Mercy in Music

As part of our Adult Faith Formation programming in connection with the Year of Mercy, Our Lady or Lourdes’ Organist and Choirmaster Chris Ganza gave a talk this morning on Music of the Church: Mercy in Music.

After talking generally about types of church music and the issues involved in selecting music for liturgy, Chris used three pieces to illustrate the theme of mercy: Frederick Faber’s There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, Robert Vaughan Williams’ setting of George Herbert’s poem Love, and Ola Gjelo’s version of Ubi caritas et amor.  His talk addressed the both the theological and musical themes of each.

Perhaps because it is already a favorite of mine, I particularly enjoyed his discussion of the Herbert poem, which is such a beautiful expression of God’s forgiveness and mercy.  In the face of all of our protestations of our unworthiness, God keeps saying – join me, enjoy my feast.

I’ve posted Herbert’s poem here before, but it is worth posting again in this Year of Mercy.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

How Will You Practice Mercy?

Tuesday began the Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis. In the Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy issued in April, Pope Francis spoke of our need to “gaze ever more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives,” and expressed his desire that “the witness of believers might grow stronger.”

The invitation for each of us to think about how we might make extra efforts to practice mercy during this Jubilee Year.

Loyola Press published some Practical Suggestions for Practicing the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. Their suggestions for practicing the corporal work of mercy of feeding the hungry, for example, include

see to the proper nutrition of your loved ones,
support and volunteer for food pantries, soup kitchens, and agencies that feed the
make a few sandwiches to hand out as you walk through areas where you might
encounter people in need;
educate yourself about world hunger;
avoid wasting food;
share your meals with others.

You can also find a list of 56 Ways to be merciful during the Jubilee Year on the Aleteia website. They include, for example,

Resist sarcasm; it is the antithesis of mercy: “Set, O Lord, a guard over my mouth; keep watch, O Lord, at the door of my lips!” (Psalm 141:3).

Pare down possessions: share your things with the needy.

Call someone who you know is lonely, even if you understand why they’re lonely. Especially if you do.

Write a letter of forgiveness to someone. If you cannot send it, sprinkle it with holy water, ask Christ Jesus to have mercy on you both and then burn or bury it.

Learn to say this prayer: “Dear Lord, bless [annoying person’s name] and have mercy on me!”

You can probably think of others on your own. The point is to be intentional – to take the Pope’s invitation and make it your own. Think about how you might use this year to make the practice a mercy a priority.

Anticipating the Holy Year of Mercy

As many people have doubtless already heard, during a penance service this past Friday afternoon, Pope Francis announced an extraordinary Jubilee dedicated to Divine Mercy.  In his homily during that service, he explained

Dear brothers and sisters, I have often thought about how the Church might make clear its mission of being a witness to mercy. It is journey that begins with a spiritual conversion. For this reason, I have decided to call anextraordinary Jubilee that is to have the mercy of God at its center. It shall be a Holy Year of Mercy. We want to live this Year in the light of the Lord’s words: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (cf. Lk 6:36)”

This Holy Year will begin on this coming Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and will end on November 20, 2016, the Sunday dedicated to Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe – and living face of the Father’s mercy. I entrust the organization of this Jubilee to the Pontifical Council for Promotion of the New Evangelization, that [the dicastery] might animate it as a new stage in the journey of the Church on its mission to bring to every person the Gospel of mercy.

I am convinced that the whole Church will find in this Jubilee the joy needed to rediscover and make fruitful the mercy of God, with which all of us are called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time. From this moment, we entrust this Holy Year to the Mother of Mercy, that she might turn her gaze upon us and watch over our journey.

He also stressed in his homily that “no one can be excluded from the mercy of God; everyone knows the way to access it and the Church is the house that welcomes all and refuses no one.  Its doors remain wide open, so that those who are touched by grace can find the certainty of forgiveness.  The greater the sin, so much the greater must be the love that the Church expresses toward those who convert.”

Although the Year of Mercy will not begin for many months, there are already plenty of people commenting on what it might mean – or what it should mean given the commentator’s particular leanings.  E.g., mercy must mean more widespread annulments or dispensations for divorced and remarried Catholics. Or mercy can’t mean a change in the Church’s position on homosexuality.  Etc, etc.

My own view is that the best use of our time in these months leading up the Year of Mercy, as well is during it, is to reflect on the role of mercy in our own lives, considering such questions as:

Where have I not shown mercy?  What are the debts/wrongs I have not forgiven – financial, emotional or otherwise?

In what areas of my life have I not availed myself of God’s mercy or not trusted in God’s mercy?

How does the abundant mercy God has shown to me affect the mercy I show to others?

We might also remind ourselves that God’s abundant mercy does not mean we are not sinners, but that we are loved sinners.  It doesn’t mean we need not seek forgiveness, but that God is always standing (like the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son) ready to welcome us home.

Divine Mercy

This Second Sunday of Easter is also known as Divine Mercy Sunday. We celebrate God’s great mercy in giving us a living hope through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As today is also the day of the canonization of Pope John Paul II, I thought I’d share some of his words on divine mercy.

Making the Father present as love and mercy is, in Christ’s own consciousness, the fundamental touchstone of his mission as Messiah….

Christ proclaims by his actions even more than by his words that call to mercy which is one of the essential elements of the Gospel ethos. In this instance it is not just a case of fulfilling a commandment or an obligation of an ethical nature; it is also a case of satisfying a condition of major importance for God to reveal himself in his mercy to [humans]….

All the subtleties of love become manifest in the Lord’s mercy towards those who are his own: he is their Father…Mercy is the content of intimacy with their Lord, the content of their dialogue with him…

Mercy is in a certain sense contrasted with God’s justice, and in many cases is shown to be not only more powerful than that justice but also more profound….Love is “greater” than justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and fundamental. Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analysis, justice serves love. The primacy and superiority of love vis-a-vis justice [is] revealed precisely through mercy. This seemed so obvious to the psalmists and prophets that the very term justice ended up by meaning the salvation accomplished by the Lord and his mercy. Mercy differs from justice, but is not in opposition to it.

Blessings on this Divine Mercy Sunday on which we also celebrate the canonoizations of both Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII.

As for me, I will be leaving Christ the King Retreat House later today, filled with gratitude for all of the blessings God has bestowed upon me and the retreatants this weekend.

A Difficult Gospel Value

Parable are effective because they speak a truth that extends beyond the details of the story itself. In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of the landowner who hires workers for his vineyard.

The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says, can be likened to a landowner who hires workers for his vineyard. Some get hired at dawn, others at mid-morning, others at noon, others at mid-afternoon and still more near the end of the work day. When it comes time for the workers to get paid, everyone get paid a full day’s wages. Not surprisingly, those hired at dawn find this unacceptable and complain that they deserve more than those who worked far fewer hours. They can’t dispute that they are not being cheated in a legal sense: they were promised the usual daily wage for their work and were paid what they were promised. But it just doesn’t seem right to them. It offends their sense of justice.

Often Gospel values and ours are not the same. God gives all always and doesn’t measure out his mercy and love based on our evaluations of merit. We put an overemphasis on justice, always worried that (other) people might be getting more than they deserve. God just gives. AND invites us to do the same. To give – really, to love – without an evaluation of the other’s desert.

We also tend to judge by comparison. The workers who worked all day were satisfied with what they got until they saw what the others receive. I think we often do the same: My gift is a precious wonderful gift and I love it and am grateful for it – until I look around and sense that someone got something more or better than I did. Somehow the value of what I have is diminished in my eyes.

It is hard to live in accordance with the values promoted by Jesus. But that is what we are called to. Generosity and mercy unconstrained by comparison and determinations of desert.

Testifying on Behalf of Jesus

Yesterday, we held the Trial of Christ – Sentencing Phase at the UST Law School, as part of our Orientation Week program for incoming law students.

My friend and colleague Mark Osler (the prosecutor) and Chicago public defender Jeanne Bishop (defense attorney) have been putting on the Trial of Christ in various locations around the country over the past couple of years. (You can read a little about the project here.) Yesterday was the second time we’ve done the trial at the law school. (You can watch the video from that trial, which occurred this past Lent, here.)

Each of the prosecution and the defense called two witnesses. Jeanne, thinking about their three upcoming trials in California, which will occur shortly before voters in California consider a referendum on capital punishment, decided to call as her second witness for the defense (the first was the Centurion whose servant Jesus healed) the woman caught in adultery (John 8). When Mark walked into my office Monday afternoon and asked if I would be willing to take the part of that witness, I had some initial hesitation, but then agreed to testify.

I suspect this story is familiar to most people. A woman caught in the act of adultery is brought by the Pharisees and scribes to Jesus, who is teaching in the temple. They are prepared to stone her, the legal punishment for her crime. When they ask Jesus what he had to say about what the law requires, he says nothing, but kneels and begins to write something in the dirt. When they continue asking, he gets up and says to them “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, the men go away, leaving Jesus with the woman. When he asks her who is left to condemn her, she says no one, to which he responds “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

I found it both difficult and powerful to testify – both the preparation and the actual trial experience was an Ignatian Contemplation for me. I was the woman in that scene, experiencing what she experienced and having her interaction with Jesus. A couple of things stood out to me:

First was her recognition of the incredibly unearned gift she received from Jesus. She was guilty of her crime, she knew the punishment and she was terrified, knowing that she was going to die. (And die a painful death.) I felt her terror (not to mention the humiliation of being dragged through the streets and put before Jesus and the crowd in the temple area) and then her dawning relief as she realized she would not die. The grace of being accepted by Jesus, of not being condemned by him, despite her sin, was amazing. She (I) understood the gift she (I) had been given.

Second was the incredible intimacy of the encounter with Jesus. I testified as I experienced the scene praying with it beforehand, and what I said was (something like) this: “Jesus reached out and pulled me up from the ground. He then put one hand on my shoulder and looked into my eyes. No one had ever looked at me like that before. He then gestured at the empty air with his other hand, and asked me, ‘Where are they? Is there no one left to condemn you?’ I answered, ‘No sir, they have all left.’ Then Jesus put his hand on my face and said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.'”

As I testified, I was aware of no one in the room except Jeanne, who was examining me, and Jesus – who sits silent at the defense table during the trial. As I said that he looked at me, I looked at the student playing Jesus and saw only Jesus. The intensity of the woman’s experience of Jesus, which I felt, was almost painful it was so deeply intimate.

The final thing that struck me – this during the brief cross-examination – was the concern that I might say something that could cause Jesus to be executed. I was a witness for the defense, but what if I inadvertently said something te prosecutor could twist in his favor. That’s something I need to unpack some more. In fact, I know I need to pray with the entire experience some more; there was a lot going on there.

At some point, there will be a video of the trial. I’ll link it when there is.

Strenuous Yet Relaxed

One of the books I’m currently reading is Where God Happens, by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. I have no basis on which to evaluate Williams as a prelate, but I always benefit from his writing. In this book, he brings forth the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, focusing on the relevance of their teaching to our lives today.

One of the things Williams talks about in the book is the need for us to be “strenuous yet relaxed.” He observes that we know how to talk about being strenuous, that is, to “portray Christian life as a struggle, a drama, in which we’re called to heroic achievement and endurance.” We also, he says, know how to talk about being relaxed, that is our need to rely on God’s mercy. However, he observes, it is less easy for us to understand how to hold those two together.

The desert fathers help us understand how to do that. They had an enormous awareness of, and deep sorrow for, their own sinfulness. But they also knew that God heals and accepts us no matter what. Williams writes that the desert fathers

are not, in their tears and penances, trying to make up their debt to God. They know as well as any Christian that this is paid once and for all by the mercy that arrives in advance of all our repentance. They simply want to be sure that this assurance of mercy does not make them deceive themselves about why mercy is needed, by themselves and others. If they continue with this awareness of the sinful and needy self, it is so that they will understand the tears and self-hatred of others and know how to bring them to Christ by their unqualified acceptance and gentleness.

Thus, explains Williams, we need to be both strenuous in our “effort to keep before our eyes the truth of our condition,” yet relaxed “in the knowledge of a mercy that cannot ever be exhausted.”

Williams goes on to say that we can only fully understand what it means to be strenuous, yet relaxed in the context of community, for it is in community that we learn the nature of God’s mercy.

I’ll Say I Loved

Although I get an e-mail delivery of Garrison Keillor’s, The Writer’s Almanac, the e-mail sometimes gets buried in my inbox, with the result that it takes a while for me to get to read it. That is too bad, since quite often I find the poem selected for distribution to be quite worthy of attention and reflection.

The last one I read, contained a poem titled A Plea for Mercy, by Ann Porter. The poem begins with a question we can all profitably ask ourselves:

When I am brought before the Lord
What can I say to him
How plead for mercy?

Porter answers quite simply: “I’ll say I loved..”, listing her husband, her five children, summer mornings – the sunrise and the dew, the bird, the flies, and a few other things.

As I read the poem (which you can read in its entirety here) it struck me that it reveals perhaps the best answer we can give to the question of what we can say when we are brought befor the Lord. “I’ll say I loved…I’ll say I opened my heart to the world with love.” If we can say we loved, that we lived a life of love, then I’m not sure there is anything else we need to say.

Justice and Mercy

I am currently reading a book titled The World’s Religions, by Huston Smith. In the chapter on Judaism, Smith quotes a rabbi who uses a simple story to describe the relationship between justice and mercy:

A king had some empty glasses. He said, “If I pour hot water into them they will crack; if I pour ice-cold water into them they will will also crack!” What did the king do? He mixed the hot and the cold water together and poured it into them and they did not crack. Even so did the Holy One, blessed be He, say: “If I create the world on the basis of the attribute of mercy alone, the world’s sins will greatly multiply. If I create it on the basis of the attirbute of justice alone, how could the world endure? I will therefore create it with both the attributes of mercy and justice, and may it endure!”

Mercy and justice. Both are present in God’s dealings with us. Both must also be present in our dealings with each other.