Mercy Upon Mercy: My Father's Final Farewell

FullSizeRender-5 “At that last hour a soul has nothing with which to defend itself except My mercy.” —Diary of St. Faustina, par. 1075

“Do you believe in God, Dad?” I asked from the driver’s seat as Daddy and I cruised down St. Charles Avenue heading for my parents’ New Orleans home.

My then-eighty-year-old father, known to cry freely, began to weep. “I’m totally dependent on God’s mercy, Judy Marie,” he choked out using my entire given name, which he’d called me exclusively since the day I was born. “What else is there?”

That conversation contained the most open display of faith I’d ever seen in my dad; a father of ten whom I’d never witnessed initiating prayer or church attendance. Daddy and I had never even talked about faith before, and we only stumbled into this conversation because he was attending my Health Care Ethics course at a local Catholic college. Our weekly post-class lunch together, and the drive home, left ample time for conversation but it seemed that the topic of God was the hardest thing to broach.

Until Daddy lay dying.

“Dad,” I said out loud as I held the hand of my lightly comatose father in what would be the last week of his life, confident he could still hear me. “Remember what you told me about being completely dependent on God’s mercy? Trust in the mercy of God when you meet him, Dad,” I continued. “That’s all you need to do.”

Family members had been gathering daily by Daddy’s bedside to pray the Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet, engaged in a vigil of prayer and personal attendance as he slept in a newly delivered hospital bed. At least one person from our large family sat next to him constantly, while others occupied nearby spaces—keeping company with Mama and each other, preparing meals, and running necessary errands.

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“What a beautiful way to die,” I thought one evening as I stood in the kitchen tending a rump roast and sipping a glass of wine. I was overcome with awe by the sheer grace of it all, noting the powerful manner in which our father’s impending death had pulled us all to God and to each other; offering gratitude for the way a father’s final days had drawn a family that’s experienced more than its fair share of adversity, division and tragedy solidly together in faith, hope and love.

A priest friend had come by twice in eight days to offer Mass, anointing both of our ailing parents each time with the Sacrament of the Sick. At the second Mass at least thirty members of our extended family crammed around the dining room table to celebrate the liturgy—the same table at which at least a dozen people would gather for dinner another night to pool our hearts and prayers:  intermittently praying, eating, crying, laughing, and sharing stories of our lives together. An Apostolic Pardon was given to Daddy, as well as the offering of love, peace and pardon from many family members. One particularly precious night, a room full of grown children raised our voices beside our unconscious father to thank him for the many gifts he’d given us, including endless hours spent in the scorching Louisiana heat teaching twenty-eight first cousins how to ski, crab, boat and fish in the murky waters of Lake Pontchartrain.

Life had not always been easy and Daddy had borne his scars, especially from the heart-shattering deaths of two of his sons to suicide.  Indeed, life had seemed almost merciless at times and God far distant, and our now-fragile father had cried many tears over life’s bitter disappointments.

But now—at the hour of death when it mattered most—mercy upon mercy showed up.

A peaceful, holy death was granted to a man who had the grace to comprehend that he was “totally dependent on God’s mercy”—tender, faithful Mercy that drew us all into its embrace during a father’s final farewell.

This article previously appeared at Aleteia.

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Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Whom Do I Judge the Harshest of All?

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Jesus said to his disciples: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.  Matthew 7:1

Sitting in the enclosed brick courtyard in front of our home prayerfully pondering those words on Monday morning, I clearly heard the Lord say: “Stop judging yourself.” That’s odd, I thought, because while judging others is something I regularly confess to a priest, it suddenly occurred to me that I rarely consider the effect of the harsh judgments with which I habitually assail myself. I then wondered how many of our self-judgments become self-fulfilling prophecies, and how the unloving measure with which we measure ourselves might actually keep us stuck in patterns of sin.

An hour later, I walked into nine o’clock Mass quite late, and the first words I heard Fr. Mark speak as I entered the church were “we must stop judging ourselves”—not exactly the homily one would expect to hear regarding Jesus’ teaching on judgment.

“Okay, Lord, I’m getting the memo,” I prayed.

Following Mass, I settled into a chair in the adoration chapel to pray and ponder some of Elizabeth Scalia’s new book, “Little Sins Mean A Lot.” My eyes almost popped out of my head as I read her words in Chapter Nine, entitled “Clinging to Our Narratives Beyond Their Usefulness,” which said:

Self-denigration stops being healthy and starts becoming sinful when it serves to create a despicable or pitiable narrative that we then cling to, and eventually allow to utterly ensnare us in characterizations that we can no longer control or amend.

Now, I was really getting the message.

How many of us live with a familiar narrative of self-condemnation playing in our heads wherein we judge ourselves with words like: Stupid! Worthless! Reject! Freak! Unlovable! Hopeless! Fat! Ugly! Lazy! (Or fill in your own favorite personal insult)? How many of us stay stuck in a perpetual loop of self-rejection that not only erects a wall that prevents us from receiving God’s love, but also keeps us from rightly loving others and ourselves? How many of our judgments of others are really projections of our own self-hatred that keep us locked into a pitiful measure of participation in the one reality in which God longs for us to share, which is love?

 Pope Francis’ homily on Monday’s Gospel challenged us to look into the mirror when we are tempted to judge. He said:

 If you judge others constantly, with the same measure you shall be judged. The Lord therefore asks us to look in the mirror: Look in the mirror, but not to put on makeup to hide the wrinkles. No, no, no, that's not the advice! Look in the mirror to look at yourself as you are. Pope Francis, Homily of June 20, 2016

I believe the Pope’s words were right on, but they also beg another question. Are we capable of seeing ourselves as we truly are when we look in the mirror: as broken sinners who are redeemed and infinitely loved by a merciful Father who sees us as not as worthless rejects but as precious, beloved children? Or are our mirrors cracked, warped and foggy, hampering our ability to see as God sees:

You are precious in my eyes and glorious…You shall be called by called by a new name pronounced by the mouth of the Lord. You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord, a royal diadem held by your God. No more shall men call you “Forsaken,” or your land “Desolate,” but you shall be called “My Delight,” and your land “Espoused.” For the Lord delights in you.                                    Isaiah 43:4, 62:2-4

There is a tension in the dual reality that we are redeemed sinners, mercified prodigals, glorified messes—as well as in the fact that the more we trust God’s love for us, the less prone we are to rejecting both ourselves and others. Letting go of our own disordered self-judgments may be the very act of virtue that enables us to stop judging others, just as experiencing God’s love and mercy makes us more capable of extending love and mercy to others.

Let us pray that the Lord will remove the logs from our eyes and enlighten the “eyes of (our) hearts” (Eph. 1:18) that we may see as he sees, and consequently, love as he loves.

This article was previously published at Aleteia.

Where a Wiccan Meets Mercy: Yes, Virginia, There is a New Evangelization

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“In this Holy Year, we look forward to the experience of opening our hearts to those  living on the outermost fringes of society.”   Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, par. 15.

When I spotted them standing on the downtown Denver street corner handing out pamphlets, I kept my eyes down so as not to be accosted by what I thought were Jehovah’s Witnesses. But as soon as I heard the young man say to a passerby: “If you’d like to learn more about the Catholic faith…” I stopped dead in my tracks.

“It’s not very often that you see Catholics on the street handing out flyers about the faith,” I offered with a smile, extending my hand to introduce myself to the brave evangelist. “What group are you with?”

John shared that he was a seminarian at the nearby St. John Vianney Seminary and that he’d recently been ordained a deacon. In evangelization training with St. Paul Street Evangelization, he was there with a group of soon-to-be ordained priests trying to engage passers-by in a non-confrontational conversation about Jesus Christ and the Church, hopefully planting seeds for them to learn more about both.

A disheveled, confused looking young man with a devil’s face on his t-shirt and the word “DEMON” tattooed in large letters on his bicep approached. “Dude, can I have one of those?”

John happily offered him a rosary, which the young man proceeded to place around his neck while explaining that he is a Wiccan who uses magic on people. “I only use good magic, but there are others in my coven who are infernal. The magic makes me very disoriented, because it takes so much out of me,” he continued.

The rosary-adorned Wiccan quickly moved to another group of seminarians to seek more goods, and John, my daughter, Kara, and I joined our voices in prayer for his soul. Before long, he reappeared wanting to hear more about Mary, the Mother of God. “Wicca has a great mother in its religion, too,” he informed us. “We call on her for help,” he explained.

Suddenly, I remembered a story I’d read on the Internet about a former satanic high priest who was awakened to the truth of Jesus Christ via a Miraculous Medal given to him in a shopping mall . I quickly dug into my backpack and found a small white envelope with the words “Blessed Miraculous Medal” on the front and gave it to him.

“Here you go,” I said placing the envelope in his hands. “Mary is the Mother of Jesus Christ. Remember to call on her if you ever need help.”

He smiled and took the medal out, then placed it on a beaded chain that fit snugly around his forehead. Off he meandered down the street sporting the rosary around his neck and the Miraculous Medal on his forehead—with us praying a “Hail Mary” for his conversion.

“What led you to the priesthood?” I asked Deacon John after the Wiccan visitor left.

“It was attending Denver’s World Youth Day in 1993 with Pope John Paul II.   Following his visit, it was like a wave of the Holy Spirit came through the whole city and nothing has been the same since. There’s a lot of strange stuff in this city, but there’s a profound Catholic presence also. God is really moving here.”

Deacon John and I said our goodbyes and I walked into the corner department store I originally intended to enter to resume shopping with my daughters.

“Is there anything left in this world that will satisfy me?” a song screamed from the store’s speakers, seeming to speak right to the confused young Wiccan we’d just met on the street corner, seeming to speak to all of the searching people in the world. I thought of John Paul II’s words to the Church on World Mission Sunday in 1985, “Jesus alone can satisfy humanity's hunger for love.” Jesus alone, I prayed.

This article previously appeared on Aleteia.

Giving What Is Holy To Dogs

By kallerna; Edited by jjron; via Wikimedia Commons

The Spouse of Christ must pattern her behaviour after the Son of God who went out to everyone without exception.              Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, par. 12

Sitting in our gloriously sunny, tranquil parish adoration chapel, I had just finished underlining a very beautiful section of Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:

Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their own outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave. Here we see the necessary interplay between love of God and love of neighbor which the First Letter of John speaks of with such insistence. If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God…Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well.

I was reading the Encyclical as a personal penance for my habitual sin of judging others, which I had confessed to a priest only four days earlier.  Before I knew it, my pernicious habit took over and I began thinking about a particular political candidate whom I consider to be perfectly godless. He clearly has no contact with God, I thought, reflecting on the words of the Encyclical. “That’s pretty obvious by the way he assumes that all immigrants are enemies with malicious intentions, instead of seeing them as God’s children who are genuinely in need of mercy. Jesus, teach me to love my neighbor,” I prayed, “and to see you in those in need.”

While I pondered these thoughts a man knocked on the chapel door, indicating that he was not a regular since he didn’t know the code to let himself in. Leaning over in my chair to open the glass door, my eyes met those of a disheveled, tattooed twenty-something looking person with long, dirty hair. He came in and took a seat in the leather chair across the aisle from mine, then began to stare into space looking quite disturbed. My first instinct was to thank God that there was another woman in the chapel with me, because the man was suspicious looking, at best. I then began to wonder if he was a drug addict in need of money, and thanked God that my purse was locked in my car. After about ten minutes of his aimless staring, I started to feel frightened, as I sensed he was up to something sinister. Just then, he stood up to leave.

“Can you open the door for me again when I come back?” the stranger asked. “I forgot something in my car.”

“Sure,” I smiled stiffly, thinking: Oh, dear God, what could he be going to get from his car? My heart began to race as my mind ran off on a tangent, and within 60 seconds of the stranger’s departure I had concluded that he was going to get a gun from his vehicle, and I was facing imminent death as a martyr right in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

“Excuse me,” I impulsively whispered to the woman seated in front of the chapel, who was completely oblivious to the stranger until now. “I think the man who just came in is unstable, and he went to get something from his car. I’m scared of what he’s going to do. Do you think we should call for help?” I asked, motioning to the phone on the wall.

Before she had a chance to answer, the stranger knocked on the door again, and I squinted through the glass to see if he was carrying a weapon. Seeing nothing, I bent over again to let him in, this time quite haltingly.

“I forgot this in my car,” he said as he reached into his pocket. I held my breath. Out came an empty holy water bottle, which he simply wanted to fill. “My dog is dying and I figured I’d try blessing him as a last resort,” he smiled, suddenly looking innocent as a lamb.

I pulled the drawer next to me open to retrieve the holy water bottle, then watched shame-faced as he filled his little container with the blessed sacramental.

“Take the wooden beam out of my eye, Lord,” I prayed after the poor man left, embarrassed over my judgment of both him and the political candidate.

I had definitely gotten the point. And I could almost hear God giggling in the silence.

Note: This article was previously published on Aleteia.

Why Mercy Makes Us Uncomfortable

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In his second Encyclical, Dives in Misericordia…Saint John Paul II highlighted the fact that we had forgotten the theme of mercy in today’s cultural milieu: “The present day mentality, more perhaps than that of people in the past, seems opposed to a God of mercy, and in fact tends to exclude from life and to remove from the human heart the very idea of mercy. The word and the concept of ‘mercy’ seem to cause uneasiness in man, who, thanks to the enormous development of science and technology, never before known in history, has become the master of the earth and has subdued and dominated it.”

Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, para. 11

Something very strange happened on Tuesday. Thousands of people in Louisiana, including my sixteen-year-old son, Benjamin, and myself, were sequestered to closets and bathrooms under the immediate threat of a tornado in our area. Hurricanes we’re used to. Tornadoes no.

I sat on the ground in our small powder room with Benjamin’s lacrosse helmet on my head, clutching my rosary and praying for God’s mercy for all in the storm’s path. Our phone alarms had sounded moments earlier alerting us to an imminent threat in our vicinity, and multiple texts had arrived from family members telling us to take cover as they watched minute-by-minute news coverage of a twister aiming right at us.

From the bathroom floor, I pulled up the news on my laptop so I could see how close the tornado was to us. Suddenly, it occurred to me how unnervingly strange it is that the technology exists to give us a blow-by-blow report on a tornado that might be headed directly for our neighborhood—but that nothing could actually be done to protect us from its wrath. It reminded me that a direct confrontation with the power of nature serves up a sobering wake up call of just how vulnerable we human beings really are, as many of us have learned in recent years in the face of natural disasters.

Interestingly, I had been chewing on Pope Francis’ abovementioned quote by Saint John Paul II all day, trying to figure out why and how mercy makes us uneasy. But the answer didn’t hit me until I was huddled in the bathroom praying for mercy!

Mercy makes us uncomfortable because it necessitates the admission of our powerlessness, and the acknowledgement that we are not, in fact, God. Mercy crashes our illusions that we are masters of the earth because of our technological prowess, calling us to confront the reality that we are not in control. Mercy demands that we have the humility to concede that we are creatures who are utterly dependent on God—creatures that would cease to exist if he turned his omnipotent glance away from us for one millisecond.

To seek the mercy of God is to experience what Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) referred to as a personal “Copernican revolution,” wherein we come to see that we are not the center of the universe, and that God is. As such, we must begin “to accept quite seriously that we are one of many among God’s creatures, all of which turn around God as their center.” (Joseph Ratzinger, What It Means to Be a Christian, 70-71)

Looking at the world around us, it is apparent that we don’t like to admit our own poverty and frailty, nor do we tolerate well the poverty and frailty of others. Asking for and extending mercy requires that we do both: recognize our human fragility and our profound need for help, while “return(ing) to the basics…to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters.” (Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, para. 10)

 Frankly, we’d rather not. And it shows in the way we live, the values we embrace and the leaders we elect. Which is precisely why Pope Francis, following the lead of St. John Paul II, unceasingly pushes for what he insists is an “urgent” need for the proclamation and witness of mercy in the world.

Note: This article was previously published on Aleteia.

Pope Francis' Mercifying Madness

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With our eyes fixed on Jesus and his merciful gaze, we experience the love of the Most Holy Trinity. Pope Francis, Miseracordiae Vultus, par. 8

 This pope just won’t stop talking about mercy. He’s even come up with a word I’ve never heard before: mercifying. “What in the world does that mean?” I asked when I saw the word in his new book. For while his namesake, St. Francis, was charged by God to “rebuild my Church,” it seems Pope Francis has been given the mandate of “mercifying” the Church.

In Pope Francis’ first book, The Name of God Is Mercy, he talks at length about mercy with veteran Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli. Francis clarifies the meaning of the Latin expression he chose for his episcopal motto, miserando atque eligendo, which he explains as meaning “mercifying and choosing.” (Translated elsewhere as “mercying and choosing.”)

According to the pope, mercifying describes the gaze of Jesus, who looks upon us with love, forgives our sins and chooses us. Mercifying happens when we experience ourselves as being seen by Christ, when we sense his penetrating eyes unveiling ours, and when we come to know that we are loved, embraced and chosen, calling us forth to repentance and new life.

Francis’ description of his own experience of being mercified in the confessional at age 17 prompted me to remember my own encounter with God’s transforming mercy at the age of 23, when my soul morphed from the black alienation of separation from God to being bathed in the light of Christ’s love in one split second.

Agnostic at the time in spite of being raised Catholic, I was carrying on like a complete pagan, indulging myself in anything and everything the world had to offer. After several years of vacuous living, I became aware of my own inner emptiness and began to cry out for God to show me if he was real. That small opening — to which Francis refers as conceding to God “the smallest glimmer of space” — was enough for God to move. In short order, God sent someone to my apartment unexpectedly who invited me to go to church with him that Sunday — the unforgettable day that I was mercified by encountering Jesus Christ.

“The medicine is there, the healing is there,” says the pope, “if we only take a small step toward God … or even desire to take that step” (Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy, xviii).

What stands out in my mind as I think back on that life-changing experience is how miraculously, in one instant, I suddenly became utterly convinced that Jesus knew me personally, that he loved me and that he wanted to be in a relationship with me. Like the tax collector, Matthew, to whose calling Pope Francis repeatedly refers (Matt. 9:9), “I knew that I was seen, loved, chosen.”

My angst over my own hollow life — which I was not even able to call “sinful” yet — had led me to the point of questioning. But it was the infinite gaze of Christ’s love that turned me on a dime, that changed my mind about what could make me truly happy, that called me to leave a lost, lonely life behind to follow him. As grace moved, I quickly saw my own wretchedness and the need to amend my life. Necessary repentance came, but it was the look of merciful love that first called me forth from sin’s stupor.

This is the dynamic of encounter that Pope Francis refers to as mercifying, wherein we experience Christ seeing our inmost hearts and are touched by his desire to respond to our deepest need for forgiveness, healing and restoration. The world is flat, desperate for mercifying at such a time as this — the very reason Pope Francis speaks incessantly about it.

I believe it is a time for mercy. The Church is showing her maternal side, her motherly face, to a humanity that is wounded. She does not wait for the wounded to knock on her doors, she looks for them on the streets, she gathers them in, she embraces them, she takes care of them, she makes them feel loved. And so, as I said, and I am ever more convinced of it, this is a kairos, our era is a kairos of mercy, an opportune time.

Pope Francis, The Name of God Is Mercy, 6

This article was first published on Aleteia.

Grace Upon Grace

Dear Friends, Many blessings to you and your families as we end 2015 and begin the new year.  Please know that I am praying for you and your intentions today at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C..  May the Lord bless you abundantly in 2016 and grant you a fresh outpouring of His mercy and love.       Blessings and grace!    Judy  

Statue in the Crypt of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception

We recall the poignant words of Saint John XXIII when, opening the (Second Vatican) Council, he indicated the path to follow: “Now the Bride of Christ wishes to use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up arms of severity.” Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, par. 4

Carried tenderly through the Jubilee Door of Mercy at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception by her parents, 10-day-old Grace Philomena would be baptized in just a few hours on this same special day—the Feast of the Holy Family in the Octave of Christmas during the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Grace. God’s favor and unmerited gift. A perfect name for a baby conceived in an imperfect situation by unmarried young adults; yet a child welcomed, wanted, loved by God and by us. Moreover, a child soon to be infused with the grace of God, giving her the one identity that truly counts: child of God.

Standing in the crypt of the National Basilica, it was hard to miss the sense of being in the womb of the Church, the womb of the Bride of Christ, the womb of Mercy. I pondered the paradox of the God-man choosing to enter this world in an irregular and apparently scandalous situation, conceived before Joseph and Mary were living together as husband and wife, making Mary subject to stoning according to the demands of the law. Why that way, Lord? I have asked the question many times. I thought of Mary’s dilemma, about how difficult it must have been as she wondered how her situation would play out. I thought of all the months I worried about and prayed for Grace, asking God for his help that this situation, too, might play out well.

Then came Grace, on the birthday of Pope Francis—the pope who baptized the baby of unwed parents on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. And here we now stood on the Feast of the Holy Family holding Grace hours before her baptism, with grace holding us.

The last Gospel reading of the year proclaims: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace; for the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17, RSV). While the law was a teacher, grace is a healer. The law was a guide; but grace is a mother. The law foreshadowed Christ; grace gives us Christ. Grace welcomes Grace, making her a child of God “born not by natural generation or by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God” (John 1:13).

“Were sin the only thing that mattered, we would be the most desperate of creatures,” Pope Francis said in his opening homily for the Jubilee Year of Mercy. “But the promised triumph of Christ’s love enfolds everything in the Father’s mercy.” That enfolding comes in many forms—all destined to beckon us to God.

I’ve watched an unborn baby call two confused young people to adulthood: to purpose, to promise, to love. I watch them now as they hold an infant daughter in their arms, presenting her to the Father of Mercies that she may be enfolded in his love. The law would have repudiated Mary. But grace embraces Grace, and her parents, with the medicine of mercy. The arms of severity have no place here, only the arms of love.

This post was previously published at Aleteia as The Mercy Journal.

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How The Gaze Of A Blind Man Healed My Sight

Happy birthday to our beautiful daughter, Kara, who has taught us all so much about love, and to our first grandson, James, who is such a gift of joy! Merry Christmas to you and your families!  May the Lord grant you a fresh outpouring of mercy and love!

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At times, we are called to gaze even more attentively on mercy.  Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, par. 3.

Our Christmas girl, who turns thirty today, wanted only one gift that year. “For my birthday and Christmas present, I’d like a plane ticket to bring Richard to visit our family for the holidays,” Kara requested with all of the innocent fervor of her kind eighteen-year-old heart.

Richard was a middle-aged, legally blind man none of us had ever met. Living alone in Florida he’d heard Kara, a singer/songwriter, perform on EWTN’s “Life On the Rock.” He promptly found her website, and they formed a friendship centered upon letter writing and praying for each other’s needs. From what Richard shared, he loved the Lord deeply, and having no family, spent his days praying and watching Catholic television.

“That sounds like a great thing to do for Christmas,” my late husband, Bernie, and I agreed, proud of our daughter’s magnanimity. Besides, having just buried Bernie’s thirty-six-year-old son unexpectedly in early September, we figured it would be a welcome distraction from our own intense pain.

The next think I knew, we were picking Richard up at the airport. And while it seemed like a great idea in concept, I never thought about the possible repercussions of bringing a total stranger into our home until the man was upstairs, planted in a bedroom next to the ones where our five children lay sleeping. Downstairs in the master bedroom, I was suddenly seized with fear. “Bernie, we have no idea who this person is!” I elbowed my half-asleep husband. “He could be Jack the Ripper for all we know!” Thus began a sleepless night of listening to every drop of noise in the house, anxiously awaiting a sign that Richard had left his room.

Daylight brought new perspective. As I sat down to coffee with the poor man, I realized he was probably much more frightened than I over the endeavor he just undertook—flying on a plane for the first time in his life to spend a week in an unfamiliar place with complete strangers. I soon learned that Richard had been blinded by the physical abuse of his parents, then sent to live in foster care while still a young child—only to land in the hands of another abusive mother. His life had been one of deprivation and suffering, and with no family whatsoever, he lived in poverty with two parakeets as his only companions. Though he'd worked for years as a gardener near his home, his physical infirmities eventually took over, sequestering him at home.

Days passed, and what began to strike me about Richard was less the depth of his sad story than the immensity of his gratitude. He raved about how this was the best Christmas he’d ever had, and about how much love, warmth, and welcome he felt in our home. As I entered into Richard’s story, our own deep suffering began to feel much more bearable. It was then that I started to realize that to show "compassion" to another—which in Latin means “to suffer with”—strengthens and consoles us.

“The crucified Christ has not removed suffering from the world. But through his Cross, he has changed men, opening their heart to their suffering sisters and brothers and thereby strengthening and purifying them all.” Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God, 53.

The grateful gaze of a blind man gave me sight that suffering Christmas, an unexpected gift of grace. What began as a token gesture of Christmas generosity ended in a purifying glance of mercy from heaven’s throne; fortifying us all.

Author’s Note: This piece first appeared at Aleteia as "The Mercy Journal."

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