When Pope Francis declared this the “Year of Mercy,” I struggled. I was like a barnacle trying to latch onto a whale with customary enthusiasm, but not knowing how. What is mercy, exactly, and how does it differ from kindness, forgiveness, and other similar words? How do I go about “being merciful?” Don’t you have to be God to show mercy?
The best help I could find was thinking about the corporal works of mercy – all the practical ways to do good. They are these:
And that helped, a bit. Unfortunately, my goal of focusing on mercy in an intentional way sort of drifted into the uncomfortable mush heaps of New Years’ resolutions and things to do “when life slows down.” But the tenacious belief in life slowing down is like the adult version of believing in the Great Pumpkin. Our faith in it endures despite marvelous lack of proof.
But something prompted me recently to consider what it was like to experience God’s mercy for the first time, and that maybe if I were to remember what that was like, this idea of living mercifully might be easier to understand.
My dad, a general surgeon by profession, was diagnosed with emphysema in 1991 or so, and told that if he continued to smoke as heavily as he did, he wouldn’t have more than a few years left to live. He quit cold turkey the next day. Soon, our house was buzzing with my dad’s plans to reignite the custom harvesting company that his dad had once operated, and which he had worked on with his brothers in their early twenties. My dad had fond memories of traveling south through the grain belt with his dad, and evidently thought that one of the greatest gifts he could impart to his own kids was this same experience.
Our yard quickly filled up with grain trucks, combines, service trucks, and we learned about reels, hoppers, grain moisture levels, etc. My uncles joined the endeavor, and my dad hired several boys from his hometown to form a crew. The plan was to contract with local farmers in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota, harvesting their wheat and moving steadily north throughout the summers.
“The guys,” as our family called them, were housed in a motor home and trailer, which would be parked at our home during the off seasons.
The camper trailer was a great place for a kid to explore, full of loose change, pens, magical trinkets, and sometimes candy bars. It was a convenient place to be alone, and in a large family, this was often a must. That’s where I went one day of my 12th year, and after exploring thoroughly, stumbled onto some pornography.
At the time, I had no idea what it was called, or where it came from. I only knew that the words and images fascinated me, that I wanted to look at them, and at the same time was conscious that no one should know. I stowed the magazines away somewhere no one else would find them.
This was the beginning of what I later began to sense was an addiction. I had become addicted to pornographic material, and in a short time felt that I had a sort of “hidden life,” a double self, and that no one knew who I really was. And if they did… there was a certain sense that I would be considered base, strange, un-loveable. Along with the excitement of it came a sense of self-loathing and a constant “I’ll never do it again” feeling, accompanied by the revulsion of having done it, once again. I felt that I was alone in it, and wished often that I could be like other kids seemed to me – innocent in a way that I wasn’t.
I remembered seeking consolation in books about adolescence that my parents had, doctors insisting sexual curiosity and experimentation wasn’t wrong – was normal and natural, even. Reading this made me feel better for short periods of time, but a gnawing sense of unease wouldn’t go away.
I had never known what masturbation was – no one had ever (apart from these books) explained it to me, or about pornography. Where did this sense of guilt come from? I tried to rid myself of it, but it remained.
Within the next four years’ time, my dad died, and my parish priest invited me to join a youth group for our diocese. I felt surprised, but delighted that he would consider me a good candidate.
Being in this youth group meant planning youth events, and involved meeting for one weekend each month, in a town somewhere in our diocese. At first, the kids in this group struck me as weird (they hugged everyone! They prayed! They were actually interested in their faith!) But soon I felt a strange attraction to this foreign lifestyle. I found my new friendships to be stronger and deeper. We talked about things beyond our classes, our teachers, and school-yard gossip. We talked about Jesus, and who we wanted to be, and what things were important.
The more time went by, I began to feel a discomforting sense of living two different lives. On these weekends, I was prayerful, thoughtful, kind, and generous. Back home, I would revert to being grumpy and moody to my siblings, gossipy with my classmates, and of course, struggling with this pornography addiction.
Our youth group meetings inevitably involved (boringly, I thought) daily Mass, Confession, and Bible study time. At Confession, I shared the “safe” sins and questions with the priest, but never, ever those related to pornography. This was something I didn’t want anyone to know about, especially not a priest.
I remember a particular ride home with a friend, in which masturbation came up in the discussion. She casually mentioned it as a mortal sin.
“It is?” I said. “Are you sure?” I felt squeamish as she told me that knowingly withholding a sin in Confession is also a sin. I still remember how I struggled with this new discomfort, this sense of feeling “caught” by God. I tried to laugh it off, tried to inwardly justify. But I couldn’t ignore the uneasiness I felt.
Not long after that, I had a dream. In the dream, I was standing in a gymnasium. After a while, I grew aware that there were thousands of people in the gym, and that the people here were from all areas of the world. Everyone was talking, in all different languages.
Suddenly, someone said, “Look! Jesus is coming to give a press conference!”
I turned, and in the center of the gym was Jesus, white-robed. I remember one thing that seemed strange in my dream: Jesus spoke, but never opened his mouth. Everyone clearly heard and understood him, but not with our ears. He said,
“The Apocalypse is fast approaching. The end of the world is drawing near.”
That was all. But panic erupted in the room. I watched as people approached him, asking what would become of their sister, their aunt, their families, their villages, their homes? Everyone had questions for Jesus.
‘There are too many people in this room,’ I thought. ‘All he sees is a crowd. He couldn’t possibly know who is here. He doesn’t know I’m here.’ I felt so small, unnoticed, and hidden. But I had an urge to ask him a question, too, telling myself he wouldn’t hear it, but that I would at least try. So, I whispered, “Jesus, do you love me?”
And in the dream, it was as though all the people, and the noise, and the needs, totally disappeared. Jesus turned and faced me, and he was glowing, with what seemed like light, but I recognized that the glow was not light – it was love.
The love radiated out from him to me, and later, I tried to remember it in a way I could understand. What I remember is a sense of being loved as a man loves a woman, and as a father loves a daughter, and as a son loves a mother, and a brother loves a sister, and every type of love you might experience in life, but all from Jesus. And even describing it in these many ways, there was so much more than that, that there are no words I can think of that can explain. I felt completely enveloped, covered and transformed by this love.
And that’s when I woke up.
A Life-Changing Confession
The dream was on my mind weeks later, when we had our next meeting. Confession came around, and I went, eager to ask the priest about Jesus’ words. “Do you think the world is going to end soon?” I asked him.
“I don’t think that was the part of the dream that Jesus wanted you to focus on,” said the priest. “I think he was trying to tell you that he loves you.”
His words were like a dam being broken over my heart, and I started weeping. He handed me some Kleenex, explaining that that’s what they were for.
“And,” he said, “I’m not sure, but I sense there might be a sin that you haven’t brought to confession yet,” the priest said.
With this invitation, I poured out everything – everything that I had kept hidden for so long, sobbing the whole way. The priest told me, over and over again, that I was good, that I was loved, and that I was beautiful. He prayed over me, and gave me absolution.
I left the confessional, feeling as though flying were possible. There was a weight that had been sitting on me for so long, and it was like being without it left me lighter than air. I experienced a tremendous joy, and desire to laugh out loud at everything. I wanted everyone to receive the joy and peace that I had just received. It was an overflowing of goodness.
I have never forgotten what happened that night. It changed me forever, and set the course of my life in an entirely new direction. It gave a meaning and purpose to my life that I had not had before. This is not to say, that everything was happily ever after! I was still me. There was a lot of work to be done – primarily in learning how to love my family better, how to care for my friends and others better. But the chains of my addiction to pornography, thank goodness, had been broken.
But the combination – what I experienced in the dream, and what I experienced in Confession, showed me a glimpse of God’s love that left me certain that if each person only had a chance to receive it, everything – homes, cities, countries, the world – would be healed and made whole.
What does mercy mean?
All of this happened 17 years ago, now. With the time that has gone by, some of that zeal that I first had, has become quieter, more practical. Faith isn’t always feelings, I learned, slowly and often painfully. The feeling, and the sense, of God’s mercy, is something I can remember receiving, but it’s not a gift He gives me every day, or even every month, or even every year. Often, it has seemed that the commitment to faith is like what I imagine marriage must be – ignited first by enough strong feelings and conviction to make a vow, and then bolstered by daily practice, sacrifice, and commitment. You can only learn by living it, over time, that sometimes love is accompanied by feelings, and sometimes love is willed, independent of the feelings that make it convenient.
So, I look back on the memory of my first receiving God’s mercy, and I glean from it truths that I can apply today. Here is how I understand God’s mercy:
Mercy is knowing that you are known fully, the good and the bad, and that you are loved exactly as you are, and where you are.
Mercy is the generosity of God taking you over, regardless of your limitations, imperfections, and sins.
Mercy is an invitation from God to join His team.
Mercy is that God believes better things of you and for you, than you do for yourself.
Mercy is never a denial of evil or sin where it exists. It isn’t saying, “Oh, that’s not so bad,” or, “Oh, that wasn’t really wrong.” It is only when we know and name our evil as it is that we can be transformed by God’s grace.
How do I show mercy to the world?
I don’t really know. I’m still figuring this out.
I know that, that day in the Confessional, I needed to know that I could be known, really known, and still loved. And coming out of Confession, I was conscious that everyone in the world needs this, too.
Sometimes when I remember that we were all born into this world without really knowing what we’re doing, and that we’re all trying to figure it out, and learning as we go, and that we’ve been led and taught by others who also were born into the world without knowing what they’re doing… recognizing this helps me to see people with more love. It helps me not excuse wrongdoing, but understand it.
Over the years, I’ve learned that some people need to hear it the way I did. Other people are different, and they need that love and mercy to be shown to them in a different way. Sometimes, it means giving my full listening ear to the student who is acting out in crazy ways. It means saying, “Hey, I notice something seems hard today. Do you want to talk about it?” Sometimes it means noticing the person at the party that is getting overlooked. Sometimes it means being a little more patient with the person in front of me who is driving too slowly. Sometimes it means not opening my mouth, not making the moment about me.
Sometimes (this one is harder for me) mercy isn’t the nice, easygoing way. Sometimes mercy is saying to your kid, “One piece of candy is enough,” when they want to grab a handful, and will burst into loud, angry tears in the grocery store, while everyone questions your parenting. Sometimes mercy is letting someone know that they are hurting someone. Sometimes mercy is being honest, rather than making someone feel better through a lie. And sometimes, mercy is setting a clear boundary, not allowing someone to make you a doormat.
I do know that the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are good guidelines to follow, especially when you’re in a time when you’re not really “feeling the mercy.” Whether you’re in a good mood or a bad mood, you can always give someone something to drink. You can still pray for someone who really makes you mad. An act of kindness is an act of kindness, whether the feelings are there or not.
But the tough thing I am finding, is that mercy takes discernment. It’s not always clear whether to give someone your “cloak as well as your tunic” is the best course of action, or whether setting a clear boundary is. To be merciful, we need to keep the lines of prayer open, and regular.
Mercy can feel really good to receive, and it can feel painful, and it can feel aggravating, and it can feel enraging. It feels good when you are in a place where you know you are weak, and you know you need love, and you are ready to receive it. It can feel painful when you know someone is sacrificing for you, but you are conscious that you have only been thinking selfishly. It can feel aggravating when someone you are really annoyed by is suddenly kind and forgiving toward you. It can even feel like hatred, (like in cases where a parent asks a child to eat a healthy snack rather than fun junk food).
However it feels to the recipient, mercy is something from which world will always benefit. I hope we can all grow in the rest of this year, in receiving God’s mercy, and in letting God’s mercy radiate outward to all those in our path.