am as much part of that culture of death as an abortionist or a euthanasist.


No, love without counting the cost, love everyone, compassion and mercy for everyone, in truth, in integrity—this is what we need today. It is anything but sentimental and cheesy; it is the rocky road to Calvary, but beyond that to the joy and beauty of Easter.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Fret Not Yourself

 Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers!
 For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.
 Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
 Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

 Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.
 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, 
and your justice as the noonday.
 Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
 fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!

 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! 
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
 For the evildoers shall be cut off, 
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
 In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;
though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.

 But the meek shall inherit the land 
and delight themselves in abundant peace…
I have been young, and now am old, 
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or his children begging for bread.
 He is ever lending generously, and his children become a blessing…

 I have seen a wicked, ruthless man, 
spreading himself like a green laurel tree.
 But he passed away, and behold, he was no more;
though I sought him, he could not be found.
 Mark the blameless and behold the upright, 
for there is a future for the man of peace.
 But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed; 
the future of the wicked shall be cut off.

 The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
he is their stronghold in the time of trouble.
Psalm 37
Reflection – Back to the Monday Psalter, with bits and pieces of Psalm 37. There is quite a bit more in this vein in this rather long psalm (to be honest, and meaning no disrespect, it is rather repetitive).

This is a very human psalm, addressing a very human emotion we can all relate to a bit, I think. 
Namely, the resentment of the prospering wicked. The experience, which everyone has, that in this life justice is imperfect, bad people do quite well for themselves (often) and good people not infrequently get the short end of things. 

This bothers us—which seeing as how it is an incredibly common and normal experience of life in the world, actually is indirect evidence that we are not entirely made for this world, that there is something in us that years for a justice that is not of this world. The human passion for justice is one small argument for the existence of God.

Nonetheless, this psalm is concerned with helping us stay peaceful in the meantime. And the advice it gives is a nice little bit of homely wisdom. ‘Fret not yourself’. This could well stand as good advice for all those using social media. The Internet too often is an  Outrage Machine churning out fodder day and night for us to fret over. Whether it is the latest depredations of our political leaders, the latest misdeeds or silly comments by our celebrity class, some disagreeable or offensive move by some high church official, or just some bad behaviour by some random person that happened to get filmed and went viral—there is always something to fret about, something to get all upset over.

Fret not yourself. While Psalm 37 is an early psalm and there is little sense of an afterlife in it, and hence the psalmist has to assert that justice eventually gets done in this world (we know that it doesn’t, often), we who are Christians can confidently assert that all things will be set at right in the end.

If the wicked are prospering and the good ailing, it is woeful for sure, but it is temporary. And there is little good achieved, and much harm done, by climbing on board the latest outrage ride on the outrage machine, adding one’s voice to the latest Greek chorus baying for blood from the latest wrongdoer.

Fret not yourself. And this psalm is really about keeping your focus where you need to keep it, on doing what is good in your own life, in living righteously where you are, in not getting distracted. That is the harm done by the outrage machine—it distracts us, and diverts our natural human passion for justice from where it should go—to self-examination and zeal for the good—to an ultimately futile and useless expenditure of energy.


Fret not yourself, because it does nothing to add to the store of justice and goodness in the world. All flesh is in God’s hands, and we only need concern ourselves with doing the good that is before us today. So let’s get on with it.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Gift Surpassing All Other Gifts, Save One

On the eve of the great feast of Pentecost, we come to the final and greatest gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of wisdom. This is truly ‘the’ gift, the one that surpasses all the others, the one that, in a sense, gives all the others their form and sense.

Wisdom is, in human terms, that by which we integrate all that we know, all that is true and good and beautiful, into a whole. That quality by which we not only see each individual piece of knowledge or understanding, but see how all of it fits together into a beautiful picture. This is the normal human sense of the word ‘wisdom’, and of course it is in human terms a property of age and long life experience. Humanly, it is only with the years and much hard won insight into life that we attain wisdom.

Or, it can be given as a free gift of God in baptism, which of course we then grow into with time. The gift of the Spirit of wisdom is that by which we see all reality as having its source, substance, meaning, and end in the mystery of Divine Love. He made us out of love; He made us to love; He made us to be completed by our communion with Love; all created things are given to us to be caught up in the mystery of love given, love received, love known, love loved.

This is the deep wisdom of the Spirit. And this whole integration of all reality into the mystery of the Divine Charity, the Divine Mercy, is not some intellectual grasping, some wonderful conceptual schema that we can diagram out and reduce to precise mathematical formulae.

It is, rather, a contemplation of Love in the contemplation of the Trinity. It is this knowledge that transcends the intellect that the whole of reality is Trinitarian—Love begetting Love, Love receiving Love, Love proceeding from Love, and then the Triune Love pouring out in a endless ceaseless cataract to what is non-love, because it is non-being, to give it being by loving it, and so there is Creation, and then that same Triune Love pouring out to heal Creation broken by the refusal to love, healing it by introducing this very Triune communion of Love into the very place where that refusal to love collapses into futility, non-being, death—the Cross of Christ. 

And this same cataract of Love rushing into Hell, into the tomb, into the very depth of human failure, and (a rising tide raises all boats!) bearing all flesh up, up, up to the heart of the Trinity, the heart of Love—the Resurrection and Ascension.

And then Love comes down again and resides in our hearts—the gift of the Spirit!—and this gift begets in us Holy Wisdom, the ability to receive, contemplate, and understand our whole life and all of reality in the key of love, the key of wisdom, that which unlocks the whole secret, solves the whole riddle, delivers to us the Answer to every human problem, every human sorrow, every human misery and evil in this world.

Wisdom is the greatest of all the gifts, save one. And that One is, of course, God Himself come to dwell in our hearts, the Indwelling Trinity. That is what we celebrate tomorrow as we celebrate Pentecost—God is with us, forever, and makes our whole life, if we will it, if we but cooperate with Him, a sharing in the divine life.

So that is my little catechesis on the gifts of the Spirit. All of them, in truth, are the first-fruits of this Indwelling God within us—the fear which makes us dread nothing so much as losing this presence, the fortitude that allows us to brave any danger for its sake, the real affection of piety for this God who has done this astounding thing.

And the gifts that perfect our intellect—the constant sensitivity to the Spirit’s guidance in the here and now, the divine insight into all creation goods, the spiritual understanding of our revealed faith—these too flow directly from His presence in our hearts. All of which we contemplate by the crowning gift of Wisdom in which we have the means to abide in Him and know His abiding in us.


And so, indeed, come, Holy Spirit.