Wonder Watch in the Face of Fear

Yesterday, I woke up to a discussion about the poll findings that one in two Australians want a ban on Muslim immigration. Later in the day I stumbled across this podcast of Dr Rachael Kohn interviewing Irish poet, Pádraig Ó Tuama, which offered me a way of thinking about it.

He read one of his poems, which contained the line

Who has taught us to fear?

A very good question.

Further into the interview, talking about differences in language, he said, ‘pain is never exhausted by language’ and invited his hearers to a stance of curiosity over issues of pain.

This word, ‘curiosity’, in Irish includes the idea of ‘wonder watch’. Wonder watch first puts me in mind of wonderful things – a magnificent sunrise/set, glorious colour, but Ó Tuama posed the question,

How can we observe pain and argument with wonder?

He called us to a spirituality that respects pain.

Thinking about this interview afterwards, I found myself composing my own Wonder Watch. What are the things that stir the snake-like coil of fear in me? What causes fear to stir, raise its head, prepare to strike?

What stirs the fear in you?

Let us seek to observe our fear with wonder and maintain a Wonder Watch in the face of it.




Break Our Hardened Hearts

broken_heart1Complicit, guilty

association condemns:

break our hardened hearts


self-immolateTimWinton_Love Makes a Way

verb (i) (self-immolated, self-immolating)
to commit suicide by dousing oneself with petrol and then setting oneself on fire, especially as a political protest.


noun (plural complicities)
1.  the state of being an accomplice; partnership in wrongdoing.

Sean Kelly,  in his article, A despicable press conferencewrites:

One of the strengths of humanity is its ability to adapt to new conditions. The downside of this is our tendency to accustom ourselves to new patterns very quickly. The argument that this is how Australia’s asylum seeker policy is meant to work – the deliberate exercise of cruelty in order to prevent potentially disastrous decisions – is no longer shocking.

Perhaps we will feel that way about self-immolation, soon.

All of the above weighs heavily on my heart and mind after the news of a second asylum seeker, driven to desperation by Australian asylum seeker policy, has set herself alight in Nauru. I accept a certain level of complicity; the government of the day is subject to the people and I am one of the people.

This morning, we are beset by politicians trying to sell the federal budget, which was handed down last night, and at the same time, dismiss any suggestion of culpability in this latest tragedy. Questions are asked and side-stepped; interviewers move on. I find myself trying to hold on to the horror and the outrage and even my sense of guilt, but it fades as the next news item vies for attention. It bothers me that my heart is hardening, that the shock is wearing off, that I might yet become used to stories of self-immolation, and excuse myself of complicity.

How to raise again the value of ‘the currency of mercy’?

To have mercy is to have a broken heart … in order to be merciful, we must know how desperately we need mercy … we are a people who are empty

This statement from the Sisters of Mercy of South America speaks to our need. Let our hearts be broken over this.



Thanks for Listening

I met him last week on the steps on The Royal Women’s Hospital. He was coming up, while I was going down. He spoke to me. I hesitated, he stopped.

‘Do you work here?’ he asked.

‘No,’ I said, stopping too.

‘What do you do then?’

‘I’m a minister of religion,’ I told him. A mistake.

He immediately pounced; began to tell me about experiences he’d had, religious and otherwise. About his girlfriend’s experiences, how young she was and his need for someone with more knowledge.

It was raining. I had an umbrella, but he was getting wet. I angled my brollie in an attempt to shelter him a little. He didn’t seem to notice and talked on, asking me questions but leaving me no time to answer. He didn’t need answers.

He had a theory, a conspiracy theory. Inwardly, I groaned, but none-the-less decided I would hear him out. A mega-virus with the capacity to wipe us all out. He had a sample of it with him and he held up a small esky. He should get going. He was taking it inside and he looked up at the hospital.

‘This is the Women’s,’ he said. ‘I’m at the wrong entrance. I’m going to the Melbourne.’

He laughed and turned away from me. Continuing down the steps towards the street corner and my car, I heard him call out. I turned to see him waving at me.

‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘thanks for listening!’

Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to show mercy.


Image found at: http://annatrundle.com/silentlisten

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.

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


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.