By Mike Jordan Laskey
April 26, 2019 — The family seemed desperate on the side of the road: a mom and dad, a kid, a broken-down RV. So these relatives of ours on my wife’s side did what they almost always do as they drove by — they stopped and said hello. Turned out the RV needed a tow and the down-on-their-luck family needed a place to stay. Our relatives said, Sure, we can help with all that. And they did — the family ended up staying at their house for close to a week.
Honestly, I remember thinking our relatives were more than a little bit crazy to be doing this. Was it safe? What if their kindness was taken advantage of? Radical hospitality is often risky, and some people, like our relatives, are impressively bold in their witness. Others, like me, are more hesitant to act when a challenge of compassion presents itself.
I’m recalling this story during Easter Week, as we approach Divine Mercy Sunday — a celebration of God’s mercy held on the Sunday after Easter every year — because it reminds me of Fr. James F. Keenan, SJ’s, definition of mercy: the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.
I love that definition. It captures the essence of how God and God’s saints work in the world. God sending his son, Jesus Christ, to first-century Palestine was entering our human chaos. Jesus’ accompaniment of tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes and sinners of every sort was nonstop entering the chaos of others. The early church’s work of evangelization and healing we read about in the Acts of the Apostles, despite grave danger and misunderstanding, was entering chaos. Pick a saint, any saint, and you’ll certainly find ways she or he entered into others’ chaos.
If that’s the measure of our practice of mercy, how might we best celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday? Here are three steps one could try:
1. Take a “mercy willingness” self-inventory.
Mercy, according to Fr. Keenan’s definition, is first a quality of willingness. Like the Good Samaritan who delays his trip to care for the wounded man, entering the chaos of another requires openness to the tasks at hand. Put yourself in the scene my relatives faced in the story at the start of this piece: What would you have done? What feelings does the anecdote evoke in you? What do you usually do when you notice suffering nearby? Does your response change based on the context? Do you make up reasons to excuse inaction?
2. Think of one small way to grow your practice of mercy.
Pick one person from your everyday life who could use a little mercy. Maybe it’s an ill relative, an elderly neighbor, a panhandler you see on your walk to work or a member at your parish who has experienced loss recently. Come up with a simple way to show them mercy and compassion: a phone call, a letter, a hug, a shared coffee or meal. Be specific, small and narrow in your goal.
3. Put your idea into action within the next week.
“I’ll get to it someday” imperils growth in mercy and discipleship. (Which is why I recommend going narrow and specific with your plan.) Try your best to follow through this week. Then try it again next week. And the week after. Then, take your “mercy willingness” self-inventory again and see if anything changed!
Mercy as practiced by my relatives in the story can seem intimidating. What if I’m not ready to make that sort of leap? Fear shouldn’t stop us from trying, even in a much smaller way. As the poet, essayist and farmer Wendell Berry reminds us, it is a human privilege to strive to emulate God’s compassion. “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand,” he writes. “It is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”