Tag Archives: mercy


Turning loss into gain

vulnerability-God-healingMy young life was chaotic, to put it politely. I survived it, though, by creating a shield around myself. I was a living papier-mache project, and each chaotic event added a layer to my armor until my coat was so thick that it was almost impenetrable.

All along, though, God kept trying to break through my protective shield, kept trying to prevent me from walling myself in. But I was resistant. Closing myself in felt safe; opening myself up created anxiety.

During my twenties and early thirties, I came to understand the disconnect between my tough exterior and fragile interior. Good manipulators saw my weakness and took advantage; what felt to me like a true connection and perhaps even love was really exploitation.

My coat of armor was not really protecting me from further harm; it was just keeping out the healing love of God.

Through all those years, though, God did not give up on me.

In my twenties, I kept getting invitations to attend retreats and workshops where I would hear about God’s desire to love and heal me. I collected buttons with slogans like “God doesn’t make mistakes” and “God don’t make junk.”

I memorized Scripture verses that reminded me of Jesus’ desire to love and heal me. I commiserated with St. Paul and the thorn in his side. My past was always with me, a thorn in my side reminding me of my shame.

Mary Magdalene became my soul sister—if Jesus could drive seven demons from her and she could come to know herself as loveable, surely he could do the same for me. I was desperate to escape the self-loathing I felt, that certainty that I was damaged goods and good for nothing.

But after a childhood spent creating a thick protective shell, breaking it down was neither easy nor quick. Messages on buttons could not effectively undo my deeply-held belief that I was broken, unfixable and unlovable.

Over time, though, Jesus was able to break through my defenses. As a child, I had seen Jesus as another innocent victim. Every Palm Sunday, I cried out with him, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Poor Jesus; poor me.

At some point, though, the connection clicked—Jesus was an innocent victim, and he did understand my brokenness. I realized that what I had told myself was self-protection was really fear—fear of being overwhelmed by sadness or fear that what had happened to me in the past could happen again.

I came to see that unless I peeled off those layers of protective armor and touched my brokenness, I was just setting myself up to be re-victimized. I also saw that what I considered thorns were actually invitations to growth.

St. Teresa of Avila’s Prayer to Redeem Lost Time rings true for me:

While recalling the wasted years that are past, I believe that you, Lord, can in an instant turn this loss to gain.

With God, nothing is lost; everything is possible.vulnerability-God-healing


Loving our enemies

The perfection of brotherly love lies in the love of one’s enemies –Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, Abbot

In college, my Christology professor asked the class, “Do you think you will see Hitler in heaven?”

It was a trick question, but a number of my fellow students fell for it. “No,” they shouted, indignant that he would suggest something so horrific.

“But what if Hitler, at the very end of his life, repented?” the professor asked.


If God is love (1 John 4:8), then God’s mercy is limitless and certainly not constrained by our sense of who is deserving of God’s love and who is not. No matter how heinous someone’s crimes were, there is always the opportunity to repent and receive God’s mercy.Vulnerability-forgiveness-Lent“Who could listen to that wonderful prayer, so full of warmth, of love, of unshakable serenity—Father, forgive them—and hesitate to embrace his enemies with overflowing love?” (Mirror of Love by Saint Aelred, abbot.) I think Saint Aelred was onto something when he encouraged his brothers to look at how Jesus forgave those who put him to death.The very night that Jesus was betrayed, he gave thanks—and the next day, he asked God to forgive those who did him harm.

Being grateful and forgiving in the face of betrayal might seem to be the kind of thing only the Son of God could do, but…

Who of us does not want to be forgiven when we betray someone we love? When we make a poor decision that has unintended negative consequences? Who of us wants to be separated from our communities? Unforgiven? Unforgivable?Vulnerability-forgiveness-LentI can tend to be more like Jonah than Jesus—wanting God to carry out his threats of punishment on people who are living in sin. Jonah was angry at God for relenting in his promised punishment of the people of Ninevah.  He felt betrayed by God; he was humiliated and he sulked. But he did not die from any of that.

Pamela Holderman

I wonder if Jonah ever came to a place where he gave thanks for God’s mercy. I wonder if he ever came to see his own betraying ways and was grateful that our God is merciful to everyone.

When Jesus was betrayed, it literally cost him his life, which makes my having been betrayed pale in comparison. I survived the times I have been betrayed and maybe even grew from them.

Lent invites me to reflect on my attitudes toward forgiveness.

Thinking of how quickly Jesus was able to let go of being betrayed, of how he could give thanks when he knew he was on his way to the cross, invites me to do the same—to turn around and give thanks and blessing when I have been hurt.

I imagine that Jesus had spent his life being grateful and forgiving—he had been practicing. The invitation to me is to practice letting go of betrayals, hurts and disappointments and readjusting my expectations of myself and others.



Aging gracefully

When I was in my mid-forties, I became more aware of women who were aging gracefully. These were women in their fifties, sixties and seventies who were not embarrassed by their grey hair or shape-shifting bodies. They exercised for health but did not obsess over the effects of gravity. Peace and wisdom seemed to emanate from them, and just being in their presence calmed me.


These women were content with themselves and their lives. They lived in gratitude for all that had been and hope that the best was yet to come—even though they had endured hardship and suffering.

One woman had lost a son to suicide and another had a life-threatening disease. Another woman’s husband had been having an affair and after forty years of marriage, he asked for a divorce. My friend was devastated by his betrayal. Yet, even in her pain, she was able to pray for the grace to see her ex-husband and his new wife as God saw them.

What courage, I thought. I want to grow old with that much courage and grace.

I know that holding onto hurt and anger can make me bitter and cynical, and that is not how I want to live. I believe God calls me to live as my friend did—to forgive and let go, to be compassionate and merciful, to try to see as God sees and to love as God loves.

Last Friday, I turned sixty-five; I am a senior citizen by every definition. We have longevity in my family—my mother is ninety and her mother lived to ninety-six—but I know I have many fewer days ahead than have already passed. That awareness gives me a greater sense of urgency to appreciate each day.


The Native American story of the two wolves that live within me has been coming to mind recently: One wolf is good and does no harm. She lives in harmony with everyone around her and takes no offense when none was intended. She is joy, peace, serenity, hope, love, kindness and compassion.


The other wolf is full of anger. The littlest thing will set her off in a fit of rage. She fights anyone, any time, for no reason. She is full of envy, greed, anger, regret, self-pity, false pride and resentment.

The two wolves vie for my attention and energy; whichever one I feed will dominate.

I am paying more attention to the negativity within and around me and trying to counter it with positivity and hope.

I tend to think of my life in thirds—the first third was formative; the second third was restorative and this third I want to be generative.

Like those women I admire, I want to show compassion and mercy, to forgive and to encourage others to let go of anger and regret. I want to be content and grateful.

Life is short—no matter how many years we have, and I want to live each day to the fullest.




A new perspective

“How are the fall colors?” my friend in Virginia asked the other night. She is coming to see me in Michigan in a few weeks and hoping to be in time to see the vibrant colors of our fall.

“We haven’t had a frost yet,” I said. “It is actually quite warm here—it’s in the 70’s.”

She laughed.

“What?” I asked.

“It is in the 70’s here, too,” she said, “and I was going to say how cool it is.”

Perspective. Same temperature but different conclusion.


I think so much of what goes wrong in relationships is because we jump to conclusions without seeking clarification or understanding another’s perspective.

Yesterday, I facilitated a retreat session for a group of local volunteers. My topic was theological reflection, a process that helps look at things from God’s perspective, that invites God into a situation and asks, “How does God invite me to see this person or situation?”

In preparation, I spent some time practicing theological reflection A friend from whom I am feeling disconnected came to mind, so I asked God, “What are you inviting me to learn from this disconnect?”

When I open myself to this conversation with God, I usually hear God ask me to love unconditionally, to forgive without limit and to let go. God invites me to see the person or situation from a stance of compassion and mercy. No matter how hurtful something might have been, when I look at it from God’s perspective, it looks different.

From God’s perspective, the person who hurt me is loved as much as I am. God invites me to see that the hurt was a result of my unrealistic expectations and/or that person’s limitations or brokenness. Theological reflection helps me understand the Biblical injunction to love my enemies and to pray for my persecutors (Matthew 5:44).

During the retreat session yesterday, I asked the volunteers to recall a specific incident which showed that their expectations had not been met, a time when they thought, “I didn’t expect that” or “That is not how I imagined it.” Unmet expectations often lead to disillusionment, and disillusionment can lead to negative feelings and actions.

Once they had an incident in mind, I asked them to invite God into the situation, to describe to God what happened and to sit with God and look at the person or situation through God’s eyes.

Reframing the situation from God’s perspective helps to see a bigger picture. My unmet expectations then become more about me instead of about the people or situation that let me down. Changing my expectations—or at least being more aware of them—can change my perspective and help to me understand people and events in a different way. When I see things from God’s perspective, I can more easily let go of hurt and anger. I can be more open to compassion and mercy, less judgmental and more forgiving. I can move toward freedom.


Gospel challenge

This week, our Parish Lenten program focused on listening to and acting on God’s Word. “Think of a time when you yourself were a ‘doer of the word.’ How were you affirmed or challenged by ‘doing’ what you had heard in the Scriptures?” the program booklet asked.

I was the last to share in the group of nine and related how I had felt challenged when I befriended a women who had been sentenced to life in prison for murder.

“When did this happen?” asked one woman.

“It was in the mid-eighties,” I told her.

“There were crazy people even then,” she commented.

“Mental illness has been around a long time,” I replied.

“Now you can befriend the Uber driver,” said another woman, referring to a recent shooting in western Michigan.

Scripture challenges me in several ways, including trying to see people as God does, responding to the invitation I hear in Scripture and standing up for my views.

I don’t condone acts of violence, but I do try to see the person who commits those acts as someone’s child who is loved by God just as much as I am.

At my friend Jim’s funeral, a woman approached me and shared how Jim had visited her son in prison. She had been so grateful and felt it had made a difference to her son. He was in college at the time, and had been caught selling prescription pain pills he had gotten for a sports injury. After he had served his sentence, Jim had even hired him to help out around the parish. In the years since, she said, her son had gone back to school and was now doing fine.

I knew of her son’s situation and that Jim had visited him, because Jim had asked me to accompany him. Visiting people in prison was not something Jim had done before, but I had. He said he would feel more comfortable having me there, so I went.

Hearing this part of the story seemed to surprise the woman.

“Are you a probation officer?” she asked.

“No,” I replied, somewhat mystified by the question.

“A social worker?” she asked next.

“No,” I replied again.

“Then why have you visited people in prison?”

“Because it is in the Bible,” I explained, and then quoted Matthew 25:36, “…I was in prison and you visited me.”

She seemed unfamiliar with this verse.

I suggested that now that she knew how much Jim’s visit had helped her son, she might consider visiting other people’s sons in prison. She protested that her son was not like other people in prison. “He just…” she started to rationalize, but I stopped her. “Your son did something wrong, got caught and went to jail. He is exactly like the other people in prison,” I said. She then excused herself and walked away.

I am both affirmed and challenged by doing what Scripture invites me to do.


More mercy

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.The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

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.

Church in spain

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.

Kind and merciful

The Lord is kind and merciful. Psalm 103

Merciful is not a word that I either use or hear often. The word kind, on the other hand, is much more common. “You are so kind” and “That was such a kind thing to do” are two familiar phrases.

One of the good things about having a dog is that she has helped me get to know my neighbors. On our daily walks, we often meet up with people who happen to be outside.

That is how I met Audrey, a woman who lives a few blocks away and is usually sitting on her back porch in the mornings. She is an animal lover who tends to stray cats, and she took an instant liking to my dog (who took an instant disliking to her cats). On my way to the grocery store one day, I stopped at her house to ask if she wanted anything. “You are so kind,” she said.

I brushed aside her compliment; I thought I was just doing what anyone would do. But each time I stop and ask if she needs anything, she gushes about my kindness.

Perhaps random acts of kindness are not as common as I imagine.

Just before Christmas, I came out of a store and noticed a note on the windshield of my car. The note explained that the wind had blown open the door of the car parked next to me and it had smashed into my car. The owner left her name and number. There was a mark on my door, but I am not one who would be too concerned about the looks of a car—I care more about its ability to get me where I am going. I called the woman, thanked her for her note and assured her my car was fine. Her voice caught as she thanked me. “You are so kind,” she said, her words full of emotion.

I try to be aware of opportunities to perform acts of kindness. Opening doors, paying the toll for the car behind me and letting someone go ahead in line are all easy to do. But, sometimes acts of kindness call for more courage.

I remember during Mass one day, the priest’s shoelace had become untied and when he bent over to tie it, he had difficulty keeping his balance. I thought of going over to help, but I feared he might shoo me away and I would be embarrassed. We all watched him struggle with his shoelace and no one went to his aid. I was then embarrassed by my timidity and trepidation, and I vowed to be more courageous.

I’m not sure if this is exactly what Pope Francis had in mind when he proclaimed a Year of Mercy, but for my part, I pledge to do at least one random act of kindness every day as my little way to make the year more merciful.