FRONT PORCH: The balm and grace of mercy

MINISTER of Health Renward Wells receiving his second vaccination shot. As more people are won over to the idea of vaccination, and we must act with mercy and love for those who may have spurned such a course earlier in the pandemic.

MINISTER of Health Renward Wells receiving his second vaccination shot. As more people are won over to the idea of vaccination, and we must act with mercy and love for those who may have spurned such a course earlier in the pandemic.

WITH many more deaths, illness, fear and unrelenting heartbreak during this period of the COVID-19 pandemic we are bewildered, grief-stricken, angry, frustrated and embroiled in a range of emotions coursing through individual souls and the soul of the nation.

Easter is the season in the Christian community of The Passion of Christ from Maundy Thursday to Easter dawn, which is the summit revelation of Divine Mercy in Christianity.

We are now in the midst of Good Friday with terrible suffering and emotional and spiritual darkness engulfing many. There is some salvific grace: The death of loved ones and others we know from the SARS-COV-2 virus is leading to the conversion of many who were resistant, often aggressively so, to being vaccinated.

Pride is the master of disguises. Egotism and pride cum hubris mixed with magical thinking has sadly led to the illness and deaths of many during the pandemic. Such pride also featured prominently in a number of previous pandemics.

Pride is often the deadliest of the classic seven, because we are bewilderingly unaware of its chameleon wiles.

The moment we are in and in the weeks and months ahead, the balm of mercy is going to be needed to heal fraught relationships fractured because of the pandemic. This includes mercy and love for those who have behaved foolishly and with overweening pride during the pandemic.

The quality of mercy is many times borne from the trembling desire to transform our pain and tragic disappointments into empathy, solidarity, forgiveness – and resurrection.

Like forgiveness, mercy is an amphibious love: It inhabits the despair that is as chilling and as impenetrable as polar glaciers, and as frightening and as lonely as the unfathomed oceanic depths into which we are so often plunged, gasping for the terra firma of hope, where mercy’s balm beckons as insistently as a faithful lighthouse keeper on watch for prodigal sons and daughters longing for home.

What else did Jesus and his fellow convict speak of that Good Friday? We may imagine the latter’s plea for mercy poured forth amid shame and brokenness, and the epiphany that the love of his companion on the cross redeemed him.

An octogenarian Jesuit, resembling Socrates, and a faithful companion of Jesus, confided that at the evening song of his life that he found greater consolation in classical literature.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare famously offers:

“The quality of mercy is not strain'd,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes ... ”

“It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Yet, how frequently we refuse to take or receive the cup of mercy. It oft takes many dry seasons and mustard seeds before we are receptive to the gentle rains of mercy from heaven and from loved ones here on earth.

The joy of mercy dawns, often surprises, along the fault lines and the seeming eternity of fits and starts, and the sloughs and peaks that is the rugged pathway of conversion.

The popularized presentations of Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables usually condense just how long and just how difficult are the journeys of conversion of the lead character in each work.

Jean Valjean, the main protagonist of Les Miserables, is well-known from the stage and film versions of Hugo’s 1862 French historical novel. The epic work details Valjean’s, “struggle to lead a normal life after serving a prison sentence for stealing bread to feed his sister's children during a time of economic depression and an attempted prison escape.”

Recently released from prison and a long way from becoming a good citizen and a successful businessman, Valjean finds himself as a vagabond, and as the guest of a bishop who gives him food and shelter – and friendship.

The bishop and the vagabond share the fellowship of food and conversation. Valjean sleeps later in a real bed with fresh sheets for the first time in years. Yet, despite unbounded hospitality, he betrays the bishop by stealing his silver cutlery.

When Valjean is captured and brought before the bishop to identify the thief and the stolen silver, something remarkable happens: the joy of mercy.

“He [the bishop] feigns surprise at the capture and says [to the police]: ‘Yes, certainly Valjean was here as my guest last night and indeed I gave him the silver. ‘But’, he says, turning to the convict, ‘Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They're silver like the rest and worth a good two hundred francs. Did you forget to take them?’”

When the police leave, the bishop exuberantly forgives Valjean and offers to the very one who has betrayed his hospitality and trust:

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” The joy of mercy.

The moral life usually requires second, third and fourth attempts – and more. And, more than three strikes. The bishop’s mercy helps to transform Valjean. Though mercy sometimes seems naive, it is often wiser than blunt justice.

Pope John Paul I, Albino Luciani, was a devoted reader of his fellow Italian Collodi’s 1883 novel Pinocchio. A copy of this tale of fall and redemption reportedly accompanied the late pontiff throughout his adult life.

Just as the world of Hugo’s Les Miserables is mostly grimy and severe, the world of Collodi’s Pinocchio is more desperate than Disney’s version. The original story has “dark undercurrents”. Pinocchio and his woodcarver creator-father Geppetto, “live in abject poverty and are frequently placed in life-threatening situations.”

Pinocchio, lying feverishly to cover his tracks, skips school, runs off to Pleasure Island where he is turned into a donkey because of his sloth. The jackass indulges a carnival of deadly sins and bad habits.

Still, his is a story of conversion, of a conscience shaken and challenged through personal struggle and the mercy of others, a soul in moral flux, tending between a desire for goodness and the seductions of self-indulgence and selfishness.

The wooden puppet is slowly, painstakingly transformed into flesh and blood, born again and again. Early in the tale, the Blue Fairy turns Pinocchio from an inanimate puppet into a living, yet still wooden puppet. She indicates that for him to become a “real, live boy” will require conversion.

Pinocchio takes the form of wood, animal and finally human flesh and blood, representing his deepening conversion to new habits, more fundamental desires, richer relationships and personal integrity.

We are all Pinocchio, struggling, each of us, to live lives of deeper purpose. If we are fortunate, like him, we have companions on the journey whose mercy and love make us more fully human and whose mercy helps to make possible our ongoing conversion from deadly sins into life-giving habits.

Pinocchio is blessed with Geppetto, who sacrifices to protect his son; blessed with the compassion of the Blue Fairy; and blessed with the companionship of the Talking Cricket named Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinocchio.

Mercy flows from love. It is the gift of kin like Geppetto and kith like Jiminy Cricket, reminding us that nothing can separate us from their love and the possibility of reconciliation.

Fr James Keenan, S.J., insists mercy is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another’s life. The acceptance of such a gift allows another to enter into the shame, shadows, insecurities, blunders, wonders, aspirations and joys of our blessed chaos.

Mercy is “twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Mercy is a virtue of mutuality, and a wellspring of communion and liberation.

In imitation of the Easter wonder, moving from Good Friday to Easter dawn, to whom shall we propose the gift of mercy and how might the gift of another’s mercy move us that farther along our path of conversion?


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