When Pope Francis first announced the Jubilee Year of Mercy, I had the same dismissive “oh, that’s nice” reaction that I’m sure many others had. The word mercy tends to be reduced to sentimentality and pure “niceness.” In a culture where judgement against the choices of others is of significant concern, messages of mercy and forgiveness, especially when coming from ecclesial authorities, are usually applauded. But what I discovered during this past year is that mercy is anything but nice and sweet. It is far from being convenient. Mercy, real mercy, is a scandal. It’s a paradox…an utter contradiction. Mercy is powerful. It can turn one’s world upside down, destroy one’s plans and conventions, and leave one like a child-having to learn to walk all over again. What is the nature of the kind of mercy that Pope Francis was proposing that the world take the time to rediscover, and what does it have to do with our day to day affairs?
A sweet, sentimental, fluffy add-on to my daily life would have no real significance for me. Considering all of the work I have to plow through, from teaching high school students full time to taking night classes to receive my masters degree; from my family members I have to attend to, to my personality flaws and weaknesses that I obsess over…and all the other unplanned tasks and annoyances that spring up throughout the day, I don’t have the time to add an insubstantial “self-help” routine to my already overwhelming to do list. But when the Year of Mercy began, being the good and pious Catholic man that I am, I did my best to “do” Year of Mercy “things.” On that never ending to do list I added time to read Dante’s Divine Comedy (which was on the pope’s suggested reading list) and the papal bull Misericordiae Vultus, time for a daily rosary, and a weekly hour of Eucharistic adoration. I kept all of this up for approximately three weeks into the year. After dragging myself through the first 20 Canti of the Inferno, I determined that the Pope proposed the Year of Mercy either to try to make me feel bad about not reserving enough time for Jesus, to just waste my time, or for some other mysterious reason. I opted for the third possibility, and thus began to ask in prayer, “what is mercy, where do I see it, and how does it become a part of my daily life, rather than being something merely imposed onto it?
The more I entered into my daily to-dos with these questions, I started to be reminded of the unavoidable fact that I continuously fail to complete my tasks successfully. I get lazy when it comes to writing papers for my night classes. I stop half an hour into writing to check Instagram or watch a foolish YouTube video. I enter into my classroom some days aiming to just “wing it,” and then get angry at my students for being bored by my thinly prepared lessons. And I give my grandparents an attitude for “bothering” me with a gratuitous phone call in the middle of “lesson planning” (meaning checking instagram). I fail to “power through” all of these tasks, I fail to dominate, to “seize the day,” and end up going to bed dissatisfied. Why am I not as powerful and successful as I aspire to be? Why am I not generous and loving, why am I not…Each day ends with the overwhelming awareness of how inadequate all of my efforts are. I want to be everything that I am not. I want to be the teacher who know exactly what he is doing, whose students always listen to him, and who all look up to him as their role model. I want to be the dedicated grad student who can spend hours on end in the library, slaving away over a paper that becomes a masterpiece, renowned among his professors and colleagues for his excellence. I want to be the friend who everyone loves, thinks of, and misses when he’s not around. I want to be the “good” grandson, the considerate family member. But the fact is that I am none of these men.
So what gives, then? Do I continue to strive toward perfection, to “try harder tomorrow,” to be everything, to have it all? I could tell myself that, knowing that all of those attempts will be in vain. How can I live this immense and impossible desire in front of my daily life, and also carve out the time to take seriously the Pope’s proposal on top of it all?
The gospel reading on the Solemnity of Christ, King of the Universe, was the perfect crown to top off what I discovered at the end of the Year of Mercy. What we are told in this gospel account is that the man who claims to be the King of the Universe, to be all-powerful and all-mighty, allowed himself to be mocked, beaten, and killed by his detractors. How could this be? Knowing how angry I get with the students who challenge my authority and how I try to compensate by overpowering them, this “king” is a total joke. It is utterly ridiculous that the “most powerful man in the universe”-he who is and made everything-allowed himself to be overpowered by mere mortals. It is a much a scandal to the ancient pagan gods of Athens to modern thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche writes of the Crucifixion: “When we hear the ancient bells growling on a Sunday morning we ask ourselves: Is it really possible! This, for a jew, crucified two thousand years ago, who said he was God’s son?…A god who begets children with a mortal woman; a sage who bids men work no more, have no more courts, but look for the signs of the impending end of the world; a justice that accepts the innocent as a vicarious sacrifice; someone who orders his disciples to drink his blood; prayers for miraculous interventions; sins perpetrated against a god, atoned for by a god; fear of a beyond to which death is the portal; the form of the cross as a symbol in a time that no longer knows the function and ignominy of the cross — how ghoulishly all this touches us, as if from the tomb of a primeval past! Can one believe that such things are still believed?”
Nietzsche’s assessment of the Christian Event is valid, except his judgement presupposes one thing that makes or brakes the Year of Mercy: namely, that the fulfillment of the heart’s desire is an overabundance of power. If God were merely power-power for its own sake-then yes, the Crucifixion would mean the God of Christianity is a joke. But why did Jesus allow his enemies to kill him? Why did he empty himself of power? Either it was because this man had no power at all (and is thus a liar), or that his power was predicated upon an overabundance of love. If this man is really who he claims to be, then the only way we could view the Crucifixion as a display of his omnipotence is if his power is for the sake of love for the other. And this love cannot be a sugar-coated, sentimental love-a weak love, but a love that has power, that manifests in actions rather than in emotions, and is willing to go as far as to die for the beloved as well as for the enemy.
It is this kind of love that I discovered in an ever more dramatic way during the Year of Mercy. This love is dramatic because of the power it holds over me in my daily life. In the encounter with this man, I discover someone whose gaze toward me remains constant, even when I end the day having royally failed in all of my endeavors. How could it be that someone looks at me with love even when I made an utter fool of myself in front of my students, slacked off on my master’s work, and am cold to the ones I love? Is this just another inconvenient add on to my day, my day in which my own power failed me, and I go sleep sad, dissatisfied with the circumstances? Or is it that which answers to the sadness and dissatisfaction?
The more I go to the depth of that existential sadness, I realize that in its essence is a yearning for something that my own power and strength can never satisfy. It is a yearning for love-for a love so great that it lies beyond anything I could merit or reciprocate. It is in the recognition of this fundamental human need that mercy takes on it true power. The more I allowed myself to be conquered by this desire to love and be loved, rather than to succeed and dominate, I started to see a change in my work and in my relationships. My limitations as a teacher, student, friend, and family member never disappeared. My wounds have been blatantly and embarrassingly visible at times. But when I allow my wounds to be embraced, to be loved, and redeemed, I am surprised by the fruit that is born-results that exceed any calculation for success that I could ever fathom. The power behind someone who allows himself to be defined by the gaze of mercy is disarming-it is the power of an authentic and sincere humanity which has to capacity to recall others to their true needs and desires as a human being.
I saw this “power” most concretely in an experience with one of my students in Senior Religion this past semester…we’ll call him “Tom.” Tom has always had a bit of an attitude; he often makes contrary comments under his breath and seeks attention when he is bored in class. The distractions were minimal until halfway through the semester when he began making blatantly disrespectful comments toward me. Feeling my authority to be threatened, I pounced. I started a showdown in the middle of class, trying to overpower his disrespect with threats of punishment and loss of points. He stormed out saying that I don’t know how to teach a religion class. So had I “won?” I ended up making him angrier and creating an even greater distraction from my lesson. What exactly did I want to win, anyway? What I wanted most was to continue teaching my lesson and sharing the beauty of the content with all of my students, including Tom. Part of the reason why I wanted to overpower Tom was because I’m embarrassed by the fact that I’m not seen as a “tough” teacher. I perceive being a softy as one of those ugly wounds that I need to hide. But hiding that wound through a display of power for power’s sake ultimately did nothing for myself, for Tom, or for my other students. The next day Tom came to class, I decided to pull him aside and discuss with him why his behavior was problematic, and that I wanted him to act respectfully not for my sake, but for his own sake. When he acts in a dignified way, it shows that he values his own life. And rather than deducting points from his grade as a punishment, I asked him to prepare a lesson based on the Bible passage that speaks most to him. He was baffled. The same teacher that he accused of not knowing how to teach a religion class was asking him to teach his class for him. Tom’s lesson the next week moved me and all of his classmates. I learned that what is more satisfying than overpowering those who try to challenge me is to embrace them with the power of love. I let the “wound” of my softness and patience become an opportunity for triumph, for myself as well as for Tom.
Pope Francis goes as far as to say that our wounds and shortcomings are privileges. This is a far cry from the attitude of shame and embarrassment that tends to overwhelm us in the moments that we recognize just how flawed we really are. “The privileged place of encounter is the caress of Jesus’ mercy regarding my sin. This is why you may have heard me say, several times, that the place for this, the privileged place of the encounter with Jesus Christ is my sin. The will to respond and to change, which can give rise to a different life, comes thanks to this merciful embrace.”
Rather than seeking to constantly “make myself good,” or to “try harder tomorrow,” the object of morality is not a more committed (and more powerful) effort, but a more sincere gesture of love, a more “heartfelt” cry for Another: “Christian morality is not a titanic, voluntary effort, of one who decides to be coherent and who manages to do so, a sort of isolated challenge before the world. No. This is not Christian morality, it is something else. Christian morality is a response, it is the heartfelt response before the surprising, unforeseeable — even “unfair” according to human criteria — mercy of One who knows me, knows my betrayals and loves me just the same, appreciates me, embraces me, calls me anew, hopes in me, has expectations of me.”
My deepest desire as a teacher is to enter the classroom with an open heart-ready to have a meaningful experience with my students, sharing with them the beauty of the content that we are learning, and being in relationship with them. Taking this desire seriously implies a risk; one can’t have an “open heart” without allowing himself to be vulnerable. This means I must be willing to expose my emptiness and inadequacies, knowing that only Another who is more powerful than myself can make these beautiful experiences and relationships possible. But the golden standard of being the perfect teacher who never shows his weaknesses is not nearly as beautiful as being a human teacher whose relationship with his students is predicated upon the power of love. And the simple fact is that I’m more free when I live this way because it is more authentic to my humanity and to the desires of my heart. The same goes for my friendships. I’m far from being the perfect friend; I’m often petty and selfish, but what trumps my shortcomings, flaws, and neediness is my desire to love my friends and be loved by them.
Only when I open my wounds and expose my weaknesses in all of their ugliness and inconvenience can I begin to have actual human experiences. Only then can something beautiful come out of the frustrations and annoyances of daily life. When I hide them, when I try to gloss over my humanity with the illusion of power and strength, things begin to crumble, and my service to others is empty, devoid of any true value. It is Henri Nouwen’s ideal of the “wounded healer” who has anything worthwhile to offer the world. Only someone who is truly human, who allows all of his humanity, flaws and all, to be embraced by the gaze of mercy, can truly offer himself to and live in communion with other humans.
This paradox, this outrageous contradiction, is what fulfills my dissatisfaction at the end of the day. It is precisely this embrace of mercy that scandalized Nietzsche, whose ideal for man was the exaltation of his “will to power.” There is no freedom, no joy, in the will to power, simply because I can never will myself to be powerful enough to fulfill my desire to love and be loved. This can only be fulfilled by Another. And I only recognize my need for him in my moments of weakness, powerlessness, and incoherence. So like Saint Paul, I “boast in weakness,” I celebrate the fact that I don’t have to cover up my wounds, be ashamed of my limitations, and “make myself good.” I don’t have to be ashamed of my poverty, of the fact that I’m far from being the perfect teacher, student, and friend. Rather, I rejoice in my poverty.
So when I finish a class during which I totally veered away from my lesson plans and sounded like I had no idea what I was talking about…or when I fall asleep halfway through reading Aquinas’ treatise on Justice in the Summa…or when I make a fool of myself for calling that one friend a little bit too often, exposing my needy side…I rejoice! I thank God for reminding me that I am not God, and that there is a God. Rather than get pissed off with how inadequate I am, I look to the only one who is adequate, and ask him to give me the strength to carry on and to continue facing my day with the awareness that I am loved, and that am asked to return that love to every person and task that comes my way.
It’s a relief to know that what defines my life, my desire for happiness, and expectation for greatness, in both my work and relationships, is a relationship with Another…with someone who loves me, and simply asks me to follow him. Even when I fail him, he continues to wait for me. It is the power of this simplicity, of following someone whose greatness manifests in my littleness, which constitutes the radicality of the Pope’s proposal this year. I enter into the new liturgical year knowing that my power will fail many times, but that someone is willing to embrace, accompany, and redeem me every time it happens.