Fr. Tom McKenna, CM offers his reflection on memories of mercy
Every time we enter into the Eucharist, we begin with the prayer, “Lord have mercy.” It could seem on first bounce that its main point is to bring to mind something wrong we’ve done, some sinfulness that took hold of us at one time or other — and also that we’re repenting of it before we come before the Lord in the sacrament.
That certainly is the case, but there’s something more in this triple petition. And that would be our laying hold of the mercy already poured out on us, sensing it, bringing it up in our memories, touching back into past mercies given, even, through memory, experiencing those times again. And then both saying and acting out our thanks. This is to say that much of the fuel for our extending mercy comes from our memory of having received it.
I think of two especially telling instances of this, one from a famous novel and the other from the Hebrew prophet, Ezra, praising the mercy given to his sinful people when Yahweh rescued them from exile and brought them back home again to the Promised Land.
The novel is Les Miserables, Les Mis in the classic musical. It’s about a man, Jean Valjean, and the life he lives in the very turbulent times of 19th Century France.
As you remember, while living under much pressure, he goes about not only doing good for others, loving and helping them, but in the end spills his love over as he shows mercy to the villain, Inspector Jabert, rescues his antagonist, Marius, and in the process sacrifices his own life. What drove him to do these generous things? What was his motivation, the engine of these actions?
And the answer, you recall, goes back to that earlier breakthrough scene in the episcopal dining room when the police haul in Jean Valjean with the bishop’s stolen candlesticks in his red hands and ask the bishop to verify they are his. But instead of reclaiming his precious silver, the bishop informs the police that not only had he given his good friend, Jean Valjean these candlesticks, but that Valjean had forgotten to take along these other pieces of silverware the bishop had given him at the same time!
It’s this outrageous, over-the-top act of generous mercy that Valjean keeps returning to as he himself meets other people in bad straits along the way. It’s as if this memory is a kind of powerful engine for him, releasing energy to help whenever he comes upon others in need, especially when in desperate situations.
The day of his being given mercy and compassion has not remained a dead letter for him but it lives on, and then keeps drawing up more mercy and compassion, keeps unleashing the power and healing of the bishop’s sacrificial love into Jean’s subsequent world.
The second story is Ezra’s. He’s the spokesman for these children of Israel who have just come through an awful time in their history. Refugees driven out of their homeland, put on the road to a foreign and hostile new country, under constant threat and given no civil rights and protection, having no signs that things will get any better. And then, liberated, freed up to go back home and start things up again.
This is the remnant, as Ezra says, now “given a stake” again; i.e., given rights and personal freedoms, allowed to rebuild their houses. They are the ones in Tobit’s words “…scattered among the Gentiles, the Lord has shown his greatness even there. So now consider what he has done for you, and praise him with full voice.”
The Israelites in turn go off to continue this string of this giving. Acutely aware of the compassion shown them, they show it to others welcoming in the stranger and being a light to the nations.
It’s the same lesson: the memory of mercy shown fires up the will to pass on that mercy to others.
A lesson to take? Can you go back into a memory of mercy shown you? When forgiveness came for something you might have done that was genuinely hurtful – and there were no strings attached to the forgiveness given? Or even when coming across it in someone else, a forgiving that went beyond any calculation of what was due, one that wrote off the debt and allowed things to begin anew?
These kinds of memories are powerful. Jean Valjean’s of the bishop, Ezra’s of Yahweh’s rescue — despite the hurts done. Your own memories of these kinds of things can be engines for your own compassion and mercy.
We began with the three petitions for mercy at the beginning of Mass. One way to pray them from deeper parts of ourselves is to link them up with what of mercy we’ve seen and felt over the years. Our own consciousness of mercy shown to us by the Lord God can be a powerful motivator for us to pass on that mercy to the people and the world around us.
In the Eucharist we “do all this in Memory of Him.” We do it all in the powerful and saving memory of the great mercy and compassion shown us in the Lord Jesus.