Wednesday, February 10, 2016
This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 9 February 2016, the first in a series of six on mercy in the psalms.
Be merciful just as your Father is merciful. Lk 6:27
Grading is the hardest thing I do. It’s not that there are so many papers to grade, or that the math for my graduate course in quantum mechanics is so complex my students’ assignments looks more like runes than English. It is that I must, over and over again, balance mercy with justice, compassion with discipline.
Without fail, each time I mark a midterm exam, I hear Jesus’ words from the 7th chapter of Matthew: “For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” It keeps my red pen focused on comments that will teach, not scold, and reminds me to be attentive to each student, even the ones whose handwriting makes me cross-eyed. Give me wisdom, I ask God, that they too might gain wisdom — at least when it comes to chemistry. Teach me to be merciful, O Lord, as you would be merciful.
How do we learn to be merciful as our Creator is? From the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has urged us to live mercy, to be mercy-ing. In Misericordiae Vultus, in which he formally announces the Year of Mercy that began in December, the Pope tells us we must first of all open ourselves to the Word of God, to rediscover the silence in our busy lives and meditate on mercy in the scriptures.
For many years, I have been praying the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church’s universal public prayer, as a way to steal moments of stillness in the midst of busy days. The psalms are the skeleton on which the Liturgy of the Hours is built. As Jesus turned to the words of the psalms on the cross, so, I seek their steadfast strength and solace in my daily life.
The word “mercy” appears dozens of times in the English translation of the psalms used at the Liturgy of the Hours. Psalm 51, the first psalm and last psalm we hear at Mass in Lent, and which opens Morning Prayer on Ash Wednesday, begins with a plea for mercy. “Have mercy on me, God…” It is one of the psalms that I know by heart.
I hear in this psalm a short lesson in what it might mean to embrace mercy. Make me hear rejoicing and gladness. To live mercy means being aware of the wellspring of joy and peace upon which our salvations rests. Do not cast me away from your presence, nor deprive me of your Holy Spirit. To live mercy means not turning my back on the troubled or troublesome.
Mercy, says Pope Francis, is the beating heart of the Gospel. As I enter into these Lenten days, I put my ear to God’s heart, seeking its comfort in my own sinfulness, and praying that my heart, too, will take up the rhythm of mercy.