This morning as I read Psalm 136, I recalled that I used to find it tedious in its repetition (every other line!) of the refrain, God’s mercy endures forever. In speaking of God’s action for the Israelites, it can become a singsong recording of their history: God led them through the wilderness, for his mercy endures forever; and made their land a heritage, for his mercy endures forever…and freed us from our foes, for his mercy endures forever… It was easy in our communal prayer to lose consciousness of the meaning of what we were saying (sometimes not really praying). It was when I first heard the definition of mercy as “fierce bonding love” rather than God’s willingness to “take pity on us” that my sense of what was happening in that psalm began to take on the deeper meaning of a real and lasting relationship with a beloved people.
That reminder was enhanced by a serendipitous discovery of the January 2008 issue of The Monastic Way that I found stuck in a book next to my chair this morning. I hadn’t intended to talk about mercy this morning – desiring something that would match the intensity of feeling in our country in the wake of the hateful demonstrations of the week. When I saw Joan Chittister’s monthly reflection pamphlet, however, I knew it was the perfect theme. If we are to become a mirror of God’s work in the world, we cannot ignore the quality of mercy. Some of Sister Chittister’s daily thoughts were the following:
- We pray for mercy; we expect mercy. What we find difficult to do is to be merciful to those in need of it. Or as George Eliot says, “We hand folks over to God’s mercy, and show none ourselves.”
- The great spiritual question is not whether or not this person, this situation deserves mercy. It’s about whether or not we ourselves are capable of showing it.
- The major holy-making moment in our own lives may be when we receive the mercy we know we do not deserve. Then, we may never again substitute disdain for understanding, rejection for openness, legalism for justice. “I think perhaps it is a better world,” Helen Waddell writes, “if one has a broken heart. Then one is quick to recognize it, elsewhere.”
These “words” deserve some attention, I believe – perhaps even a little soul-searching. In summary, I offer the stated theme of this valuable reflection pamphlet printed on the cover page. It comes from Thomas Merton’s book, The Sign of Jonas, and offers what Joan Chittister calls a definition of God.
I have always overshadowed you with my mercy…Have you had sight of Me, My child? Mercy within mercy within mercy.