Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mercy me!

Mr. Bennett—though witty and charming—admittedly was not the best of fathers. No, he did nothing terrible or even ghastly. His deficiencies lay rather in inaction: his fault was that of benign neglect. Though he saw the silliness of his daughters, he did nothing more to correct them than to tease them, and nothing at all to restrain them.
      However, when his youngest daughter, Lydia, ran off, bringing ruin upon herself and shame on the whole family, Mr. Bennett was man enough to recognize his own guilt in the situation. When his daughter Elizabeth tried to comfort him, urging him not to be “too severe” upon himself, he replied, “No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough.”
      Mr. Bennett may be a creation of Jane Austen's imagination, living in the fictional Pride and Prejudice, yet he expresses a truth that applies to many of us, though we may not be as honest as he in admitting it.
      Our culture doesn't foster guilt feelings, but rather encourages us to excuse our failings with the reminder that no one is perfect; or to blame our parents, our hormones, anything but ourselves; or better yet not to acknowledge that there was anything remiss in our behavior at all. Sin is an old-fashioned notion, not one of the enlightened present.
      Today is Divine Mercy Sunday, a recent addition to the Church calendar. Inspired in part by the visions of St. Faustina, it is a day to recall and be grateful for God's infinite mercy.
      But to fully appreciate His mercy, we need first to realize how much we need it and how little we deserve it. Like Mr. Bennett, too often we don't feel how much we are to blame, and when we do, it passes away soon enough.
      Today is a good day to reflect on these matters and to ask for and be grateful for God's mercy.
     It's a good day because the emphasis of Divine Mercy Sunday is His infinite mercy. We can all too easily take a pendulum ride from one extreme to another: once we recognize our guilt we can get stuck there and begin to wallow in it.

     The simple, yet profound Lamb of God prayer from Mass can help. The words “Lamb of God” reflect the fact that at last, in Christ who alone is worthy and precious enough, we have a sacrifice that can truly take away sin.
     The next part encourages us to believe that, shameful as they are, our sins are not too great to be forgiven: the Lamb of God can take away the sins of the whole world; surely then He can handle my sins too. (St. Thérèse wrote that compared to the blazing furnace of God's love our sins are like drops of water: they sizzle for a second and then are gone.) The next part of the prayer—”have mercy on us”—is our personal request to be included in that.
     There's something special about the number three. Most importantly, we have the Trinity. And throughout the Bible, three is a significant number. It also crops up in literature, especially for the young—there are three brothers or three bears or something happens three times. So too in the Lamb of God: three times the opening words are repeated. And how right that feels when one is convicted of one's sin; saying it once is not enough.
      Yet—as often happens in fairy tales or jokes—the third time ends differently. The Spirit who no doubt inspired the prayer doesn't want us to get stuck in guilt, but to come to resolution, so the third and final petition ends with “grant us peace”.
      And that's the point of Divine Mercy Sunday: the point of feeling, like Mr. Bennett, "how much I have been to blame" is not to be "overpowered by it" but to seek God's mercy and experience His peace.

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