The experience of mercy, the priest explained, is what Pope Francis hopes for this jubilee year. Not the definition or theology, not talking about mercy or learning more about it, but experiencing it and living it. The presentation by a Franciscan priest on Pope Francis and the Year of Mercy helped me better understand this jubilee year.
The priest told us that the Pope had a transformational experience of mercy when he was a teen and that Caravaggio’s painting The Calling of St. Matthew was connected to that experience. The priest talked about experiencing mercy through the loving look of God, that look that melts one’s heart, the look artists try to capture.
Caravaggio is a bit dark for my taste; I prefer Tanner’s Annunciation as a portrait of God’s light breaking through.
But looking at Caravaggio’s painting reminded me of my trip to Rome and a sculpture in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria—the Ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila by Bernini.
This piece of art reminds me of one of my own transformational experiences of mercy.
It happened about thirty years ago as I was praying in the convent chapel at my parish, lost in contemplation. Then I saw myself in an old, European cathedral, the kind I had visited in Spain a few years earlier—thick, stone walls and large, open spaces. I was lying
on the floor and could feel the cold, hard tiles on my hands and cheek.
As I lay prostrate, the floor began to shift, and then I was being lifted up. The section of floor that was holding me became the hand of God, and God assured me that I was safe.
That was not the first time I had felt the hand of God lifting me up—that happened when I was just eight years old—but it is the memory I return to again and again when I want to recall God’s mercy toward me. It is the experience that melts my heart and makes me want to reach out to others to remind them that God holds and loves each of us, and that we are safe.
That vision encourages me to be merciful, to take risks with forgiveness and acceptance, to let go of my need to be right and allow others the chance to be heard.
In his presentation on Pope Francis and the Year of Mercy, the priest noted that we live in a culture which is more focused on people getting what they deserve and how antithetical that is to mercy. If each of us got what we deserved, he said, there would be no hope, because we all make mistakes, we all sin; most of us just don’t get caught. But when we are caught, we pray for mercy.
Experiencing more mercy by focusing on God’s love and forgiveness—and then being more merciful—that will be my Lenten prayer.