Mercy in the City: Making Mercy a Verb

I am sitting on my bed, lacing up my shoes, and assuring myself that if the nuns reject me based on my footwear, I don’t want anything to do with them anyway. I have sifted through my closet and have decided to wear dark jeans and a black sweater with a white collar sewn into the neckline, so that it looks like I’m wearing a button-down shirt. It is a decision that has come largely by default, as this item of clothing is more professional than 98 percent of my wardrobe, which I’ve had for ages.  However, the shoes I’m lacing up are new. And yet I’m still unsure if they are appropriate—white faux leather, with black stripes on the sides. They would be professional-looking, if I were a professional bowler, or perhaps a golfer, but, I am neither. In fact, I am not feeling particularly ready to be a professional anything. I am a college senior about to graduate. I am an English major without a specific career plan. I am going on my first job interview, and I am searching for some feeling of control. So I decide am going to wear whatever shoes I darn well please.

I arrive at a white, multi-family house with a small front porch. Sister Carol Mary, a Mercy sister with a long, dark, ponytail lets me in, and I am immediately charmed by the eclectic nature of the furniture and religious imagery scattered about the house. Dinner is being prepared by another Sister of Mercy and a few other women, one of whom wears a sweatshirt with a nature scene on it. They are reheating leftovers from a recent Easter dinner.

As an interviewer for the Mercy Volunteer Corps, Sister Carol Mary is my first contact with the Mercy sisters’ full-time volunteer program. If all goes well, when I leave the house, I will be one step closer to joining a community of fellow volunteers who have a desire to serve others—to “give back” as I and countless others, I’m sure, have said in our applications. Although I, for one, am not quite certain what I’m giving and to whom.

I’d spent hours flipping through a cross-referenced guide to domestic and international volunteer programs. Among the sites listed, one caught my eye: a group of volunteers would live in trailers on the Navajo reservation in the high desert of Arizona, it said. They would work at a school for children with special needs. I was struck by this description, because although everything in it would be a new to me, it still felt like a place that was familiar, somewhere I could belong. And this feeling had led me to the two-family house and the dinner and the interview, where I sat trying to convince a Sister from an order I’d never heard of to let me join a bunch of people I’d never met so that I could travel to a place I’d never been and try to do a job for which I wasn’t sure I was even qualified.

I sit down at the table, and we say grace together. The food is good, and later in the evening the women clean up the table and I am led to the living room for an interview. As I walk out, one of the women, the one in the sweatshirt with the nature scene, looks at me and wishes me good luck. And then she looks down at my feet, and she says with genuine enthusiasm: I like your shoes. And I think, for the first time in a long time: everything is going to be ok.

Ten years later, the charism of Mercy still speaks to me. And my experience with the Works of Mercy has helped me to understand the responsibility each of us has toward one another. It has helped me to see how my faith must be a choice, how easy it is to become complacent, the need to remind myself to respond to the Gospel call to Mercy. The good thing is that there are so many ways to say yes. Mercy is not something we bestow upon one another from on high in a sort of grand gesture, but rather something much quieter, more humble. It is an invitation, an openness, a kind of accompanying. To give mercy is a kind of emptying out of oneself out to make room for the love for another. With our lives we make Mercy a verb—mercying as pope Francis put it.

My friend, Sr. Camille once offered me some advice, which was once given to her: “Never let a woman stand alone.” But I think the statement applies to all, to men and women alike. This, in some ways, sums up the purpose of living a life of mercy—to let one another know that no one has to go it alone. To provide a place where people will accept you, even with your flaws—even when your choice of shoes is really strange.

This is an adapted excerpt from Mercy in the City by Kerry Weber, the managing editor of America Magazine.  

Quote of the Day

Pope Francis: “From the cross we see the monstrosity of mankind when it lets itself be guided by evil. But we also see the immensity of the mercy of God, who doesn’t treat us according to our sins, but according to his mercy.”

Quote of the Day

Pope Francis: “We look at the sky, there are many, many stars; but when the sun rises in the morning, the light is such that we can’t see the stars. God’s mercy is like that a  great light of love and tenderness. God forgives us, not with a decree, but with his love, healing the wounds of sin.”

Around the Web (Part 2)

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Economic Inequality: Can Theology Say Something New? by Kate Ward: “In my view, a good deal of advocacy around inequality, including that of religious leaders, avoids one of the more important questions we should be asking: how does inequality affect our moral formation? For many of us, it’s easy to find common cause with those who are like us and more difficult to feel empathy for others who we may perceive as more distant. This adds urgency to the question of whether it matters if, for example, a CEO earns 100 times or 100,000 times what her lowest-paid employees do, even supposing the employees earn a living wage. Do we really think vastly different living standards have no impact on our ability to form solidarity with one another?”

In Lebanon, Syrian refu­gee children find safety from war but new dangers on the streets by Loveday Morris: “The United Nations announced that Lebanon registered its millionth Syrian refugee on Thursday, making the tiny country — which had a population of just over 4 million before the Syrian war — home to the highest concentration of refugees in the world. Among the most visible representatives of that influx and the impact of the Syrian war on Lebanon’s capital are children such as Mohammed, who fled the violence and ended up here, selling flowers, tissues, chewing gum or shoeshines on the streets of Beirut.”

Finding ‘Mercy’ in daily life by Gail Finke: “Yes, it’s funny (“In which I get locked out of the church while trying to help people into it”) and sad and thought-provoking and inspirational. If you take even one thing away from this book, you’ll be a better person and a better Catholic. But you’ll take away a lot more than one.”

On Coates v. Chait by Ross Douthat: “You don’t have to regard morality as at the seat of all our troubles to recognize that it’s intertwined with some of them; you don’t have to write off public policy to concede that there are ills that policy alone can’t solve; you don’t have to ignore structural disadvantages to recognize the importance of asserting individual agency — saying ”there are things under our control that we’ve got to attend to …,” as the president has put it — in the face of collective difficulty.”

Facts, Propaganda and Libertarianism by Michael Sean Winters: “Any thoughtful Catholic has sufficient difficulties with liberalism, all of which tend to wish it were less individualistic, less focused on human autonomy, less redolent of rights apart from correlative responsibilities. Libertarianism wants to pull liberalism in the opposite direction, removing even the few checks on unfettered license that liberalism supplies.”

Shifting the Focus: Objectification, Porn and the Longing for Belonging by Leah Perrault: “Objectification and depersonalization are natural consequences of porn, but I don’t think that the average porn user, at least at the beginning, is aiming for those consequences as a primary goal. The appeal of porn, and eventually the compulsion or addiction, isn’t about the (often female) body, person or sexual appeal. It’s about the longing, fear and/or compulsion in the viewer.”

Opinion: Forget Ukraine, Syria is now the world’s biggest threat by Simon Tisdal: “Al-Assad’s continued survival as Syria’s head of state is an egregious affront to the U.N. Security Council and its various related Syria resolutions, to the U.N. charter, to international law, and specifically to international war crimes legislation. Al-Assad stands accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, not least over the use by his forces of chemical weapons against civilian populations. But once again, nothing much is done, and the credibility of such institutions and laws suffers as a result. The moral example set by such dereliction is shocking.”

To prevent another Rwanda, all it takes is a few well-trained troops by David Blair: “Gen Dallaire’s searing memoir of those 100 blood-soaked days, Shake Hands with the Devil, contains a lesson of eternal relevance. This distinguished Canadian soldier offers his professional assessment that a mere 4,000 trained troops, entrusted with a mandate allowing the use of force to protect civilians, could have stopped the genocide in its tracks. For want of a handful of soldiers, 800,000 people died.”

Crisis and Need in the Central African Republic by Allen Ottaro: “Father Mombe shared an overview of the history of the conflict in his country, efforts by churches and faith communities to end the violence and initiate reconciliation, and his personal experience of the conflict in the capital city, Bangui, in December 2013.”

Top Quotes from Henri Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey

Reading Henri Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey, I was struck by the parallels found in his short reflections and Pope Francis’ big themes: the importance of mercy, presence, joy, and being a church of the poor. These themes are deeply rooted in the actions and teachings of Christ. Here are some of my favorites from Nouwen’s book, which offers a short reflection for each day of the year: 

  • Let’s not forget the preciousness and vulnerability of life during the times we are powerful, successful, and popular.
  • The great temptation is to cling in anger to our enemies and then define ourselves as being offended and wounded by them. Forgiveness, therefore, liberates not only the other but also ourselves.
  • Strange as it may sound, we can choose joy.
  • We want to hear, “I’ve been thinking of you today,” or “I missed you,” or “I wish you were here,” or “I really love.” It is not always easy to say these words, but such words can deepen our bonds with one another.
  • As John the Evangelist writes, “Perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18). Jesus’ central message is that God loves us with an unconditional love and desires our love, free from all fear, in return.
  • Love is eternal…When we die, we will lose everything that life gave us except love…It is the divine, indestructible core of our being.
  • To love is to think, speak, and act according to the spiritual knowledge that we are infinitely loved by God and called to make that love visible in this world.
  • When we truly enjoy God’s unlimited generosity, we will be grateful for what our brothers and sisters receive. Jealousy will simply have no place in our hearts.
  • When the Church is no longer a church for the poor, it loses its spiritual identity. It gets caught up in disagreements, jealousy, power games, and pettiness.
  • Those who are marginal in the world are central in the Church, and that is how it is supposed to be! Thus we are called as members of the Church to keep going to the margins of our society. The homeless, the starving, parentless children, people with AIDS, our emotionally disturbed brothers and sisters—they require our first attention.
  • Being with a person in pain, offering simple presence to someone in despair, sharing with a friend times of confusion and uncertainty…such experiences can bring us deep joy. Not happiness, not excitement, not great satisfaction, but the quiet joy of being there for someone else and living in deep solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this human family.
  • When people say of us, “See how they love on another,” they catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God that Jesus announced and are drawn to it as a magnet.