Word Pictures of Mercy

In 2005 I came across this word picture in a novel of what it’s like to receive mercy:

The world will give you that once in a while, a brief timeout; the boxing bell rings and you go into your corner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

providing mercyI was working in a public hospital in the role of a pastoral care worker. There, I found myself sitting with people who had been flung into unimagined places by an unexpected and unwanted diagnosis or prognosis, who were facing their own mortality or had experienced the death of a loved one. Often, their experiences challenged the sure convictions I then held. More than once, I was faced with the dilemma of accompanying someone into places that I felt certain I would not go. What did I think I was doing?

As I wrestled with this, Monk Kidd’s word picture captured my attention. It dawned on me that I was learning what mercy means in the extreme places of life where no rules seem to apply. This mercy was outside of the religious terms in which I thought of it. All of us, when pushed to the edge, live life as we can, not as we must according to prescribed dogma, religious or otherwise.

I worked in a public hospital offering pastoral care to patients and their families until recently (September 2015). Countless conversations now lie behind me in which I have listened to people’s attempts to make sense of what has happened to them or to their loved one. For example, Irena wondered if she had somehow betrayed Milan by consenting to his hospitalisation. She sat daily for long hours beside his bed and watched his condition deteriorate in alarming ways.

Often, people do not refer to religion or faith or spirituality and some are at pains to let me know they are ‘not religious’. Yet, almost without exception, when the unexpected, unwanted thing has happened, these conversations reflect the human need to reach beyond or to hope for something bigger. So, despite having told me categorically that there is no god, Irena hoped that Milan was ‘in a better place’ when his horrible dying is over. What is this hope? I wonder if what she hoped for him was mercy – and also for herself now that she is alone with her grief.

All of this inspired me to look for other word pictures in literature to join the one I cherished from Sue Monk Kidd. Once I began looking, I found them in sacred texts, classical literature, poetry, song lyrics, fiction and non-fiction. I’ve collected some of my favourites and will present them in coming posts.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

In the late-90s when I was an ordained Christian minister working with my husband in a medium-sized church in the northern Melbourne suburb of Glenroy, my own faith and spiritual practice was undergoing a transformation. While away at a week-long silent retreat, I found myself drawn to Jesus’ words in Matthew 9:13:


mercy not sacrifice


I spent the rest of the week trying to comprehend what it meant, to come up with a theory, a premise, perhaps even a sermon idea. I saw it, at first, as another concept to understand. By the end of the week, I had realised there would be no walking away with a neat philosophy. This statement of Jesus would be something I would have to learn through the stuff of living life.

One year later, at the next retreat, I read Luke 6:36:

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful

This comes hard on the heels of that very difficult saying of Jesus about loving one’s enemies. It’s a reference to God’s self-proclamation found in the Hebrew scripture in Exodus 34:5-6:

The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with (Moses), and proclaimed the name, ‘The LORD.’ The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

The Hebrew word translated in English as ‘LORD’, could equally be translated as ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I am who I will be’, so this self-proclamation of God contains a statement of essence – God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

Therefore, learning mercy means learning how to be gracious, how to slow down the rise of anger and and how to remain resolute in my commitment to love. It also means learning fidelity, another underused word.

That’s when I realised this idea of learning ‘mercy, not sacrifice’ would be a life-long learning. That was fifteen years ago. I’m still learning.

Mercy Defined


An underused word in our modern society, it seems to have fallen out of fashion except, perhaps, in religious settings. We rarely hear it spoken, even in fiction. Perhaps that’s why the appeal of Les Miserables persists – the premise of mercy on which the story stands is irresistible.

The Macquarie Dictionary defines mercy as:

compassionate or kindly forbearance shown towards an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence

Synonyms include:

providing mercy

  • compassion
  • pity
  • kindness
  • forgiveness



Mercy, thus defined, is something given in a situation of inequality by the one with the greater power. Inspector Jaevert had it in his power to treat Valjean as an equal, especially once he had served his time, but he declined to do so.

This idea of unequal power is a central concept to understanding what mercy means. How we behave towards someone over whom we have a vestige of power is a sure way of identifying what, if anything, we know about mercy.

Because we don’t have to look very far to see the misuse and abuse of power, we may wonder if there is any mercy in our society today. It’s my premise that mercy is to be found, but because we don’t always find it in the places we think it should be, we don’t always see it, or if we do, we fail to name it.

Learning Mercy

Victor Hugo’s famous story, Les Miserables, endures to this day. The point on which the whole story turns is when police apprehend a newly released convict, Jean Valjean, in possession of silver cutlery. Surely, he is a thief. But when they take Valjean back to the home of the Bishop from whence the cutlery came, the Bishop astounds everyone by pressing him to take a pair of matching candlesticks too. When Valjean later asks him why, he replies:

Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.

Jean Valjean is a man reborn because of the Bishop’s mercy and seeks to live a virtuous life from then on. But Police Inspector Javert is equally intent on pursuing him as an ex-convict. Javert lives his life by the rule of justice and towards the end, after Valjean has the opportunity to show him the same mercy he had once received, Javert simply doesn’t understand it.

Jean Valjean:

You never temper justice with mercy?

Inspector Javert:

No, we might as well understand each other… I administer the law – good, bad, or indifferent – it’s no business of mine, but the law to the letter!

This is a view Javert maintains until the end where he exclaims,

it’s a pity the rules don’t allow me to be merciful.

Packing Up Christmas

With the New Year comes the job of packing up the Christmas decorations. I like to get mine up on 1st December and leave them right through the 12 days of Christmas, which takes us to 6th January.

This year I was late on both counts, so the decorations only came down yesterday.

The nativity goes into its padded box:


The angels, who have graced the top of the tree, nestle back in their plastic bag:


The magi and santa lie folded together on top of the case:


Baubles and lights in their respective boxes lie side by side in this crate:


The living room feels bare, although other decorations and artwork, put away for the season, are back in their places. The colour and sparkle have gone and the everyday has been restored.

Although the decorations are stowed away for another year, I want to remain mindful of Christmas throughout this year:

  • of the Advent theme of waiting as a new grandbaby gestates in her/his mother’s womb and we wait on the announcement of arrival
  • of the angelic declaration of ‘peace of earth’
  • of the vulnerability throughout the whole Christmas story –angels appear to the most unlikely of people and the epiphany comes to the ‘others’

It is my prayer that I will see, hear and embrace arrivals and others in 2016.

And it’s my prayer for you that peace will be with you.


Confession time:

Foolishly, I ignored an email (okay, three emails) from my server host towards the end of last year and my domain name expired. More drastically, I didn’t have back up files and my whole site has disappeared. I thought that once something was up on the net, it was up for life, but renewing my domain name and my host hasn’t made my site reappear!

So, I’m letting go of my anger towards myself (how I’d love to be able to blame someone else!) and trying to see this as an opportunity to start again and reinvent this site.

Let’s see what it will become …