Feast of the Divine Compassion 2016
Feast of the Divine Compassion 2016
Br. Clark Berge, SSF
In the Name of the holy, living Triune God, the Compassionate, All-Merciful One
Our theme tonight is mercy. Our celebration is of the Divine Compassion: God who shows us mercy. It is appropriate as we end the Annual Brothers’ Chapter, or perhaps as a hinge moment between the ABC and the Provincial Chapter to be reminded of our core values and identity in the themes of this Eucharist.
I want to begin with the story of another lawyer, unlike in the one in the story of the Good Samaritan that we’ve just heard, who knows who her neighbors are. Her name is Judy Clarke. She is a constitutional lawyer in the United States who specializes in death penalty cases: “the worst of the worst.” Until she lost the defense for Dzhokhar Tsarnev, the Boston Marathon bomber, she never lost a case. In her cases, she rarely disputes her clients’ guilt; she never cross examines the witnesses for the prosecution, feeling it would be disrespectful of their grief. But her efforts are to humanize her clients. She is an implacable opponent of the death penalty—on constitutional grounds—she is not a nun like Sister Helen Prejean.
“People are not born evil,” she said last year in an interview for a Profile in The New Yorker Magazine. She acknowledges a debt of gratitude to her clients “for lessons they have taught me—about human behavior and human frailty—and the constant reminder that there but for the grace of God go I.” Judy made an arresting remark apropos of our liturgy tonight: “mercy is bestowed, not earned.”
Her clients do not deserve mercy—they deserve a fair trial. But mercy is one of the highest qualities of the human spirit. It is one of the defining characteristics of God and the one thing we beg of God, repeatedly, every day: “Lord have mercy on us.” “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.” For Judy mercy is a life or death matter.
Another female advocate, Dorothy Day (a great champion of the poor), gave this rejoinder to a person who remarked that the homeless were getting what they deserved for lives wasted in addiction to drink and drugs, laziness and weak morals. Day said: “God help us all if we get exactly what we deserve.”
Tuesday night Br. Eric Michael was reminding some of us about a series of break-ins last August at Little Portion Friary in New York. I listened and remembered. Yesterday (Wednesday), during my prayer time I caught, tortured and dismembered those bastards. All before breakfast. Irrational hatred and the impulse to violence—there but for the grace of God go I. Sometimes I wonder at the depth and quality of my Christian commitment. Fortunately I had the wit to open my eyes yesterday, take a breath and beg for mercy and compassion for myself and for the thieves; I prayed to fill my heart and mind with the memory of God’s mercy in my life to temper my thoughts and actions as I dealt with others. I would not be here today but for God’s mercy and the compassion of so many people.
If mercy is a distinguishing characteristic of God, then we who are disciples, followers, representatives of God are bound to be merciful. We are not merciful because people deserve mercy. We are merciful because without it there is not hope for the human race. We need to look into our hearts and root out the smugness, the self-justifications—all that dinner table self-righteous indignation about so-and-so who did thus-and-such.
Mercy springs from humility. Mercy can perhaps curb our tongues. It can shed light into the darkest corners of our minds. It can transform the way we interact with others in word and actions. Imagine if our world leaders and those who aspire to lead were gripped by the ideal of mercy for all, to bestow mercy. . .
I believe it comes down to what kind of person do you want to be? Every day I have many opportunities to choose how I will be—basically, s I see it, it’s a choice between being judgmental or merciful. When the prophet Micah penned the words we heard tonight: “What does the Lord require?” he was crafting a mission statement that has haunted, challenged, inspired women and men for millennia.
In my heart of hearts I want to merciful. I want to be the man who gets wet because he gave his umbrella away to somebody less well dressed for the weather. I want to be the man who drives four hours to an Immigration Detention Center to comfort a victim of the state. I want to be found sitting with the children, telling stories. God help me, I want to be the one who is late to an appointment because I stopped to help somebody in distress along the road.
Do I have time to become this person? Do any of us? Yes. There is plenty of time and many opportunities to do good, to have mercy. It is out of the abundance of God’s love that God has mercy on us. If we nurture our relationship with God, truly opening ourselves to his love, that abundant love will fuel our compassion and mercy. Nevertheless we live in the ocean of God’s love. Love is our truest, deepest quality of character. So the truth is we have enough love; we must always deepen our love of God and others, but we have enough now. There is no time to waste or to put off until tomorrow the compassion the world needs now.