Reflections of Mercy

By Teresa

On November 20, 2016, Catholics celebrated the close of the recent Jubilee Year of Mercy.  Based on the Jewish tradition of jubilee years in which debts were forgiven, prisoners freed, and fields left fallow (see Leviticus 25), this past year has sought to make manifest God’s love and mercy in our suffering world.  As Pope Francis declared, “The Church… is called to offer more evident signs of God’s presence and closeness… [This year] is the favorable time to heal wounds, a time not to be weary of meeting all those who are waiting to see and to touch with their hands the signs of the closeness of God, a time to offer everyone, everyone, the way of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

In the United States, this year has concluded with the Cubs’ win in the World Series—an act of mercy, perhaps, for all but Cleveland fans—followed by Donald Trump’s win in the presidential election.  This divisive latter event, an antithesis of mercy in the eyes of many, has deeply shaken my sense of community.  I reserve the rest of my thoughts about the election and the president-elect for an addendum below, as my purpose here is to discuss mercy, not politics.  Suffice it to say, with the breaches between us laid bare in a way I have not perceived during previous political disagreements, I have felt tempted to withdraw, to retreat from the mirage of human solidarity.  Yet, mercy impels us to reach out to others and to allow others to reach out to us.

What is mercy?  First, there is the mercy that God shows humanity through Jesus’ sacrifice and death; this mercy continues to enter and shape our lives every day.  For those interested in Divine Mercy, I highly recommend 33 Days to Merciful Love and Daily Reflections on Divine Mercy.  These works, based respectively on the writings of St. Therese of the Little Flower and St. Faustina, offer daily reflections on how God reaches out to us in daily life.  But here I would like to discuss the mercy that we, as humans, show one another (and ourselves).  Human mercy is connected to, but not dependent on, belief in a divine being.

Traditionally, merciful actions have been categorized as a series of corporal and spiritual works.  The seven corporal works of mercy are: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, ransoming the captive, and burying the dead.  The seven spiritual works are: instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses, comforting the sorrowful, and praying for the living and the dead.  We can loosely place most merciful acts within these categories, but the concrete actions of mercy take many different forms because mercy is a mindset, not a to-do list.

In this context, mercy is perhaps best defined as a kindness toward another, without expecting anything in return.  In essence, mercy is love.  Mercy is also responding to others’ love toward us, even when we are tired, annoyed, or hurting.

In all of its manifestations, mercy directs our desires toward others.  Rather than prioritizing ourselves, our pride, or our own interests, we instead share, serve, and humbly receive what others offer us.  Most of all, we strive to see others in themselves, and not just in how they relate to us.  Psychologists have demonstrated that we tend to discriminate against outsiders while favoring those whom we perceive as being in the same group with us.  Mercy brings all humanity into this close group of friends and allies.

Mercy also encourages us to think in terms of abundance, rather than scarcity.  When my brother and I walked the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route across northern Spain, I felt friendly toward the other pilgrims, but also anxious.  It was June, and the popular pilgrimage attracted enough walkers that pilgrim hostels could fill up; we might have to walk further than planned, or miss out on staying at particularly unique hostels housed in old church belfries or Romanesque chapels.  If other pilgrims passed us, I feared that they would take beds that we wanted.  These uncharitable feelings bothered me, yet I could not let go of my concerns.  Finally, toward the end of the pilgrimage, I resolved to greet each pilgrim as an individual fully loved by God, and for whom God had special plans.  All were my brothers and sisters, and I needed to genuinely treat them as such in my thoughts.  From that moment on, I didn’t worry about how many pilgrims might be ahead of us, or planning to stay where we wanted; I wished everyone well, and trusted that we would all end up where we needed to be.

Of course, whole-hearted sharing and trust in abundance is not easy when, in practice, resources do seem very limited.  (I speak from the perspective of someone on the job market, in which I compete with hundreds of applicants for each tenure-track job.)  Our desires are not always realized, especially in the way we prefer. Yet I believe that if we genuinely orient our desires around others, not ourselves, ourselves, we will find that we have that which is sufficient.

In this way, mercy heals the rifts between us.  We view others as our family, members of ‘our’ group.  Mercy will not necessarily reconcile differences, but it will build bridges over the chasms that separate us.

Mercy also reveals our vulnerabilities.  The spiritual works of mercy in particular demonstrate our own weakness.  When we perform a corporal work of mercy—feeding the hungry, or visiting the imprisoned, for example—in most cases we ourselves are not literally in need of the same mercy.  We are in a position to be charitable toward others.  In contrast, most of the spiritual works of mercy (instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses, comforting the sorrowful, and praying for others) remind us of our own need for mercy.  If we are honest with ourselves, when we bear wrongs patiently, forgive, and counsel, we realize that we are equally in need of these merciful acts from others.  We need comforting, admonishing, and instructing; we need prayers and forgiveness.

Recognizing our imperfections before God may not be particularly difficult—it is not hard to accept second place when you are competing against an invincible opponent–but to admit our shortcomings before other imperfect humans, and receive their mercy, requires much more humility.  Receiving mercy also brings joy, however, once we realize we need it.

How can we show mercy in the face of serious wrong-doing and injustice?  Mercy obliges us to recognize perpetrators as brothers and sisters whom we should love even as they are held accountable for their deeds.  We can imagine Adam and Eve’s consternation when they realized one son had killed the other, yet God spared the murderer’s life (see Genesis 4 for the story of Cain and Abel).  After the crucifixion, we can imagine Mary holding Jesus’s lifeless body, mourning his death, perhaps wrestling with the temptation to curse those who unjustly tortured and murdered her beloved son.  Yet she was asked to show mercy to his persecutors, in imitation of her Son who pleaded “forgive them” (Luke 23:34).   In our own time, the Amish famously forgave the man who shot ten children, killing five.  We, like Jesus and Mary, like the Amish, are compelled to let go of bitterness and anger.

Mercy reminds us that in difficult situations, we exercise forgiveness and love as acts of obedience or will, independent of personal ‘feeling.’  “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart,” writes Corrie ten Boom, who forgave a prison guard from the concentration camp where she had been imprisoned. We can train ourselves, even when we don’t feel merciful, to act and think mercifully.  After all, from a religious perspective, God’s mercy pours over us all.  Recognizing that we are all in need, we should give and receive mercy liberally.  As we act more intentionally, we can internalize a merciful mindset.

In a more present-day example, Immaculée Ilibagiza writes about forgiving those who killed her family during the Rwandan genocide.  When visiting a prison, she personally forgave the man responsible for her mother’s and brother’s deaths.  At a later date, Immaculée visited her former village and encountered one of her mother’s old friends, Mushaha, now shunned by the villagers because she and her husband contributed to some of the killing.  Old and sick, Mushaha mourned her own two children, who had died of cholera in the aftermath of the genocide.  To her also Immaculée showed mercy, rather than vengeance.

Mercy does not erase nor deny the suffering and tragedy occurring in this world, but it mitigates the despair, anger, and sorrow that pursue us.  Mercy also encourages us to continue building up the world, regardless of the many events and actions that simultaneously pull it apart.  Our broken world is a brokenness we all share; mercy allows us to endure it together.

It is important to note that mercy is not relativism, passivity, or fatalism.  Not everyone is equally right, and we must protest and use all the activism available to us to address unjust situations.  We can—and must—condemn the Rwandan genocide, for example.  But, as Immaculée has shown by example, we must avoid condemning our fellow human brothers and sisters; they may deserve punishment, but they undoubtedly need mercy.  In all situations, most of which are much more nuanced and debatable than the Rwandan genocide, we must remember first and foremost that we are dealing with people, individual human beings like ourselves.

In the end, mercy is openness to others:  to trusting, to helping, to listening, to reconciling, and to opening ourselves to others’ mercy and forgiveness toward us.  Mercy is a continual reaching out, a continual willingness to start anew.

Of course, I do not really attribute the Cubs’ triumph to divine mercy (unless my grandmother, who had a successful career as a secretary, slipped the World Series onto God’s to-do list), but their long-awaited success shows how an act of ‘mercy’ leads to shared joy and unity between people.  In the context of a sporting event, these feelings are fleeting and superficial, but in our own lives we can nurture genuine, abiding joy and unity in our relationships with others, even with strangers.  This past election and its political consequences are an opportunity for us, on all points of the political spectrum, to show and receive mercy.  And mercy leads us to look beyond differing opinions to instead embrace one another and rejoice in our common humanity.


(For anyone who would like to know my thoughts on the election; these are the thoughts and feelings that led to my previous reflections on mercy):

Why am I so shaken by this presidential election?  Not because Clinton lost, even though I did vote for her.  Not because I consider conservative policies to be inherently flawed—I might have voted Republican had they offered a candidate whom I could support.  My unease does not even stem primarily from Trump’s victory.  I can think of at least two scenarios by which I would not be particularly upset about the election (though perhaps still concerned about the next four years):  Trump wins a small portion of the vote (25-30%), with the rest divided equally between the other three candidates.  Or, most people choose not to vote, and Trump wins with extremely low voter turn-out.

In both of these scenarios, as a country we are still rejecting the hateful overtones of Trump’s campaign.  We are not actively overlooking the veiled allusions to, or at least complicity with, armed uprising should the ‘rigged’ election not go his way.  We are standing against his blatant disregard for facts and evidence.  We are not endorsing for president a man who might base policy on fabricated information, a man who might endanger our democratic institutions, a man who might blame our country’s difficulties on religious or ethnic scapegoats.  In fact, however, nearly half of voters chose precisely this candidate.  As a result, I have found it difficult to take communion at church, participate in public events, and interact with others in the tasks of daily living, when I know that some of them must have voted for a person who seems to betray values that I thought most of us held dear, regardless of political preference.

The sadness and anger that I have struggled to let go, therefore, come from knowing that many, many people implicitly sanctioned Trump’s campaign style and rhetoric by voting for him, even though they opposed such rhetoric and were motivated by other reasons.  In effect, as a nation, we declared that our motivation for voting—desire for a conservative Supreme Court / frustration with current politics / dislike of Clinton / gun rights / or x reason for supporting Trump—was more important than standing united against incendiary, hateful speech.  I am sympathetic only to voters who chose Trump because they are genuinely struggling to support their families.

I cannot even be hopeful about prospects for the pro-life movement, a part of the Republican platform that I actively embrace.  I fear that any gains made against abortion will only inspire backlash, for legislative or judicial action alone will not counter our society’s tendency to see an unborn child first and foremost as part of a woman’s body, rather than as an individual human being.  Any measures limiting abortion must be accompanied by compassionate programs to assist women in difficult situations, as well as genuine recognition of unborn babies as human life worthy of protection.  A pro-life mindset is not so much about abortion itself; it is first and foremost about defending life—all life.

All life, of course, includes people with whom I strongly disagree.  “I want justice, but I’ll settle for some mercy,” sings Kris Kristofferson in his song “Pilgrim’s Progress.”  I may still feel anxious and ill thinking about the election and what, in my mind, it represented, but I will continue to reach out to others.  May they continue to reach out to me, and may I be receptive to the mercy they offer.  In the end, hope does not come from policy or righteousness, but from our mercy toward one another.

Social Change, not Dehumanization: Using Language and Emotion Productively in Our Conflicted World

By Teresa

This post is a reflection on how we often inadvertently dehumanize others as we seek to portray our world through language, especially when discussing divisive issues.  Instead of contributing to this dehumanization, however, we can conscientiously use language and emotion as a recourse against violence.  Except in perhaps the most extreme situations (if at all), I do not believe that we can act or speak violently toward others whom we truly view as fully human, individuals of intrinsic value similar to ourselves.

Language is important because it shapes who we are; the language we use slowly influences the person we are becoming.  Negative or aggressive language changes our personality over time.  Consider, for example, the man who impersonated a slave owner for a historical program called Follow the North Star at the Conner Prairie open-air museum in Indianapolis. The yelling and insults he utilized in that role began to undermine his previously gentle, caring demeanor, even when he was not at work.

Continued exposure to, or use of, insulting and biased language leads us to view others as either allies or opponents, without seeing them as full human beings.  This type of engagement, of course, dehumanizes others and reduces them to a viewpoint or policy with which we either agree or disagree.  It seems we often bemoan how in the world today we frequently talk past one another, without listening in good faith to differing viewpoints.   I believe this lack of communication occurs because we focus on others as representing opinions, rather than as people.  When we effectively forget or ignore that we are dealing with other humans inherently equal to ourselves, we become most concerned with our own viewpoint triumphing.  Others “deserve” to be insulted because their worldview is in some way deficient.

Considerate language, on the other hand, enables us to maintain a fundamental respect for others.  We can identify the underlying concerns that motivate different viewpoints and work together for acceptable solutions.  I am aware that in many cases, adequately addressing and reconciling all underlying concerns is impossible.  However, even in situations when we cannot morally accept another person’s belief or action, we can still value their intrinsic worth as a fellow human being.  We can see them first and foremost as a person.

The dehumanizing effects of insulting language may seem obvious, but what about the other words we use to portray our world?  I would argue that categories we use to group people–nationality, race, creed, gender, political affiliation, economic status, profession, etc–are similarly dehumanizing because they reduce individual humans to particular characteristics that mark the group to which they belong.  I refer to the ‘group’ most immediately being referenced in any specific context; as people, of course, we occupy an infinite number of shifting affiliations.

Categories, unlike insults, cannot just be avoided, for they are linguistic tools that allow us to make sense of our surroundings.  Indeed, categories can be useful means to research and map the world, and they allow us to identify–and hopefully remedy–disparate privileges and rights between groups.  At the individual level, our affiliation in certain groups may give us a sense of belonging and/or notably mark our identity.   Categories, therefore, are not necessarily negative, and we may choose to embrace group monikers as essential elements of ourselves.

At the same time, categories dehumanize when we use them carelessly, passively, without actively remembering that no category fully encompasses the individuals of whom that category is composed. A corollary of this point is that we cannot assume we know something about an individual based only on our knowledge of their membership in a group. Most groups are so vast, with such diversity, that even baseline statements have occasional exceptions. Definitions, such as income designations, that we apply to mark off groups may be momentarily useful in particular contexts, but the information they convey is superficial and ephemeral.  We do not really know what any individual person believes, thinks, feels, or does solely because they, whether through self-identification or imposed definition, fall into any given category.

So, how do we ensure that we don’t dehumanize others as we read about and describe our world?

I suggest cultivating attitudes toward others founded on embracing our shared humanity. We can remind ourselves frequently that members of ‘x’ group are complex, individual people, whose views, actions, and histories may or may not align with those typically associated with the group. Even when we use categories, as we often must, we can be aware of their limitations; we must conscientiously negate their power to eclipse individuals. With these periodic mental checks, we acquire an underlying awareness of the human beings who populate our world, and we nurture our ability to recognize others as equally human. This attitude will ensure that our default mode of interaction is respectful and loving.

Most of all, I think a humanistic perspective can best be achieved by actively wishing good on those with whom we disagree. This can be difficult, especially if we consider people whom we truly believe to be doing harm in the world, such as influential politicians whose policies we despise, perpetrators of violent crime, or the leaders and members of ISIS. However, we immediately humanize our opponents if we authentically desire their well-being. Everything we would like in our own lives–joy, peace, love, self-realization, meaningful relationships, generic “good things”–we can desire for others. Not in a self-congratulatory, condescending, patronizing, or conditioned way (“You are very wrong/blind/self-deluded, but because I am enlightened and a better person, I will still wish you well.  I hope you come to a better understanding of the issue”), but with genuine desire for the person’s well-being (“You are a human being, just like me, and you have your own convictions, aspirations, trials, and joys, just as I do.  I think your beliefs on ‘x’ are fundamentally flawed, and I will do what I can to promote my own ideas, which I believe to be better for society.  Regardless, even if you never agree with me, I sincerely hope life treats you well, and I wish you happiness”).

This is not to wish for the success of policies, viewpoints, or actions that we oppose, but to desire another’s good at an inner, fundamental level.  This practice can also lead to humility as we remember that, for someone in the world, we also represent a person with detestable ideas or actions on whom it is nearly impossible to wish well-being.

With an awareness of others’ inherent worth as human beings–which one might characterize as a true, unconditional love of neighbor–we can then strive for our actions and speech to correspond appropriately.  We might reflect on the messages we communicate as we speak, write, and share media.  We can choose carefully what we read, and how we portray others.  The more we expose ourselves to or utilize dehumanizing language, the more likely we are to act accordingly, perhaps even with violence toward those with whom we disagree.  The less likely we are to work together constructively to seek and implement actual solutions that improve society.   Conversely, if we view people as fellow human beings and not merely as members of an ‘other’ category, we can respond to conflict and disagreement with compassion.

My argument may raise ethical concerns; members of under-privileged or oppressed groups have historically, perhaps personally, been denied the compassion, equality, and inherent humanity for which I am advocating. Am I asking them to extend these same attitudes and ideals to all, including those who have historically or individually perpetrated injustices? Ultimately, I am. I believe that the only true way to minimize injustice in the world is to embrace the idea that everyone, even one’s opponents, are equal human beings. Otherwise, we are perpetuating dehumanizing viewpoints and language that will lead to further violence or oppression.

Lest my perspective appear too naive, as a passive “turn the other cheek” or a simplistic “two wrongs don’t make a right,” let me hasten to say that everyone should feel compelled to actively fight for justice in our social structures, laws, and relationships. Humanizing people who commit injustices does not displace advocacy to improve the world. I am not arguing for complacency, nor am I suggesting that all opinions are equally valid.  Rather, I emphasize that all people are equally people regardless of their beliefs, however harmful or deplorable when practiced.  We can demand justice even while recognizing the essential humanity within all involved.

An emphasis on others’ humanity also leads us to respond to injustice and suffering with sadness, rather than anger. Much has been made of anger as a catalyst for change, but I would suggest that sadness is a more effective emotion. We can use anger appropriately, especially if we keep it impersonally focused on injustices themselves. Too often, however, our anger at a situation spills over and becomes directed at individuals associated with that situation. Sadness, on the other hand, can mobilize us to action without inciting us to lash out at others. It leads us to demand more of ourselves as we ask,”What can I do to help?” “How can I alleviate this suffering or promote societal change?” “How might I be inadvertently contributing to this or other injustices?”

Sadness propels us to self-reflection, collaborative action, and compassionate service. Whereas anger often leads us to blame or impose change on others, sadness places responsibility on our own shoulders. It compels us to alleviate our fellow human beings’ suffering.

I am reminded of the story of a mother who, angered that her children had left the door open, slammed it closed.  Only later did she realize that she had crushed a toad who had been sitting in the doorway. The mother’s anger seemed justified, for her children had not obeyed her specific instructions to close the door, but as a result the toad lost its life. This story does not contain the seriousness of many real-life issues and situations, yet it demonstrates that anger used to redress valid, authentic grievances may inadvertently do harm.  In his article about literature’s ability to teach compassion, Gary Saul Morson reflects that “nothing makes us less capable of empathy than consciousness of victimhood. Self-conscious victimhood leads to cruelty that calls itself righteousness and thereby generates more victims.” If our cause leads us to stereotype and belittle others, than we too are perpetrating injustices. We must address societal wrongs passionately, visibly, and effectively, but let us do so in a way that recalls that every individual involved is a human being.

Although we think of violence as the terrible events we see on the news, most violence occurs quietly in our everyday lives. It does not even take the form of explicit insults or aggression. Rather, we sow the seeds of violence within ourselves whenever we assume knowledge of a person and then judge accordingly; whenever we dismiss a group of people as ‘flawed’ or ‘deficient’ in some way because they view the world differently; and whenever we, fueled by righteous indignation at how we or others have been wrongs, reduce others to opponents or enemies. Let us, instead, create a foundation for communication, cooperation, and genuine change by actively seeing and portraying the humanity of everyone even as we fight the injustices around us.

A reflection on the Chaplet of the Seven Sorrows of Mary

By Teresa

The following thoughts are personal, devotional reflections that arose during prayer and meditation. Perhaps they may be useful to others; I share my reflections for this purpose, and to promote the chaplet as a powerful tool to strengthen us in our spiritual journey.   Continue reading A reflection on the Chaplet of the Seven Sorrows of Mary