On Mercy: Thoughts from the life of Catherine of Siena

As the dust of last night’s elections settles, it seems like a good time to mention a charming biography I’m reading right now, Catherine of Siena: A Passionate Life by Don Brophy (BlueRidge Press).

Catherine found herself constantly contending with politics, both temporal and ecclesial. She herself had many detractors — those who despised her for being an uneducated female; those within her own order who protested the fact that she wore the habit of the Dominican tertiary (Mantellata) yet had a public outreach that included the spiritual guidance of men; and those who regularly accused her of all kinds of faults, especially pride and wilfullness.

Her response to her detractors is worth noting. “The sword of divine charity,” she wrote, “must be hidden in the house of our soul of true knowledge of ourselves. For when we know what we are not, and that we are constantly producing nothingness, we at once become humble before God and before everyone else for God’s sake” (p.85).

It is by continually seeking true self-knowledge — of our relative littleness in the eyes of God — that we are able to progress in true charity.  When those we love stumble or fail us personally, it is easier to forebear when we recall our own shortcomings.  When those we find difficult to love cause added pain, or simply win the battle of the day, we can detach from anger and bitterness more readily when we recognize how little it will matter in the end, and that God loves our enemies just as he loves us and continually longs for our reconciliation.

Therefore, we may never be more Christ-like in this life than when we extend mercy, measuring a person not by the humiliation of his (or her) worst moments, nor out of the expectation of their periodic triumphs, but with the understanding of what it is to be human — with all the frailties and graces of our common nature.

Heavenly Father, you are God and we are not. You hold time and space in the palms of your hands. You sent your Son to identify with the human race; from his side flows rivers of mercy, stemming the tide of terrible justice, the natural consequence of our continued rebellion. Help us now, by your Spirit, to carry your divine image out into the world fearlessly, consistently, and with great faith. In your Holy Name, Amen.

Happy Feast of the Annunciation!

small-family1Today we celebrate the Feast of the Annunication, the day the angel appeared to Mary and announced that God had chosen her to be the mother of the Incarnate Christ. Her gesture of obedience — the “yes” to God’s plan for her to become a mother while she was still unmarried, and to raise His only Son to manhood — was an act of pure courage.

God’s act, one of pure mercy. Despite the fact that the world didn’t understand, didn’t recognize, and certainly didn’t want the sacrifice … He came and lived among us, first as a helpless infant, then as a young man, then as a teacher … and finally, a living embodiment of God’s eternal grace.

Today, God continues to live among us, though in many ways His Spirit is resisted even more than it was two millennia ago. Lives through the Church, both through the sacraments and in His people. The Spirit continues to speak, through the ongoing tradition and teaching authority of the Apostles and their successors, through the written Word of God, and through divine interventions — miracles — all around us.

Most of the time, we think of these “miracles” as positive outcomes. A healing here, a reconciliation there, a flash of inspiration or transformation that yields tremendous spiritual fruit. And yet, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “God shouts to us through our pain.” From this perspective, even tragedies like this can, from a certain perspective, rightly be seen as divine intervention. Our Good Shepherd knows what it will take to reach even the most stubborn sheep.

May God grant that even in this situation, the shout of His Spirit fall on ears ready and willing to listen.