Thursday, February 18, 2016

Column: Beating out mercy Psalm 136

Cimbue crucifix in Santa Croce, Florence.
The crowd was restive at Union Station on Monday, and in all the rush, the staff forgot to board those with small children and the elderly first, they were left behind in the surge to get to the gate.  Few were willing to make space for them to get through.

The ride home was reminiscent of the trailer for Snowpiercer, wisps of snow driven up by the train's passage twirling past.  A dark grey snowcovered landscape. Bare trees. Sitting in the quiet car, with many empty seats, while the rest of the train tried to cope with overcrowding.

A version of this column appeared at on 18 February 2016.

He remembered us in our distress
for his mercy endures forever. Psalm 136:23

The crowd was anxious and impatient, pressing up against the boarding gate, shouting at the screen. The train was late. An ice storm was coming. You could almost hear the thoughts, they were so loud. Would we be stranded in Union Station? Have mercy on us, I thought.

It was hard to be calm. I, too, wanted to be home in my PJs with a cup of hot cocoa, not huddled overnight in a cold, damp station juggling a paper cup of tea and my bag, smashed between two oversharing college students. Have mercy on us, I prayed.

On my wrist was a prayer rope, 33 knots of black wool. I pulled it off and let its litany of mercy run through my fingers, knot by knot reminding me that crowds and discomfort notwithstanding, sinners and saints alike, we were saved. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me.” Mercy, mercy, I murmured.

In the introduction to his setting of the Psalms, Jesuit Father Joseph Gelineau notes that the psalms work on our hearts not by reason, but by hammering. Phrases and images repeat, shaping our prayers and our souls, like a metalsmith beating at gold. Mercy, mercy, mercy.

Psalm 136, called the Great Hallel — the Great Praise — by our Jewish brothers and sisters, is traditionally sung on all the great Jewish feasts. Scripture scholars believe Jesus sang this hymn of mercy as he made his way to the garden of Gesthemane. The Psalm beats out a refrain of praise, recounting our history of salvation, each of God’s great deeds met with a cry of “for his mercy endures forever.”

Pope Francis suggests in Misericordiae Vultus [MV 7)] that this continual reminder of the enduring nature of God’s mercy “break(s) through the dimensions of space and time, inserting everything into the eternal mystery of love.” It hammers at our hearts, breaking down the barriers between the holy and the profane, between the sacred and the ordinary.

We are challenged, says Pope Francis, to take up this refrain in our daily lives, to follow the example of Jesus who prayed these words on the eve of his Passion, a potent reminder of why he would undergo this ordeal. That we might know God’s mercy endures forever, whether we are his people struggling to cross the Red Sea, refugees fleeing war in Syria or have simply been caught in a tide of jittery travelers.

Do I have the courage this Lent to let the psalms hammer at my heart, the sparks of mercy flying, until I am re-formed? Perhaps, but yes or no, God’s mercy endures forever.

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