I am part of an Ignatian Lay Volunteer group and we have retreats a couple of times a year. The theme of today’s was appropriately, mercy. In the Catholic Church we are celebrating a Year of Mercy. Led by a wonderful facilitator and joined by an amazing group of folks, we spent time together sitting in the merciful gaze of God for a few hours. The silence of this day was timely for me.
One of the reasons I love the retreat is that we use a mix of resources when we address a theme. Today was no different. We began with a traditional song that is well-known in Catholic circles–Blest be the Lord. We recited together the official prayer that Pope Francis has given us for the year. We shared Scripture and even a song by Leonard Cohen called Come Healing (also referred to as Gates of Mercy). We then retreated to quiet spaces for our own reflection times before we gathered again to share what transpired in that time and then did it again with fresh questions and resources.
For me what unfolded came out of a compilation of thoughts. One of the comments that the facilitator began with was that our challenge was to look into the face of those who annoy us. These people who are unlovable drive us to our knees. We who know God’s love and mercy can accept God’s forgiveness. In turn, we can extend mercy to the ones who hurt us.
Sometimes when we look into the faces of the ones we love, we also need to show or receive mercy. Last night I went to see the latest Nicholas Sparks movie, The Choice, a sappy romance that has a Sparks’ sad twist to it. At one point early on, Travis says to Gabby You bother me. That becomes the standing joke between them as they fall in love, marry and build a life together. Gabby reminded me a bit of my playful side–the one that skips and twirls, the one who dances in the kitchen while making breakfast, the one that loves the beach, and the one that believes in the God who made the stars and the moon. I had a little flashback to the first man who I was ever serious about. I used to bother him with my answer to his questions–maybe, maybe not--and then I would laugh. One winter night I danced around his car before getting into it and he thought I was insane but I knew that he loved me. We would show each other much mercy in the time we were together.
Sometimes, just like in the movie, our plans get turned upside down. The Cohen song opens with these words: O gather up the brokenness and bring it to me now. Life does not always unfold as we hope. What we do when that happens requires much mercy. The song continues:
Behold the gates of mercy
in arbitrary space
And none of us deserving
The cruelty or the grace.
The odd thing about mercy is that none of us do deserve the cruelty or grace. How many times in life have we asked for mercy and received none? How many times did mercy visit when we knew it should not?
The Gospel Reading we were given to contemplate on showed Christ’s immense generosity where mercy is concerned. The woman washes his feet with her tears and then anoints him. At the end of my reflection time, with many thoughts running through my head, I placed myself at the feet of Jesus in this scenario. I could feel the deep love he has for those in need of mercy. That was a huge gift and comfort.
In the afternoon, we spent time with the phrase Be merciful as your Father is merciful and with the seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy. We had also touched upon Mary, as the Untier of Knots. As part of the Year of Mercy, I had received an email about this that very morning and so I spent some time with the image. What came to me was how I often do not experience mercy from my own mother, and nor do I extend much mercy to her. This year, during my illness though, that has shifted a bit. I have come to see that we are both capable of acts of mercy.
I thought about mothers and teachers who must untie the knots of the shoes of children. The child is stuck in the shoe if they cannot untie it. Some manage to wiggle out of the shoe, but then they cannot put it back on, creating a whole other problem. I imagined Mary, bending down and untying the knots on our shoes, helping us to accept our limitations and our struggles. I imagined her looking up into my face as a child, as she undid the knotted shoelaces of my runners, with a smile that stilled my anxiety. Looking into faces works both ways. I must receive the look of mercy as often as I give it. I later came across this novena that I may use as Lent begins later this week to have Mary help me undo the knots in my life.
The day was fruitful and I have much to consider further. I hope to be able to look into faces of those who bother me with the gentle eyes of Jesus who accepted both the woman who washed his feet and of his host Simon who judged him harshly. I want to have Mary gaze into my eyes and affirm me with her tenderness when I need it too. Mercy has been shown to us and that is a gift to pay forward.
Have you received the look of mercy from someone recently?
What knot does Mary need to help you untie?
Merciful God, you look down on us with gentle eyes as we weep at your feet and up at us as we struggle with the knots in our lives. Undone, we are yours. Teach us to be merciful as you are. Amen.