How do we respond when people we care about do things that seem misguided, faulty or fraught with peril?
I’ve heard this question echoed in many circumstances, from Catholic parents whose offspring decline to marry before starting families, to young people whose friends undergo in vitro fertilization. How do we support the person, but not the practice?
We’re all wary of helping others do harmful things and we don’t want to forget the principle at stake. What if our help for someone awaiting assisted suicide encourages others to choose the same? Are we helping lead people away from life?
Some years ago, Joan and Tom came to town for a third-trimester abortion. The day before the first appointment at the clinic, they unexpectedly dropped in at the church they’d attended when they lived there.
The church members remembered them and were alarmed for all three — the couple and the unborn child. It was hard to tell how much the parents understood what was happening. It was clear they were mentally unwell, surviving on social assistance, and their doctor had referred them for the abortion. What did love require here?
Together, the church community addressed the situation. That entire week, they accompanied the couple everywhere except in the clinic itself, where two appointments were needed a couple of days apart. They offered practical help toward carrying through the pregnancy and supporting the family. Meanwhile, they fed them, sheltered them, held them, cried over them. They tried to help the mother — who relied on the father — see what she was doing without rejecting her.
The church was unable to prevent the abortion. They have carried that tragedy ever since.
That church entered the abyss to be with the vulnerable. This is the same way we enter Lent: not individually but as a church, a church that knows what it is to be broken and humbled. A church that can claim the great psalm of penitence, Psalm 51.
Psalm 51 welcomes us into Lent, being sung at Mass on Ash Wednesday and the First Sunday of Lent. It’s the astonishing song-prayer of a king. As a Jewish archaeologist told me once, the surprising thing is not that a king would have one of his subjects killed so he could take the man’s wife for his pleasure, as David did to Uriah and Bathsheba. What’s surprising is that the king would be reprimanded for it by a religious leader, namely the prophet Nathan. And that the king would accept this reprimand, repent publicly and ask God’s pardon.
Down through the centuries, this psalm has been the crown jewel of broken, contrite hearts. It gives utterance to the tears we don’t know how to shed. It knits us together, each with our own lament, all crying to the one who knows the immensity of human anguish and the endless depths of the hell we can create for ourselves. David names his own fault, without compromise: “My sin is always before me.”
He knows the hurt done to others is hurt done to God: “Against you, you alone have I sinned.” Intimately aware of God’s nature — “in accord with your merciful love, in your abundant compassion” — he claims God’s desire and ability to heal: “Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure.” He accepts human failure and human evil — even as he claims the power of God’s Spirit to renew the damaged human spirit.
David shows us we don’t need to hide from God, as Adam and Eve did. God’s mercy flows everywhere, ready to renew and re-create us.
But how does that mercy withstand the tension of imperfect realities in a heartbreaking world? As Psalm 85 tells it, mercy and truth have met. And the purpose of Lent is to bring us to the meeting.
There is no mercy without truth. On the cross, truth and mercy meet; and in hearts where this meeting takes place, there flows the joy of salvation.
Beginning in the truth of who God is, we can face our failures, in his mercy.
What of Joan and Tom and their baby? An old woman in the church, who herself had a psychosis, lived alone in low-income housing. She took the mother in the night before the baby was aborted. That old woman wept all through the night.
Jesus said mercy is best given by those who have received mercy in their brokenness (Luke 7:47). The child left the world with someone weeping for her, a broken heart in which mercy and truth met.
Mary Marrocco can be reached at email@example.com.
(CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier)