Archive for Year of Mercy

The Domestic Confessional

domestic confessional

I dropped to my knees and began mopping up the mess, grumbling as I worked.  “You have to be more careful!  Especially when it’s a full gallon of milk!  Ask Mommy for help next time so you won’t make a mess!”

I looked up at my daughter and stopped.  A look of surprise mingled with remorse was fixed on her face.

“Sorry,” she whispered with downcast eyes.

My heart dropped to my feet and my tone softened.  I tried to salvage the mess I had poured on top of hers. “It’s okay. Just ask me for help next time.”  She walked away, and I finished cleaning, by now more frustrated with myself than with the spill.

The image of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son flashed through my mind.   The father who didn’t scold.  The father who didn’t ask any questions.  The son who leaned with relief into a loving embrace of perfect mercy.  And this was a son who had intentionally spent his father’s inheritance on gambling and prostitutes!

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

Yet his father greeted him with genuine love and joy.

The father must have seen instantly the remorse on his son’s face.  He must have recognized the hardships his son had already endured, and understood that his son was disappointed with himself.

Their exchange wasn’t as much about the words that were spoken, as it was about the tone of their encounter.

One of the most healing moments I’ve experienced after a recent miscarriage was in the confessional.  A flood of emotions had been washing over me since the day I lost my baby: anger, despair, bitterness, envy, resentment, self-doubt, longing, and even a little joy.  I had never experienced a loss like this before, and wasn’t sure what to do with all of those feelings.  As I prayed and asked God to show me the way, I felt pulled to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  And as I knelt in church, trying to decipher my sins through a cloud of grief, I knew God wanted me to receive the sacrament face-to-face–to experience the mercy of confession in a way that I hadn’t in many years.

After confessing my sins through a screen for so long, it was a surprising relief to sit down and visit with our parish priest like I would a friend.  I honestly wasn’t sure what to confess; I just laid bare how I’d been feeling, and the most wonderful thing happened.  I can’t remember exactly what he said, but my priest made me feel as if all of my shortcomings, all of my confusion, and all of my worries were no big deal.  Because, at that point, they weren’t.  I was there, I was sorry, and I was open to guidance.  I was the prodigal son returning, and God not only had mercy on my sins, but mercy on my grief as well.

I realized that this is real mercy: a guiding hand as gentle as our tenderest desires, eyes that recognize our remorse before our mistakes, ears that are open to our perspective rather than closed by judgement, and a heart that is so overcome with joy by our return that it instantly forgets our transgressions.

As my children go about their days, making mistakes and learning to follow God’s will, I hope that our domestic confessional can be as merciful as the church confessional–that the tone of every teaching moment is one of gentle guidance and joy in the return.  And that as I drop to my knees to clean up their messes, I take the time to look at them before the mess and say, “You are loved.”

Image credit: Baby in parent’s arms, Rotaru Florin (Pixabay, CCO Public Domain)

The Mom and the Sacristan: A Lesson in Mercy

year-of-mercyI’m in the narthex of the church again, trying to pay attention to Mass while G stumbles around stacking and unstacking the brochures on the display table. Pretty much the same place I am every Sunday, at one point or another. I’m cool with it.

But this Sunday, about 20 minutes into Mass (yeah, we didn’t make it that long in the pew this week. Sigh.), I glanced out the window to see a woman crossing the street, holding the hands of two small children, pulling them along, looking determined and in a rush. She made her way across the street and into the church. But she camped out in the back with me and a few of the other parents of young kids. I gave her a quick, sympathetic smile. I tried to imagine the circumstances that culminated in her pulling her two boys into church 20 minutes late, the hustling and frustration and finding shoes and making sure everyone had breakfast. I noticed her boys, the younger probably around 2 or 3, and the older boy, who was 4 or 5, who had Downs’ Syndrome. She gently took off their coats, found a spot against the wall, and then started to attempt to calm the boys down.

They were being very . . . how shall I say? Well, very much like YOUNG BOYS. They were running back and forth, hand-in-hand at times, but not being so loud that they could be heard within the church. She was doing her best to get them to behave, be still, pay attention. I could see her frustration mounting. She was having one of those days. But she was trying. She was there! In that moment, I prayed for her and her boys, thanking God for wonderful moms like her that showed up on Sundays despite all the reasons it would be so much easier to stay home. I prayed for graces for her, who so clearly had her hands full, but was soldiering on valiantly.

No sooner had I finished this prayer than a female sacristan, intent on some task that brought her across the narthex, gave this poor woman a withering look, shaking her head in disapproval. I saw this mother’s face fall, and she looked like she might burst into tears. And then, I heard her say, “You guys, if you can’t behave yourself, we’re leaving.” She quickly gathered up their coats, bundled them up, and walked out the door.

I’ll admit, my first reaction was anger. Anger that this unkind sacristan had driven this woman out of our church. That when faced with an opportunity to welcome or to chasten, she chose the latter. How unkind! How very unlike Christ! This mom, who had dragged her kids to church on this cold, windy day, was “turned away” before being able to receive communion. “Is this how we welcome people to our family of faith?!” I fumed.

As I sat and prayed through the rest of the Mass, I realized that being angry at that sacristan was not only pointless, but it was also as unkind as what she did to that mother. I don’t know what pain or anger or frustration was in her heart. Who knows what she overcame to be there today. Maybe it was more than any of us. That’s between her and God.

But I did keep thinking about it, and the more I reflected, the more I questioned where in my life I had been the sacristan in that situation. Where had I met an annoyance with condescension or impatience? When had I put myself at the center of the proverbial room, caring little for the hearts of others? When I thought about it this way, I realized we are all guilty of this. We all fail in charity at one time or another. And while this experience today was so poignant because this women literally walked out the doors of the church, we do this all the time on a broader level. When we demonstrate a lack of gentleness, kindess, or peace, while professing to be Christians, we are indeed driving people away from the Church. Maybe not literally, but certainly just as effectively.

Instead of judging ourselves or others harshly when we fall short, let’s call on God to give us the grace to fill in the gaps for us. Where we are impatient, He is forbearing. Where we are quick to anger, He is tranquil. Where we are unkind, He is merciful.

I wish I knew this woman’s name and had her phone number. I wish I could tell her, “Hey, great job today! I could see you were really trying to do something important for your boys. Come back next week and our kids can trash the children’s chapel together? Yeah?” I know I can’t do that. But I can be more mindful of where in my life I’m drawing people into God’s love, and where I’m driving them away.