a tough day on the planet
(cyprian, mercy sunday)
There was a bumper sticker I saw once (some of you know I quote this every now and then), that touched me very deeply and affected my whole attitude and outlook on life. God can even speak through bumper stickers sometimes! This one meant as much to me than a scripture quote or some nice platitude about God. It was simply this: “Be kind; it’s been a tough day on the planet for everyone.” For example, I traveled extensively for some years and found myself in crowded airports too many times. Sometimes there would be long lines and delays. And I was amazed by how horrible and rude people could be, shoving there way through crowds and, worst of all, speaking rudely to and sometimes even yelling at the poor attendants behind the counter, as if they had caused the problem or could fix it! And this bumper sticker would come to my mind, and I would think to myself (and be tempted to say out loud), “Be kind; it’s been a tough day on the planet for everyone.”
I suppose I’ve thought of “mercy” as a soft, fuzzy thing, a kind of ephemeral thing, usually associated with a kind of condescension. But I’m finding out that it is the toughest thing around. It’s easy to be mean, it’s easy to be sarcastic, it’s easy to be dismissive; it’s easy to be a bully. It takes a lot of work to be merciful, to be kind, to be compassionate. It’s not a big far off thing either; it’s not just about some people far away in a war torn country or some abstract poor sinners living in squalor on the streets or in crack dens. Mercy is really the way we walk around each day interacting with each other, too, maybe even more. I remember another saying I heard once, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.” Mercy is very particular, very local. It’s not about humanity; it’s about the person in front of me.
I’ve been listening to some teachings by a Tibetan teacher who is also a psychologist recently, Tara Brach. The Buddhist tradition is particularly brilliant in their teaching about compassion, and the way they talk about it, it seems to be what we are really aiming at with mercy. (And those two words––mercy and compassion––are practically synonymous in the Abrahamic tradition anyway, as you’ll see.) There were two things she said that I found very practical. One is that the reason we sometimes can’t feel empathy for others (and therefore, mercy) is that we are not embodied enough. Real compassion is just that––feeling-with another. But to really get to the feeling level in our own selves we have to find our own feelings, and our feelings are stored in our bodies. Our emotions are as much physical as they are mental-psychological. That’s why our bodies can react even when they haven’t been activated from the outside. That’s why we cringe when we see another person get hurt, in a car accident, for instance, or when we see pictures of violence. We actually do feel it! And so Tara Brach says we first of all need to find our own tenderness, our own vulnerability, that place where we’re tender and raw and vulnerable, where we’ve been hurt––our own wounds. That gets the feeling alive. And once we get in touch with that we then need to generalize it, make it part of a larger reality, the larger reality of others who are probably going through the same fears or pains or grief or feeling of not belonging, of loneliness or isolation. That’s what really activates compassion and mercy, when I wake up and realize that others are going through what I’ve gone through. In other words, “Be kind; it’s been a tough day on the planet for everyone”––not just for you.
And with this in mind, it’s so moving in the gospel reading that we hear each year on Mercy Sunday, the 2nd Sunday after Easter, the story of Thomas touching Jesus wounds’. It’s by his wounds we are healed.[i] And don’t we hear about Jesus himself, in the letter to the Hebrews, as the compassionate high priest who can sympathize with those who are ignorant or uncertain because he too lived in the limitations of weakness… Son though he was, he learnt to obey through his suffering.[ii] By his wounds we are healed, and it’s by our own wounds that we become healers. Like Jesus, our mercy flows forth from our wounds too! Hence why the Holy Father can say, “Who am I to judge?” I’m a sinner; I’m a weak human being, too. In his book The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis defined mercy this way: opening one’s heart to wretchedness, in other words, being present to misery. But if we are afraid to face or admit our own misery, our own wretchedness, our own weakness and pain and suffering––our own wounds!––; if we have numbed our own misery instead beneath a cloud of denial, or food or drugs or alcohol or constant diversion from outside sources, we will not be open to sympathize, we won’t be able to empathize, we can’t be present to misery, we won’t be open to mercy. It’s in touching Jesus’ wounds that Thomas knows that this is Jesus. That’s the proof––glory is not streaming from a lofty height, but from these fleshly wounds. And glory shines forth from our wounds too. By his wounds we are healed, and by our wounds we become healers.
“God’s name is mercy.” This is a staple of all three of the Abrahamic faiths. In Judaism, especially in the psalms, how often we hear that God is merciful and compassionate. And I love the fact that the root of the word for ‘mercy’ in Hebrew and Arabic is the word for womb––rechem in Hebrew, raham in Arabic. So I always like to think of “the womb of mercy.” And so Isaiah says, ‘Can a mother forget her baby, or a woman the child within her rechem–womb?’ And so that line from the prophet Hosea which portrays God as a mother, ‘It was I who taught you how to walk! It was I who held you in my arms. I nurtured you like infants, I raised you to my cheek… I will not give vent to blazing anger.’ [iii] And every surah of the Qur’an begins with the invocation Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim–“Praise to Allah, the merciful and compassionate.” And of course Jesus shows us nothing but the mercy of his Abba. He quotes the prophet Hosea when he tells the Pharisees, ‘Go and learn the meaning of these words, “It is mercy I desire not sacrifice.”’[iv] And he had compassion on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd[v] and he too laments over Jerusalem saying he wants to gather her children like a hen gathers her brood.[vi] And so this theme abides with Holy Mother the Church, as we heard from the Holy Father’s words this morning: this is a time when the Church––Holy Mother the Church!––needs to show “her maternal side, her motherly face, to a humanity that is wounded.” Jesus tells his followers to ‘Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.’[vii] When Matthew quotes that, he uses the word “perfect” instead: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’[viii] Could it be that Luke is telling us what it means to be perfect, to be like God: ‘Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.’
These are some excerpts from the Holy Father’s Prayer for the Holy Year of Mercy:
Lord Jesus Christ,
you taught us to be merciful like the heavenly Father,
and have told us that whoever sees you, sees the Father.
show us your face and we will be saved. …
… you are the visible face of the invisible God,
the God who manifests power above all by forgiveness and mercy:
Let your Church––that is, let each one of us––be your visible face in the world…
You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness
in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error:
Let everyone who approaches them––
that is, let everyone who approaches us!––
feel sought after, loved and forgiven…
Send your Spirit and consecrate every one of us with its anointing,
so that this Jubilee Year of Mercy may be a time of grace…
and your Church, with renewed enthusiasm,
may bring good news to the poor,
proclaim liberty to captives and the oppressed,
and restore sight to the blind.
And he ends by asking the intercession of Mary the Mother of Mercy.
Since the pope mentions Mary at the end, I want to end with one of my favorite songs, by Leonard Cohen. I often say about him that this is one Jew who understands Christianity better than some of us Christians. This is his “Song of Bernadette” written about Bernadette and our Lady of Lourdes.
There was a child named Bernadette. / I heard the story long ago.
She saw the Queen of Heaven once, / and kept the vision in her soul.
No one believed what she had see, / no one believed what she heard:
that there was sorrows to be healed / and mercy, there was mercy in this world.
So many hearts I find, hearts like yours and mine,
Torn by what we’ve done and can’t undo.
I just want to hold you, what you let me hold you / like Bernadette would do.
We’ve been around, we fall we fly. / We mostly fall, we mostly run.
And every now and then we try / to mend the damage that we’ve done.
Tonight, tonight I just can’t rest; / I’ve got his joy here inside my breast,
to think that I did not forget / that child, that song of Bernadette.
So let’s pray that we could find the strength to be kind, to be merciful, to be compassionate: it’s been a tough day on the planet––it’s been a tough day at New Camaldoli, it’s been a tough day in your homes and schools and workplaces––it’s been tough day for everyone.
If it is by his wounds that we are healed, it is by our wounds that we become healers.
[i] 1 Pt 2:24.
[ii] Heb 5:1, 8
[iii] Hos 11:3-4
[iv] Mt 9:13
[v] Mt 9:36
[vi] Mt 23:37; Lk 13:34.
[vii] Lk 6:36
[viii] Mt 5:48