Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Last Word

Happy Mercy Sunday! Also, the 2nd Sunday of Easter, Thomas Sunday, Low Sunday, White Sunday, Quasimodo Sunday… did I leave any out? It is one of the most ‘named’ days of the liturgical year.

But Mercy Sunday it is, the Divine Mercy devotion of St. Faustina growing exponentially in recent years. And as I said yesterday, I sometimes wonder about that ‘devotional’ habit in Catholicism. As much as it can enrich and make alive the mysteries and beauty of our faith, I think it can sometimes keep those mysteries at a distance, somewhat, keep them codified in set forms of prayers, novenas, images, and vocabulary.

God’s mercy is our all-in-all, not simply a devotion. And so here below the jump is the rest of the chapter I began yesterday from my book Going Home, which finds lots to say about the divine mercy without ever broaching the devotional horizon of the Divine Mercy:

If we think of mercy as a kind of cosmic ‘get out of jail free’ card, then it would indeed have a corrosive effect on our character. It would lead us into just such a feckless irresponsibility, a life of lax permissiveness where we could turn around at the end of whatever vice we are engaged in and casually murmur, ‘oh, sorry God!’ Forgiven, then we could return to our pleasures. This is not the way God’s mercy is, though. Rather, God’s mercy does something to us, more than just letting us off the hook:

It seems to me that this land of North America does not believe in the mercy of God. That is to say, they do believe, objectively, abstractly. But, should they really believe it, they would drop their sins like a hot pancake because they would know that God has dropped them long ago… Why then, do they hold onto their sins for dear life, by the cord of guilt? Because if they let go, if they cut that cord and really believed in the mercy of God, they would have to go all the way. Then, indeed, they would have to become Christians, instead of just as they think of themselves, sinners. They haven’t understood that the Christian is a saved sinner. And if they have, they don’t want that understanding to impenetrate their whole being… If they listened to what God said, they’d be free, utterly free.[1]

Mercy, really believing in the mercy of God, takes away our excuses – if God truly comes to us in our sin and truly embraces and loves and cleanses us, then we have no real reason not to surrender ourselves to him and follow him wherever. So often we can use the (true!) fact that we’re not really very nice people as a way of justifying our not becoming saints. Mercy eliminates that excuse. Mercy, far from being a quick fix, throws us into a life that asks everything of us. And we resist this:

 But, as the Old Testament says, There was a man who sold his birthright for some pottage, a plate of pottage. And there are men today who have done so again and again; The Germans sold it to Hitler; the Russians to Stalin. Men will sell their birthright for strange securities even though the security might, at any moment, threaten them with insecurity. They still will accept it for little moments of some sort of a numbing security, in which you don’t really live, but just exist. And that what happens to people who hold onto their guilt forever. For those who do not wish to believe in God’s mercy, consciously or unconsciously, their guilt for past years is a shield that they want to lift against surrendering themselves to the Lord as they know they have to, if they’re going to be Christians.[2]

The Father does not simply meet the son on the road, embrace him, and then leave him in his wretched state. He enfolds him into his own life. The son is dressed in a robe and given a ring – signs of his being brought back into the family and its ways. He is brought into the house, and this house is not simply a new base of operations for his prodigal ways, a place for him to throw raucous prodigal parties with all his little prodigal friends, now that he’s back in the money.

It is the house of mercy, the house of love. Mercy changes us. It changes us into the merciful, and blessed are we once this change happens.

In the book Molchanie Catherine describes symbolically this challenge of mercy, the piercing, transforming dynamic of the free gift of God’s mercy. She writes of moving through different scenes from the Gospel, and at one point coming upon “a group of men screaming, yelling, and gesticulating. Two or three of them were dragging a half–naked woman to where Christ was standing.”[3]

She witnesses the whole scene from John 8, the adulterous woman, the silence of Christ, the writing on the ground, the words about casting the first stone, his words of forgiveness to the woman. And then, “The quality of silence changed. Flashes of lightning seemed to explode around me. Kneeling on the sharp stones, I knew, with a knowledge no one could ever take from me, the mercy of God.[4] The story ends and all, including the woman, have left:

but I remained. Christ ceased writing on the sand. He sat down on a large stone and looked at me. I looked at him. Breaking my silence, I said, “Lord, I have just witnessed the immense mercy of God. Will I die for having seen it?” For I was absolutely sure that no one could behold this outpouring of mercy that flashed like lightning, and remain alive. The Lord shook his head and smiled and said, “No, Catherine. That is not what you are here for. You are here to become a silent witness to this mercy. Now that you have had it burnt into your soul, now that you know what mercy is, go and be merciful.[5]

From there she moves through the passion of Christ, witnessing the betrayal of Judas in the garden: “I leaned against a tree, for I felt too weak to stand up without support. I was beholding the betrayal of God by man. It was not the betrayal of a nation by a nation. It was not the betrayal of one family member by another. Oh, no! It was the betrayal of God by man.”[6] She continues to follow Christ until she is at the Cross with him:

I looked at Christ and it seemed as if I had grown taller, so that when he lifted his head and looked at me, our eyes were on the same level. I was going to say something, but his voice broke the silence first. It was strong, even though coming from a crucified man. He said, “Catherine, yesterday you witnessed the mercy of God. You saw Our mercy and you thought that was the whole of it. No, child, the mercy of God is infinite. I shall pray to my Father.” He cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Then he looked at me and for a split second I thought I saw a smile on his face.

Then he went on: “Now, Catherine, you have seen the immensity, the infinity, of God’s mercy. Go and be merciful to everyone, but above all, be merciful to your enemies.[7]

Mercy – true mercy, truly given, truly received – pulls us into a depth of encounter with God that changes everything in us. God died for mercy’s sake. This is no ‘get out of jail free’ card, although it certainly does get us out of the jail of our selfish selves. There is nothing ‘free’ about it, even though it is freely given. A free gift the price of which staggers our imagination, staggers our puny minds and hearts and their ability to absorb it. A free gift that, when we receive it, calls us inevitably and inexorably into giving that same gift to others, even to the point of death.

Entering the father’s house means entering the Father’s business, and his business is to love to end of love, to the fullest measure of gift and grace. To receive mercy pulls us into this business, even to the point of death with Christ through to the point of rising with Christ.

And this entering of mercy is not a simplistic or childish ‘oops, sorry God’, affair, either. It is:

to go into this abyss or cavern and darkness that is I, and from there to cry to the abyss of God’s mercy. No matter how dark, how deep, how terrible I am, his mercy is greater. You begin in truth to know who you are and despair cannot enter into your life, because the abyss of his mercy is always greater… then we are in poverty.”[8]

Mercy always calls us to deeper and deeper self-knowledge, and hence to deeper knowledge of our need for mercy, and so on, until knowledge of self and knowledge of God meet – abyss to abyss, void to void.

And yet this mercy of God remains just that – mercy. It is our joy, our consolation, our hope. It is laughter and delight. The last word is not the abyss or wretchedness or even the knowledge of our blessed poverty.

The last word is happiness. The last word is home. The last word is ‘Father’.
So those are a few of my thoughts on the mercy of God for this mercy Sunday. I have lots more to say: you can buy the rest of the book at the link.

[1] Transcript, Talk on Guilt, Undated.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Molchanie: Experiencing the Silence of God, Combermere: Madonna House Publications, 2001, p. 37.
[4] Ibid., p. 38
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., p. 39.
[7] Ibid., p. 40.
[8] Transcript, Spiritual Reading, Dec 17, 1968.

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