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reaching outEarlier this week, I read a news story that didn’t make it past Facebook.  It just wasn’t sensational enough.  It didn’t bleed so it didn’t lead, but I thought of it again when I read Lori’s post about mercy.

Early in the morning, a woman in my community heard a boom as the sky lit up. We get a lot of thunderstorms this time of year but the sky was clear.  She hurried to the front of the house and saw a car had hit a tree and an electrical box.

The driver was sitting on the ground and she hurried over to see if he was okay. He was very drunk.  It would have been so easy for this woman to go inside and call the police. Who wants to mess with someone whose drunk first thing in the day?  But she introduced herself and asked for his car keys. He handed them over and told her his name.

A crowd was gathering and someone yelled that the police were on their way. Again, this woman could have chosen not to get involved. But the young man was scared and she stayed by his side.  She told him that she knew that a lot of bad things had happened lately between the police and the black community but he just needed to cooperate.  She explained that she was worried that because he was so drunk he would make bad choices.

As the police arrived, people called out that they were about to see some police brutality. The woman didn’t argue with them. When the police arrived, she introduced him to the officers and handed over his keys.  She told him that the police were there to help.

He showed them respect.  They showed him respect.

And I have to wonder how much of this should be credited to one woman who stepped out of the crowd. She didn’t see a criminal.  She saw someone’s son who had made a mistake. She didn’t see the opportunity to make a video and gain fame on YouTube or Facebook. Instead, she acted in mercy as the hands of Christ.

Blessed are the peacemakers.  For they shall be called the children of God.


Pope Francis, in his great wisdom, has named 2016 the Year of Mercy. Yet a number of us seem confused by what exactly “mercy” means. It’s like forgiveness, but not quite. Like empathy, but not quite. Like forbearance…but not quite.

The world is greatly in need of mercy right now. Mercy takes us out of ourselves and causes us to look with compassion at those around us. If we all did that — and then acted on what we saw — in what grand and spectacular ways might we change the world? It is a thought worthy of poetry.

What is mercy?
Nothing much. An eye
turned outward. A seeing.
One heart bursting
its home of bone
to say, “I see you.”
To say, “I’m sorry.”
To say, “You matter.”

What is mercy?
It is a choice of roads:
one narrow, one broad.
It is leaving home
for a foreign place,
learning the language,
feeling it on the tongue.
Grasping the verbs, the adjectives.

What is mercy?
It is a bearing of burdens,
balm, bread, blood.
It is entering the wider door,
apprehending the aerial view.
It is naming each stone,
tenderly, but letting it lie,
in the manner of itself.

mercyI’m not sure why it is but I also feel God’s mercy as I see the earliest of the spring flowers.  These are crocus and they will bloom right through the snow.  They are almost done blooming but then we’ll have the daffodils and forsythia.

What is it about the bright yellow, the violet and the white that makes me realize that in spite of the bleakness of my soul, I am truly and deeply loved?


I got a funny response to one of my posts once. It was litany of reasons (tagged “an interesting read”) why Catholicism is wrong, wrong, completely wrong. I ignored it. Not because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks (I am neither terribly aged nor canine), but because Catholicism is ingrained in me. It is woven into my being like a fine silk thread. Once, someone asked me if I was “a cradle Catholic.” I responded that I had been born five weeks early — my mother had gone into labor during Mass on Christmas Day — and that I’d been born in a Catholic hospital and named after a priest. (Fr. Lawrence Smith, devotee of his namesake, St. Lawrence, and who himself is surely a saint now.) You don’t get more cradle-y than that.

One of complaints in the aforementioned litany concerned the sacrament of Reconciliation. Having just experienced the sacrament’s sweeping beauty just last night, I thought there no better time than the present to explicate it further. My detractor noted, “Only God can forgive sins.” Yes. Of course. A priest does so as a representative of God. Jesus himself told the apostles that whose sins they forgave in His name would be forgiven in heaven. Sweeping aside the notion that priests (as vowed disciples of Christ) are the successors to the apostles — I can’t sweep it aside, but maybe someone else can — there is more to the story than merely this.

All sin is public. You may think that diatribe you utter in the privacy of your own home has no ripple effect in the larger world, but you’d be wrong. All sin affects others because it causes you to be estranged from the Church; and, as we know, the Church is made up of the people of God. What I do wrong hurts you. It changes the air between us. It warps all of my relationships on a molecular level. The priest, as the representative of the Church, extends mercy to me on behalf of those I’ve wounded. I can’t apologize to all of you, but I can apologize to the person who shepherds our local flock.

True, priests are not perfect. There are a few bad apples, just as there are bad doctors, bad politicians and bad truck drivers. This imperfection — and I promise you, most of the men I’ve known as priests strive hard to avoid imperfection — does not make a priest incapable of being the conduit of forgiveness. If a baby were dying before my eyes, I could baptize it — and I’m not even a priest. Sinner that I am, God can still use me to do God’s work.

We used to call this sacrament “Confession.” The Church updated its language more than 30 years ago to reflect the fact that it is so much more. The sacrament is greater than just a personal unburdening of sin. It is a celebration of mutual healing: I am healed, and the community I’ve wounded is healed as well. What a lovely two-way street it is!

Reconciliation is a beautiful thing, especially at this time of year. Advent calls us to walk together to that place where we behold the Son of God in all His humanity, in all His glory. I can’t walk with you if we are estranged from one another. Even if you think Catholicism is wrong, wrong, completely wrong, you must admit: Anything that brings us together must be a good thing.

I’ve got to tell you, I’m getting a little fed up. From a survey that reveals that American voters believe Jesus would come down even more conservatively on social issues than they themselves do (voting against same-sex marriage, for instance) to the closed-minded nastiness I read in the comments section of virtually every religious-themed internet article…well, I simply despair. We’ve got it all wrong, folks.

Anyone who believes that Jesus would respond with anything less than complete mercy and love — in any situation — is DEAD WRONG. Children emigrating to escape crime and poverty? Jesus would be there with his arms open wide to embrace them. Two people wanting to sacramentally celebrate their love and commitment? Jesus would be on hand to preside. He’d probably provide the wine for the reception, too.

As usual, in times of trouble, I turn to poetry.


Mercy is Christ’s mantra (it
is mine, too).
Mercy is the bigger picture.
Mercy is the wider door.
Mercy admits it does not know
everything, or everyone’s heart,
and chooses to walk with compassion instead
of blocking the path to this one or that.
Mercy admits all comers.
Mercy takes a chance.
Mercy opens its arms, bleeding
on a cross and says, “You too,
and you.”
Mercy does not pass judgment.
Mercy does not cease.
Mercy is Christ’s mantra (it
is mine now, too).

At the clothing store the other day, I approached a cashier who was ringing up some items.  Since there was no customer in sight, I asked her if she was buying those clothes for herself.  She laughed and said, “I wish!  No, these are for a customer.  She was just here… I’m not sure where she went.” She shrugged apologetically and looked around.

After several minutes, a lady speaking loudly on the phone sauntered back over and plopped a pair of shoes on the counter to add to her order.  While she was still on the phone, the cashier asked if she had any coupons.  “No,” she said. “Do you have one for me?” The cashier did have a store coupon and deducted 15%, which mildly annoyed me.  The customer didn’t thank her, and I thought that would have been the least she could have done, considering that she had kept the cashier and the other customers waiting all that time.

She finally did get off her phone, but wanted an additional discount, so she decided to open a store charge card, which would get her an additional 10% off.  “I know I won’t be approved; I just want the discount.”  This was going to be a long wait.

At that point, another cashier opened and said, “Next customer in line, please.” As I picked up my clothing to schlep over to the other cashier’s counter, the woman behind me started toward the newly opened cashier.  I walked past her and put my clothes on the counter.  “Next customer.  That would be me,” I said firmly.

“Oh, I didn’t realize!” she said.  Right, I thought.

It’s so easy to be cynical and focus on these small infractions, but actually, I must have encountered a couple of dozen people I didn’t know that day and each and every one of them was perfectly pleasant.  Some went out of their way to help me.

So even though I was mildly annoyed by two people who really should know better, it’s quite possible that they really didn’t.  That is to say, maybe they really didn’t think they’d done anything wrong. I decided it would make more sense to pray for them than to continue to seethe and stew, thus ruining the rest of an otherwise wonderful day.

God has been merciful to me as I’ve struggled with doubt through the years, and many times I’ve done things that He might have shaken His head at, saying, “she should really know better.”

My son is 14 and even though he doesn’t share my faith, he does have a good sense of right and wrong.  He also knows the difference between a mountain and a molehill… something I don’t always seem to know.  Like that time we went to the store to get some groceries.

“Well!  How about that!” I said as we walked to the car. “Can you believe this jamoch? He parked his car so close to mine that I can’t get to the trunk.”

But it was a tight parking lot with a limited number of spaces, and his car was an SUV, so they tend to really fill up a space.

“Do you think he did it on purpose, Ma?” my son asked innocently.  “Did he do it to annoy you?”

“Well, no, but….”

“Then why don’t you forgive him?”

Whoa.  That stopped me, mid-rant.  I was the one always going on about giving people a second chance and here he was, pointing out something I should have already known.

Just as we’ve seen on the evening news, we tend to focus on the people who are doing things they shouldn’t be doing, and saying a collective, “Well!  How dare they do that!”  But most of the people we encounter really want the same things we want out of life:  to take care of ourselves and our families, to do our jobs, to worship (or not) as we see fit, and to move freely in the world without interference.

Life is so much better when we focus on positive things, and expect that everyone we meet is trying their best.  It may not be what we would do, but for all we know, it’s all they can give.  After all, if we’ve been forgiven, it’s really not too much to ask that we forgive others now and again. Prayer is really a panacea, and grace is always there – to give and to receive – even on a hectic day in a crowded world.

A wonderful anthem about mercy.  Sorry that there is no actual visual, but this is the version we sang last Sunday so I have a soft spot for it.


Dearest Lord,

We are flawed.
We falter.
We do wrong every day.

Yet, time and time again,
You shower us with mercy.

Thank you Lord,
for seeing us
for who we could be
if only we will follow You.


Mercy is something that seems to be in short supply in our society. Perhaps part of the problem is that we no longer know exactly what mercy is. We think we are being merciful when we aren’t being judgmental. You know what I mean. When you see someone behaving badly and let it go.

That isn’t mercy at all. God gave as the perfect example of mercy in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan, after all, demonstrated all three elements of mercy.

Emotion. First of all, you have to allow yourself to connect emotionally with the downtrodden. You have to see them and their situation. You have to feel that it is unjust. The Samaritan saw the beaten man and, in spite of considerable risk to himself, empathized and stopped to help.

Short Term Solution. Then you have to step in and act. You have to address the immediate need. The Samaritan did this when he bound the man’s wounds, but even that wasn’t enough.

Long Term Solution. To be truly merciful, you have to address the long term need. The Samaritan took the man to an inn and left money, promising to come back and make sure all expenses had been paid.

Ignoring someone’s lack of social skills? That’s not mercy.

Showing mercy means stepping up and helping the downtrodden, those who are treated unjustly. And it doesn’t mean simply speaking up when you witness one unjust act, it means addressing it long term.

Does this mean you have to march on Washington? Start a charitable program?

I’m not going to say NO because those might actually be things that you are called to do. Only you can know for certain.

But taking long term action can take place in a wide variety of ways.  It all depends on the nature of the injustice that has compelled you to act.

Maybe you will need to address the social inequities that allowed the situation to arise. This may mean donating to a charity that seeks a long term solution or donating to an scholarship to other educational fund.  It could also mean taking a public stance about something that stirs up great controversy.

It may mean that you need to address the situation politically. This could be as simple as signing a petition or supporting a particular candidate. Or maybe you will be the one asking people for signatures or passing out literature.

It may mean making choices in how you spend your money. In our household, we chose our long distance company based on where they invest (and don’t invest) their money. Maybe you will be called on to boycott a company whose policies, or sponsorship, allows this injustice to thrive.

Me, I don’t know what you will be called on to do. I do know that the first step is understanding what mercy is and opening your eyes to what is going on in your community, your country and our world.

It’s a lot to think about, but fortunately you’ve got the rest of Lent to mull it over.  Give it a prayer or two.  He will point you in the right direction.


My namesake from the Old Testament, Ruth,



and her faith held fast.

As for me?

I’m flawed and unfocused.

I’ve left Your side more times than I can count.

But wherever life takes me, I know You’re already there.

Craft me into something substantive.

Grace me with Your wisdom.

Be my soul’s salvation.

Restore me as I leave the righteous path and return me to Your favor.

Whither Thou goest, by Your Mercy, I shall surely go.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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