There are various ways we New Yorkers speak that loses others very quickly who do not grow up here. I am not sure where different expressions come from but there are signs of where they take root.
Pope Francis has called us to see this year as a Year of Mercy. That sounds great, for ‘mercy’ is one of those ‘churchy’ words that deliver a spiritual feeling of rightness. But in its ‘churchiness’ it obscures a reality that is very ordinary but, alas, very uncommon. When I was growing up sometimes I was corrected in my anger at someone for something done, by the stern but merciful words: “Give the guy a break!” In this rather lapidary expression is a whole sequence of meanings. It is a very New York way of saying what a universal human experience is. It says that the person did, in fact, do something wrong and that I was justified in my anger but that the other has had a long series of disappointments and trials and that I had the power to relieve him of this particular pain. It also assumes that it would not cost me a great deal to sort of look the other way. This is the essence of mercy. It is unmerited but done by an act of generosity.
Giving each other ‘a break’ is an admission of our common frailty and that we need each other’s help. It requires a view of life that sees all human beings as part of a community that expresses itself, at times, in lifting the other up when he or she cannot do that on their own.
I have often spoken of the day when after long attempts at skiing, exhausted, I wanted simply to get back to the ski lodge to rest. Just before I got there I fell once again on an expanse of ice, skis and all. Unable to get up I just lay there until a good Samaritan lifted me off the ground from behind. When I managed to stand again, I turned to thank the person only to see no one behind me! The person simply disappeared into the crowd not wanting to be thanked. It was a pure act of mercy not asked for that I remember to this very day. It could not have lasted more than 15 seconds.
Another example dates from my time in College. I got the ‘acting but’ and wanted to be part of the annual musical that the college performed for friends and family. I auditioned and when the list was put up I did not make it, not even in the more humble part of the chorus. As a Freshman I was devastated. I so wanted to belong and to be part of this effort. So the rehearsals began and after everyone had entered the auditorium, I stood at the closed doors trying to listen through the crack in the door.
Suddenly the Priest who was in charge of the music came round the bend and saw me trying to catch what was going on through the crack in the door. He sized things up pretty quickly. He put his arm on my shoulder and asked if I wanted to be part of the show. I said that I would but did not make the cut in the names that were posted on the bulletin board. He asked me if I could wait there for a couple of minutes. Nervously I said yes. I felt panic going through me wondering if I had gotten in trouble.
After a few minutes the door to the auditorium opened. The Priest smiled and motioned me to come in. He then escorted me to the stage area where the rehearsal was going on and asked me to sit for a while. Then the Priest director of the play came up to me and asked: “Would you like to be part of the Chorus?” I said “sure” and my short career as a musical performer began!
This was an act of pure mercy. I did not deserve to be in the auditorium but someone felt bad for me and pulled some strings and got me a part. I was filled with gratitude. This is what the year of mercy is about.
In a sense we have to distinguish the act of mercy from the act of love. When we love someone we may be reacting to their love for us or we can override anger within ourselves to give them the love that is their due.
A teenager who is angry with his father may still obey him out of love and respect. This is love pure and simple. It is not an act of mercy. Likewise when we visit someone who we do not know but is in the hospital, we can still feel compassion for their suffering but this act is merited by the humanity in that unknown person. This is an act of compassion but not really an act of mercy. An act of mercy has at its core the fact that it is unmerited and often unasked for. The Priest in my example could have easily and lovingly said: Well, there is always the next play and I encourage you to try out then and maybe you may make the cut. That would be a loving and compassionate act. But it became mercy when the Priest worked to make possible the thing I so desired in my heart. It seems to me that mercy always comes forth as an action and not just a wish or a prayer.
How different the world would be if everyone acted out of mercy! The Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis may be a training ground for us to develop the capacity to see the need for individual acts of mercy and summon the generosity to do our part to construct a culture of mercy in our Church and in our world!