Little brown bags fill the back of our van filled with raisins, granola bars, packets of oatmeal, tuna, crackers and bottles of water that my daughter has put together for anyone we see along the side of the road who looks like they may need one. She also has cans of dog food for hungry dogs standing in those places as well. My daughter is always calling me toward mercy. At twelve she is mercy in action Her compassion and generosity toward strangers, human or animal, is without judgment. When we drive through the city streets she calls out when she sees someone in need. God has placed deep within her an abiding love for the other where their burdens suddenly become hers. And she will not be discouraged by my busy schedule or lack of money or food to give. Each of my children have their particular God-given gifts that I try to celebrate and nurture and this is hers. And I must admit to not celebrating this call to mercy as much as I celebrate her success at track meets and her sister’s excellence in flute or swimming. She is the voice of mercy in our little family tent and I am still learning to honor and support this call of hers. In spite of a tough beginning in foster care, or perhaps because of it, she sees the need and is pained if we pass someone by. She is not yet hardened by a world that wants us to hesitate in offering hospitality through corporal works of mercy. It is sometimes difficult for some to understand why she wants to do this. Some judge the action as wrong or misguided.
How much more difficult is it for us to understand God’s mercy which cannot be captured by a single word in our language. In scripture, there are three Hebrew words that can be translated as mercy. The Hebrew word hesed defines mercy as that of covenantal love – mutual, steadfast and exclusive. It is the love expressed by God toward his people in the offer of divine hospitality. We may catch rare glimpses of it in the couples who through their exclusive love, nurture and support one another, remaining faithful throughout their lives. Through God’s mercy, they persevere and remain loyal and true to their vows. The word Rahamim, plural for womb and speaks to mercy being felt within our being. This is the nurturing presence of God’s mercy within. Pregnancy, being filled with new life, gives us a window into this aspect of God’s mercy. Hen/Hanan is a third word, meaning grace or favor and is a freely given gift with no expectation of reciprocity. This is the aspect of mercy that Dorothy Day lived out through the Catholic Worker Movement. This is the closest to my daughter’s action of mercy. Action is a fundamental part of mercy no matter the root word. It is a salve for disdain and hostility. It calls for forgiveness and is best seen through the sacrificial life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In The Rule of Benedict 53:14 we hear, ” God, we have received your mercy in the midst of your temple (Ps 48:10)” as a part of hospitality in the Reception of Guests. Mercy is the gift, the blessing that the stranger, the pilgrim, the friend, the other coming as image of God, brings to the door of the monastery, the home, or the street. How well do we embrace this mercy and allow ourselves to vulnerable? What has been your greatest experience of God’s mercy? To which root word does it most closely connect?