I’m sitting at the dining room table in the home where I pretty much grew up, in a suburb of San Diego. Being here always puts me in a retrospective mood. Not nostalgic, exactly, but focused on how I got to where I am today…and amused that somehow where I am today – precisely – is where I was when I was 3 years old.
This is the point in the blog where I insert a poignant story from my childhood that will perfectly illuminate the subject of mercy.
Alas, none comes to mind. What does is an idea that I haven’t ever really practiced mercy in the ways we typically think of. I haven’t swept in to save someone whose life hung in the balance, and, for whom, I was the final chance at salvation. Mercy seems like a big deal. I have been compassionate. I have forgiven. I’m not sure whether I’m full of mercy.
Mercy seems to me to be two things:
1. Procedural. It is a sort of pardon in the face of something that is actually deserved. You stole the cookies. The rule is that you have to do penance. The powers that be relieve you of your obligation to do said penance. Hopefully, you don’t steal any more cookies.
2. Undeserved. If you deserve mercy, it isn’t mercy. It’s justice. According to the rules, Valjean in Les Misérables is in fact guilty of stealing silverware. By the book, he’s the bad guy. The bishop responds by also giving him a set of candlesticks and telling the authorities that all of it was a gift. Valjean didn’t deserve the candlesticks, or the silverware. OK, my Marxists friends will get on me for this, but let’s at least say in a “playing by the 1815 French rules” sort of sense, he didn’t deserve them. Fair enough?
Procedural and Undeserved.
One more thing I want to say about this. By undeserved, I don’t mean “undeserving.” more on that in a minute (depending on how fast you read).
So by the rules, maybe we don’t measure up. We screw things up. We make mistakes. We steal cookies or silverware. We make someone feel bad. We avoid perfection. Plus, we haven’t really done anything to deserve a break. We didn’t knit gloves for the chilly or make meals for the hungry. No clothing the naked, caring for the sick or turning our paycheck over to the poor. We just didn’t do it. Hey, it’s been a busy week. We have a great excuse.
Or maybe worse. We were just a pain in the butt for everyone. Cranky, self-indulgent, and sort of disinterested. We can’t all be Mother Teresa, right?
So there’s still an inherent problem with this blessing. None of my friends (that I know of) are stealing my silverware. (I suspect some cookie thieves, but, the laws are far less strict these days. I can’t just ring one of them up and say, “Hey, I need to get my quota of mercy in today, and you’re the lucky sinner. I forgive you for all that horrible stuff I know you do in secret. Cheers. Have a great day…”
It seems like mercy might require great moments. It’s that decision thing. “I shall save you from the gallows, my friend and we will live together at Xanadu.” It requires that I open myself to some criticism from the law-abiding folks. “You can’t save him from the gallows, he definitely stole the silverware! Are you mad?”
I don’t know about you, but for me, those moments don’t come around all that often. How can I be merciful? I definitely want the blessing. If I’m counting my blessings, this adds to my wealth of them. So what can I do? How do I get it? Where do I sign up?
For me, the answer is that I can live a merciful life to the best of my ability. I can exercise compassion, justice and, if the day comes, mercy. I can be ready for it when it does come. And, even then, realize that I can never be merciful enough. It’s a process, not a landing point.
I think there’s something to this idea of treating everyone, all the time, “as if…” Living “as if.” Living as if everyone is deserving of mercy and the rules aren’t so important. People are important. Even when they break the rules. Even when they swipe the cookie and steal the silverware. Precisely because we need that blessing ourselves. I’m not saying we live up to it.
In a video segment I edited recently for Living the Questions, Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun known for her work with death row inmates and the central character in “Dead Man Walking,” said “We are better than the worst act of our lives.”
We are better than the worst act of our lives. Mercy recognizes that. It remembers our essential humanity.
Ultimately I think it says volumes more about the giver of mercy than the receiver. Because, it is a choice. I’m not sure compassion, or justice is always a choice, but mercy hinges on a choice to be merciful all the time, and ready when the time demands it.