There is compassion. There is sympathy, even empathy. All women and men can feel those emotions. We can’t help it sometimes. Images flash on the TV set of bald children who are suffering cancer, weary families who have lost their homes in a flood or tornado, shivering cats and dogs who have been abandoned to animal shelters, sobbing parents whose children just had been killed by a gunman.
We cry. We write a check. We help fill sandbags. We donate clothes and furniture. Even though we feel ultimately helpless, we want to try. Sometimes, the sympathy is for those among our families and friends. So we bring them casseroles, visit a funeral home or hospital, make a phone call, help with some housework. We sit with them, hug them, hold their hand, share quiet tears with them.
“Too often,” motivational speaker, the late Leo Buscaglia, once said, “we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
And then there is mercy – something with which I have firsthand experience, from my God and from some people who have extended mercy in a sacred way.
Mercy truly can turn a life around.
Any human being capable of love can display a touch of sympathy, display empathetic kindness, experience honest compassion. Mercy goes deeper. According to Merriam-Webster, mercy is “compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power.” According to a parent, mercy can be allowing the son to keep his driver’s license after an arrest for driving while intoxicated. According to a judge, mercy can be finding a defendant guilty of a serious crime but sentencing him only to time served.
As all Catholic people surely know by now, Pope Francis has declared this the Jubilee Year of Mercy. So get used to hearing a lot about this virtue. And prepare to learn plenty about mercy, both as it can be offered by people and as it is offered always by God. If God is unconditional, creative Love, then God also is Mercy, which flows directly from such love.
“I know you love me. The question is, how much?” author Jodi Picoult wrote in her book, Mercy. Women and men ask that question of God all the time. Maybe not in so many words, but definitely in our actions. We fall; we sin; we ask forgiveness – over and over and over again. The response came about 20 centuries ago, as we can read in Luke 1:78.
In the heartfelt mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will visit us, to shine on those sitting in darkness, in the shadow of death, to guide our feet to the way of peace.
Some of the lowest points in my life, certainly the lowest points during my 14-year experience with major depressive disorder, have come in several hospital stays. Whether I was on the psych floor of a hospital or in a purely psychiatric facility, I entered for one reason: I wasn’t safe on the outside. At times, I checked myself in because I didn’t trust myself to deal on my own with overwhelming suicidal thoughts. Twice during my first 10 years after diagnosis, I was admitted after emergency-room visits that were the direct result of a suicide attempt.
After the second of those attempts, a half-dozen years ago, I was challenged to make promises to my wife, Donna, and my best friend, Jean. They stressed how much they love me; they elaborated on how devastated they would be and how it would affect their lives if I was to ever successfully take my own life. I promised them that I never would attempt to do so again.
In April 2012, after weeks of sleeping no more than three hours a night and a dramatic overhaul in my medication, I couldn’t escape thoughts of suicide. It’s not that I wanted to be dead. It’s not that I didn’t think of the people in my life or that I forgot what my passing would mean to them. It’s not that I didn’t love them. But I was tired. So very tired. I was exhausted in every way. I was in pain. I didn’t want to die; I just didn’t want to live that way any longer.
One night, I took a huge overdose of my anti-depressants. Before I could take more, I suffered a grand mal seizure and spent the next three days in the hospital until I regained the ability to walk and talk. I didn’t tell anyone about all the pills. Doctors tested my brain for seizure activity. I let them treat me with that in mind – even though I had a feeling one psychiatrist knew the truth, he never said anything about it – and I let my wife, family and friends believe it had been a seizure caused by mysterious reasons.
During the next six months, I eventually told the truth to my personal psychiatrist and my therapist. And I confessed to my pastor.
But the overwhelming guilt and fear didn’t allow me to confess to anyone else, especially Donna and Jean. So I allowed them all to believe something had happened to me that the doctors couldn’t explain. Meanwhile, Missouri doesn’t allow a person who has suffered a seizure to drive a car until going seizure-free for six months. I knew I could drive; I kept the ruse going, so had to accept rides to and from work, to and from meetings at church and Mass, walked to the grocery. As I did, my guilt multiplied. And it became exponentially more difficult to consider telling the truth.
Finally, early in 2015, I sat down with Donna for a serious conversation. I told her about April 2012. I told her about the suicidal thoughts and all the pills. I told her what had been my intention. I told her why there had been no seizure activity evident in all the tests. A few months later, after an hour of talking at lunch with Jean, I asked if she could delay going back to work for a bit, that I had something I needed to tell her. And I told her everything. I think it might have been more difficult for her than it had been for Donna. But neither woman cried or screamed or slapped me. They hugged me. They still talk with me. They still are my wife and my best friend.
“The world will give you that once in awhile, a brief timeout,” author Sue Monk Kidd said. “The boxing bell rings and you go to your corner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life.”
I’ve seen several people quoted as saying something like “Forgiveness isn’t an event, it’s a process.” Someone else said forgiveness isn’t a simple process, but instead is a vast undertaking. What Donna and Jean showed me wasn’t mere forgiveness. There was no extended and agonizing process involved. They love me. What they showed me came from love. What they showed me was mercy, swift and deep from a place people can’t go of their own volition.
What they showed me came from Love, from God Himself.
I have frequently gone to God Himself in search for forgiveness; we have long talks about where I have fallen short in following Him, those talks often coming while I’m driving in my car or laying awake in bed at night. When I feel the need and desire for His mercy, though, I must go to the confessional. Once I leave the Sacrament of Reconciliation, once I have received absolution from Jesus through the priest, I know I haven’t received mere forgiveness – which is a pretty big deal in itself – but I have been shown mercy because God completely forgets my sin ever existed. They are as far from Him as the East is from the West. And perhaps even farther.
In this Year of Mercy, when I consider the best ways for Catholic men and women to recognize the special nature of the year, that is at the top of the list: The Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Appreciation for the significance of the sacrament isn’t what it once was. My 77-year-old dad tells me that when he was a kid, his mom wouldn’t allow him to receive communion at Sunday Mass unless he had gone to confession Friday or Saturday. She settled for every other week. Still, the two sacraments were inextricably tied. Dad says he estimates only 25 percent of the people at Sunday Mass didn’t receive communion back then; they hadn’t gone to confession, so they felt they shouldn’t receive the Eucharist.
Now, almost every person who has received their First Communion will partake in the Body and Blood of Christ as Mass. The Church officially tells the faithful that they need to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year but not feel obligated to do so more often. My dad says he and his friends were talking not long ago about the “good old days” of the Church, when they were young. All of them recalled the instructions to go to confession frequently. My dad asked his buddies how often they go now. He was shocked to learn that some of them, despite being devoted attendees at Mass every week, hadn’t been to confession for 20, 25, even 30 years.
That makes me sad and hurts my heart. Those men and millions of other Catholics of all ages don’t realize what they are missing. Every time I walk away after receiving absolution, after feeling the beauty of Christ’s mercy, I feel like a new man. The joy is indescribable. I literally sing praises from the deepest regions of my heart and soul.
I want to share that with all Catholic adults who haven’t felt that lightness of heart, who not only need forgiveness but crave mercy. And I especially want to share that with the coming generations of confessing Catholics.
Last month, my 7-year-old grandson, Colin, received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time. He’s a wonderful boy. I wasn’t quite sure what sins he might actually have to tell the priest. I tried to prepare him by occasionally letting him know how special confession is to me. A few days after he had completed that first experience, I asked him how it went.
“What was the penance Father gave you?” I asked.
“I didn’t get a penance,” Colin replied.
“What? Really?” I said with some surprise. “Then what happened when you were finished?”
“Well,” Colin said, “Father gave me a high-five.”
I’ve never received a genuine, literal high-five from a priest in the many times I have received the sacrament. I’d love to get one, though I sort of receive a figurative high-five every time I have completed my Act of Contrition and I hear these words from the priest:
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of your Son, you have reconciled the world to yourself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the church, may God grant you pardon and peace. And I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“The confessional is not a torture chamber,” Pope Francis once said, “but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better.”
God truly is the Father of mercies.