Submerged in Mercy

Whoever visits a sick person is plunging into mercy until he sits down, and when he sits down he is submerged in it.

Silsilah Al-Saheehah

visiting the sickI came across this quote from the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, when I attended a professional development day at the Islamic Council of Victoria. The event had begun at 6.00am so that participants could observe the early prayers of the Muslim day, and I wasn’t too alert as someone talked about the needs of Muslim patients in hospital. Until this quote appeared on the screen.

Now, I was awake, grabbing a pen and writing it down. Later, I asked the speaker about Silsilah Al-Saheehah. Who or what is this? She informed me that this is the name given to the authenticated sayings of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad; the literal translation is ‘The Authentic Series’.

At the time, I was working in pastoral care in a public hospital and it spoke  directly to my work. This is what I was doing – visiting the sick, usually sitting at their bedside. I had thought of myself as offering mercy, perhaps even bringing it with me, but the prophet, Muhammad, turned that notion on its head and revealed the egoism in it.

Mercy precedes me whenever I visit the sick. It is already there.

I enter into it, more than that, I immerse myself in it. Mercy envelopes me.

In the action of visiting the sick, I gain as much as I may give.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by this notion as I knew its truth from experience. When I was twenty-three years old, I gave birth to twin boys. They were eight weeks premature and while one has grown to manhood, the other only lived for four days. He died after we had given permission for life support to be discontinued. We were told we could stay until the end, but if we didn’t a nurse would sit with him. I could not and did not stay. I had no experience of death at that time and no resources on which I could draw.

More than twenty years later I met another twenty-three year woman whose son would not live. She was still in the labour ward, but had asked that he be removed from the room. She could not watch him die. Would I sit with him?

It was after hours. How long could I stay, how long would it take? These were the uppermost questions when I first sat down beside him, but after a time, they no longer seemed relevant as it dawned on me that I was doing something for this young woman that another woman had done for me. I would stay as long as it took.

When I left the hospital that night, I knew a circle had been closed and I had received more than I had given.  Moreover, it was Lent and resurrection had come to me.

I plunged into mercy when I entered that room and as I sat there, I was submerged in it.

Self-promotion vs Anonymity

I’ve recently finished reading Italian author, Elena Ferrante’s captivating Neapolitan series.  I discovered Ferrante after coming across this article:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/01/21/women-on-the-verge

In my writing studies, I’ve often heard  that authors must become adept at ‘shameless’ self-promotion in order to find a readership. Yet, Elena Ferrante has found international readership for her eight novels without performing a single act of self-promotion. Further, she has chosen withdrawal and anonymity. The public do not know who she is.

When her first book was published, she told her publisher,

‘I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t … True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known.’

This runs counter to our technological age where many of us put our writings ‘out there’ every day, firmly attached to our name and our #hashtags. Elena Ferrante has put me in mind of something Jesus said, that we ought to beware of practicing our piety in order to be seen by others.

There are more important rewards than being known.

Anonymity

Then who will we be?

Then who will we be? 5853965-question-mark

This is the last line in a recent article, Nauru: how long can we keep lying to ourselves, written by Waleed Aly and published in The Age. Aly uncovers the fabric of lies that have been told and legislated by successive governments to justify current asylum seeker policy, and questions how long they can be sustained. He concludes with this:

‘At some point, the clock runs out. And on that day, maybe the alarm will sound on these mighty fictions that have been sustaining us. Then who will we be?’

This last question has struck a chord with me in a way that finds application beyond this country’s inhumane asylum seeker policy. Today is Ash Wednesday, which begins a period of preparation and discipline for the Christian church. It reflects on the life and ministry of Jesus and calls upon Christians to renew their commitment to Christian discipleship.

‘Then who will we be’ is a searching question to carry into Lent. It invites us to examine our decisions, our actions and our beliefs, every one of which is forming and transforming us.

Every ‘yes’ to any given thing sets us on a path that moves towards one thing and away from something else. For example, our assent to ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘stop the boats’ in Australia has taken this country down the path towards moral bankruptcy.

Similarly, and at a personal level, the same is true. When we say ‘yes’ to one thing, we say ‘no’ to another and it changes us, for good or for ill. Lent is the season to pay attention to the paths we’re travelling.

I enter Lent this year pondering on Waleed Aly’s question, ‘then who will we be’.

I invite you to join me.

I Need to Know

I’m waiting on a phone call,

on the details,

on the date and time.

It’s not happening to me,

it’s not my turn.

 

‘I’m available when you need me,’ I said,

‘Call me when you’re ready.’

But she hasn’t called.

 

My unease grows by the hour.

‘Call me,’ I say to the silent phone,

‘Call me,’ I blurt out loud,

mumble under my breath,

cry out in my head.

 

I Need to Know.

 

What is this need?

The need to be needed

To be the confidant

To be recognised

To be on hand

To know what others don’t know

To be the caretaker of the knowing.

There is power in knowing.

 

I know it is about me,

This need to know.

 

So, I remind myself, ‘It’s not about you,

be patient, be still, wait.’

Okay, but …

 

I Need to Know.

 

 

Dabbing 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.

  • What is your first thought on reading this quote from Sue Monk Kidd’s, The Secret Life of Bees?
  • Where does it arrest your attention?
  • Who has done this for you: ‘dabbed mercy on your beat-up life’? How?

For Monk Kidd’s protagonist, Lily, who was running from home and from a terrible guilt, somebody provided her with a safe place to be and the absence of expectation that she give more than she wanted to– of herself or physical labour.

For me, it was Jill, who at the lowest ebb of my life and despite my obvious failure, brushed the knuckle of one finger across my cheek and told me I was beloved.

hurt and needing careThis line from The Secret Life of Bees stays with me for a number of reasons:

There is the source – a sense of the cosmic giver, thought of by Monk Kidd as the world, who brings the gift of mercy to your corner.

There is a sense of reprieve – a timeout in the midst of the storm, from the unrelenting pain.

There is the ‘somebody’ with whom the world has so conspired to cross your path.

And then there is the dabbing of mercy on your beat-up life.

The image starts from a cosmic view where you are the speck on the bigger stage and finishes with the spotlight on your wounds – the cut above your eye or the split lip, wounds that have been sustained in the boxing ring of life. And someone treats these wounds with tenderness, touches them lightly, staunches the blood and applies healing salve. The salve may well be cooling and bring relief, but the lightness of the touch, implied in the word ‘dab’, is where the mercy lies.

The hand that brings mercy is light. And you who receive it, are blessed.

  • Having thought about who has done this for you, who could you pass it on to, this dab of mercy?
  • What form could that take?

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

Mercy

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:

nativity

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

angels

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

magi_santa

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

baubles_lights

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.