Friday, November 25, 2016

Mercy - Small acts of mercy

In his novel, All Hallows’ Eve, Charles Williams has a scene in which a pompous and demanding woman is putting her daughter on the train.
Lady Wallingsford said, “Get in, Betty. You ride first class as far as Laughton, you know.” She added to a porter, “This part is for York?” The porter, having just called out, “Grantham, Doncaster, York,” exercised a glorious self-restraint, and said, Yes, lady.” He spoke perhaps from habit, but here habit was full of all its past and all its patience and its patience was the thunder of the passage of a god dominant, miraculous and yet recurrent. Golden-thighed Endurance, sun-shrouded Justice, were in him and his face was the deep confluence of the City [the New Jerusalem]. He said again, “Yes, lady,” and his voice was echoed in the recesses of the station and thrown out beyond it. It was held in the air and dropped, and some other phrase caught up and held. There was no smallest point in all the place that was not redeemed into beauty and good–except Lady Wallingsford’s eyes . . .

It is a bit overwrought perhaps, but I think he is onto something. If at the heart of everything is an All-merciful Love this might be what we should expect. If we are created to reflect and participate in that Love, every act of affection or mercy, however insignificant it might seem, reverberates with an awesome and eternal significance. In this case the porter’s seemingly small act of patience when he might have responded with some expression of exasperation. But, that small act of patience reverberated spiritually throughout the train station with beauty and goodness.

There are times when the grand gesture is called for – violence, injustice, falsehood to be resisted. But, everyday acts of mercy – patience, gentleness, kindness, peace-making, endurance, courage, forgiveness, forbearance, self-control, the sharp word or gesture withheld, speaking up on behalf of another – these are more important than we might think. Maybe, whether anyone else recognizes it or whether the one doing is even completely aware they have done it, every small act of mercy is celebrated in heaven.

Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found.  It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.

In a world where rancor ricochets all around, maybe part of the Christian vocation is to be “shock-absorbers” practiced in defusing and deescalating. In a world grown callous and snarky, a world where the witty put-down is celebrated, the Christian vocation is to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), with gentleness and revernce (1 Peter 3:15). This is what it means to “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). We are to be the fragranc of that sacrificial love..

As we have seen before in this series, this sounds nice, but is not easy. Dorothy Day reflected that being patient in little things takes a heroic virtue. In his book on forgiveness, Williams compares a life of patient endurance with the singular act of self-sacrificial martyrdom and suggests the former might actually be harder.

We are told the porter’s heroic act of patience and glorious restraint might have come from habit. By practice, with the Holy Spirit working in us, we can hope that day by day, moment by moment, we might develop the habit of doing our small part to keep the darkness at bay and see the world redeemed into beauty and good.

Here are some others who have said something similar:

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