Tuesday 12 July 2016


Immersed In Mercy

During a retreat in the Camaldolese monastery near Frascati in 1839 St. Vincent Pallotti wrote that he was in extreme need of what he calls an “infinite deluge of divine mercy” and he says “I found myself immersed in an immense sea of divine Mercy”. The need and the experience of Mercy was vast and abundant. To describe God Pallotti uses words such as infinite, immeasurable, incomprehensible. God is immense, infinite, immeasurable and incomprehensible Mercy.

They are powerful images – being washed in the deluge, being immersed in the sea and finding oneself. It is when I am so overwhelmed, immersed in God that I find my true self, who I truly am and who I am called to become. What matters in this immersion is that I become an altogether new creation (Galations 6:15). It matters that I keep striving for this and not settle for less.

I love to stand on a cliff on Inis Mor in the Aran Islands and look out at the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. It reminds me of God, the Mercy of God and even as I gaze at it in wonder I know that this ocean is tiny when compared with the reality of God, the Mercy of God. But it is a good reminder.

There’s an image of myself that emerged in me a few years back and it has returned to me again recently. It’s the image of a whale – that I am a whale that needs the vast expanse of sea in order to survive. But often I find that in reality I’m a whale in a fish tank with not enough room to breathe or move or to be who I am meant to be.

The fish tank is the trivial that occupies too much space in my head, the futile stuff that I waste time with, my own self-indulgence and it is the neediness that cannot be satisfied which drains me of all energy. The ocean is the need of those who really suffer and I have little difficulty being immersed in their reality. Mercy demands that I shake off the former in order to attend to the latter.

The Mercy of God is big hearted and incredibly generous. If we only knew what God is offering, if we only knew who God really is! If only we would allow ourselves spiritually to go down into the waters of the Jordan, the waters in baptism, to go down in Christ, immersed with Him and in Him. Emerge from it in Him!

Vincent Pallotti says that everything God does is merciful, everything He is is merciful. Mercy is God’s very essence, God’s very self. Jesus is Mercy in essence. And when we are immersed in Him then everything we experience in life becomes mercy – even when it doesn’t seem like it, even when we don’t understand it in that way.

And it is by immersion in the infinite sea of divine Mercy that the question is asked and answered, “Who are you O God?” God reveals, unfolds His true nature to us. Our capacity to receive the fullness of God is always limited but it is important that we come discover who God is in truth, that we are not living with false ideas or shadows of who He is.

In discovering who God is then I am called to become like Him, to become Godly, to be shaped by my experience and knowledge of God.

Too often we are shaped by our false images of God. A young man I knew once would only accept Jesus cleansing the Temple. That was his image of God – an angry Jesus lashing out with a whip, turning over tables – and this guy was himself very angry and bitter even in his demeanour.

Something that happened me emotionally as a child was that I discovered how to be afraid of God and I lived with that fear for many years until, as a young priest in Tanzania, I made a decision in prayer to commit myself to Jesus and to the truth about God that He revealed. I had the mental understanding of God as loving and compassionate but at a felt level a fear lurked. Not the reverential fear of the Bible. I was afraid of Him.

The Mercy of God revealed in and experienced through Jesus – this is what I believe and accept. And I’ve been growing in that over the years since – hopefully giving witness to the God of tenderness and compassion, letting go of my fearsome feeling about God. In Jesus the fullness of divinity lives (Colossians 2:9); He is the definitive expression of who God is and all fullness is to be found in Him (Colossians 1:19).

Rechem, Womb, Hesed

The Bible defines Mercy as 'rechem' which is a mother’s womb, indicating that God’s instinct is like that of a mother for the child in her womb, though God’s instinct is of course infinitely greater and all perfect.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or lack compassion for the child of her womb? Even if these forget, yet I will not forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15)

Another word for Mercy is 'hesed' which expresses the tender, faithful, loyal, dedicated love and compassion of God for His people such as is found in the marriage covenant between a husband and wife; the love that a parent feels for their child.

“I drew them to me with affection and love. I picked them up and held them to my cheek; I bent down to them and fed them” (Hosea 11:4)

Beautiful and powerful images. And the invitation to us is to rest in the embrace of God “as a child at rest in its mother’s arms” (Psalm 130) – a soul content and at peace.

In February this year I got to know a young family in Shankill through traumatic circumstances. Word came to us that four year old Sophie was critically ill in hospital having suffered some kind of bleed in her brain. So we prayed and prayed, the whole parish prayed and then she died and it was harrowing. Then two months later their two year old Heidi became ill, was on life support and we prayed and prayed again. It was just unthinkable. And then she also died.

Naturally there were questions asked about God and I had no answer, only silence. For me it was the silence of a dagger embedded in my breast – a description I first became aware of about 15 years ago in the book ‘Yosl Rakover Talks to God’ By ZVI KOLITZ which tells the story of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during the German occupation of Poland in 1943.

He compares his experience of God in that situation to a dagger embedded in his breast which he could not remove, indicating that, though he would like to be free of God, he cannot escape Him. It expresses how I feel following the deaths of the two little girls, except that I’m not trying to escape God but my understanding of Him has altered, my resting in His arms is not as peaceful or childlike. I am like Jacob wrestling (Genesis 32:22-32). It’s like I don’t know Him as I once did and have to learn again who He is.


My question is where does this kind of experience fit in with Mercy and what does it say about Mercy?

Motherhood again holds the answer. The pain of labour also tells us something about the reality of Mercy – that it involves suffering. A friend of mine described her experience of being in labour for 20 hours, reminding me that in delivering Mercy God enters into birth pangs, that the cross of Jesus is the womb that gives birth to the new People of God. The tomb becomes the womb from which new life emerges.

So if we are looking for an authentic experience of Mercy then we have to become the Mercy that we have experienced in all its tenderness, the Mercy that experiences labour pains of giving birth in spirit. Many of us simply want a soft, consoling Mercy that involves no pain on our part. But, as the old song says, “if you will not bear the cross you can't wear the crown.”

This is the consequence of being immersed in the sea of divine Mercy. The ultimate consequence is that through the labour pains of Mercy, through the suffering that visits us we are identified with God through Jesus in His agony, humiliating trial, abandonment and death and ultimately identified with the transforming power of the resurrection.



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