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Starting Point

From Bosnia to the back yard quality of mercy gets strained


My husband and I recently went to a concert in a wonderful, historic seaport just north of us. It was the perfect setting for a performance by folk singer Tom Paxton. Initially, we laughed at his "disposable" songs, as he calls them, which satirize events drawn from the daily news.

The mood shifted, however, when he sang "On the Road from Srebrenica." It tells the story of the slaughter of six thousand Muslim men who were torn from their families, while their wives, daughters, sisters and mothers were forced to walk the road in terror. The refrain haunted me: "Blackbirds flying overhead/cry no mercy on the road from Srebrenica/where there's no one left alive to count the dead."

The experience led me to reflect on the notion of mercy. The next morning we and our children went to Mass, and we began with the familiar "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy."

As these words washed over me I thought of that song, and a new realization began to take shape. For God's mercy to show in this world, it has to come through people -- through me.

Being God's mercy in this world, being who and what God wants me to be, troubled me. After all, here was one imperfect, totally hopeless human being whose intentions to follow God last as long as the wind blows. And I knew that this had always been before me, that I have always asked God to "forgive me my sins as I forgive those that trespass against me." While those words were so familiar, only now did their power and impact really begin to hit home.

I saw that mercy was as grand as people hiding Jews during the Holocaust or as simple as overlooking my husband's daily lapses. Actually, overlooking those lapses can often be beyond me, and I know all too well the grudges I hold in my heart. I heard anew the words of Jesus to the Pharisees: "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" (Matt 12:7). I began to see my daily life as full of invitations to mercy if only I would accept them.

I thought of the previous day when my youngest child was struggling to buckle her play shoes. She's five and perfectly capable of buckling these soft cloth shoes that she wears when she goes out to play in our backyard. It was late in the afternoon and not only was she tired, I was too. I knew she could buckle those shoes, but she sat on the bench whining that she couldn't do it. My first reaction was to tell her she couldn't go out until she did. But I looked down and saw how tired she was, so I bent down, buckled her shoes and held her in my arms for a few seconds. Mercy can be that simple.

I guess the person I am least likely to be merciful toward is myself. As a true American, I find that I am often obsessed with doing it all. I often buy into the unspoken assumption that I can only find my worth in what I do. So when I fail to get it all done or when I see my limitations, I mentally berate myself or feel worthless. And I guess that's where mercy begins -- with ourselves.

For me, this insight means stopping when I'm tired, irritable or overwhelmed and putting on a pot of water for a cup of tea. Sipping my tea warms me, slows me down for at least as long as it takes me to finish the cup and reminds me that even if I can't feel it, God is there. Mercy is as simple as that cup of tea.

Two old women live around the corner from me. Bea is 82, and Mary is about the same. They both live alone and are incredibly spry and active. Bea walks everywhere and Mary is often out in her yard hacking away at her bushes, which threaten to take over the sidewalk. I take walks past their homes and often stop to talk when I see them. Now I truly don't have time to talk and would often prefer to get moving because my 14-year-old son is baby-sitting and I want to get back before all hell breaks loose. But they want to talk, and I force myself to stop and listen. While I could congratulate myself on being so nice, the truth is that I, too, need to be with them. They're both about the age my mother would have been, but she's been dead a few years. Being with Bea or Mary nurtures me. Mercy can be like that -- healing both people when they take the time to be with each other.

And mercy is when I've been bitchy because I'm tired or overwhelmed by the frenetic schedule of my children's lives, by work or by the demands of home, and my husband takes me in his arms and holds me. The warmth of his embrace reminds me of God's abiding presence -- being known for who I am and still loved.

Nancy Barthelemy is a freelance writer living in Danvers, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 1997