I’ve recently completed an annual spiritual practice that I do at the same time every year. It’s a long way from a desert retreat or 30-day Ignatian spiritual exercises (and a lot cheaper too) but my day of learning never fails to teach and remind me about important things in life. About acceptance and compassion, but especially about mercy.
I live just a mile or so away from the route of the Great North Run, the biggest half marathon in the World, which began in 1981. I ran in the first three and in several others since, but I am no longer running. As a club runner I trained hard and prided myself on achieving the best times I could, always striving to do better. Whenever I wasn’t running, I’d go along to watch, seeing the elite athletes and supporting the club runners who I knew. I didn’t bother to stay and watch the fun runners who were running at a more sedate pace. After I stopped running, I no longer went to watch the race, but over the last few years I’ve started to go along again and now watch all of the runners go past. I tend to go to a point close to the Tyne Bridge where they’ve run about 2 miles. I started to cheer on runners I didn’t know, calling out their names or those of the charity for whom they were running to raise money and trying to encourage them. But I found myself introducing a very rigid (and unlovely) selection process as to who I’d cheer for. I would never cheer on anyone walking so early in the race. They didn’t deserve my encouragement nor did the ones who clearly hadn’t trained. Even those jogging ever so slowly got my cheers and words of support. And I’d pick my preferred charities – the bigger more organised ones seemed less deserving than the small ones.
When I discovered that I was doing this, I was quite shocked, even more so when I discovered it went very deep. I applied this mean-spirited, conditional and judgemental approach to a lot of other situations and people I came across, not just fun runners, but including of course, judgements about myself. It seems that I’m not alone in this sort of thinking. As Brennan Manning observed in his book The Wisdom of Tenderness, each of us lives in a world of our own, the world of our own mind. “How often we’re narrow, cold, haughty and unforgiving. Above all else we are judgmental, happy to believe appearances, impute motives and interpret behaviours with nothing but the slightest scraps of evidence to back it up.”
Jesus was very clear about the wrongness of this behaviour. In the story of the Good Samaritan, answering the question as to who our neighbour is, Jesus shows that the real neighbour is the one who cared for the beaten man and showed him mercy. The Samaritan may have had a host of reasons for not helping the victim or thinking he did not deserve help, as two previous religious figures had done, but he didn’t – he showed mercy and cared for the man without any conditions. Elsewhere Jesus is even more explicit when he says “Judge not, so that you yourselves are not judged”. Throughout his life he showed acceptance to the most judged and vilified people of his time – prostitutes, lepers, disabled, tax collectors, adulterers, beggars and so on. He himself experienced judgement and unkindness much of his life; as a young child he and his parents were refugees, as an adult he was consistently misunderstood, rejected and threatened by his own people. His trial and death were unfair and brutal.
The point of Jesus’s teaching is not just that we should seek to be merciful and non-judgmental, but that in doing this we reflect the character of God. “Be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful” he said. God is not the big, bad villain we think but our compassionate, loving, merciful ever hopeful creator who only ever wants to restore and embrace us, most especially those who feel far away. God is the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan who binds our wounds, the employer who pays over the odds.
Learning to be accepting and non-judgemental seems to be intrinsic to the 12 Step programme too. Not only is there a recognition that we’re all in the same boat, all helpless addicts without a hope, but a deeply compassionate, merciful streak to all, even the difficult, awkward and contrary ones. The Big Book talks about having survived a common peril, regardless of who we are and having found a common solution. This is a solution where “there are no fees to pay, no axes to grind, no people to please, no lectures to be endured.” In the telling of stories and hearing different and common experiences there is a recognition that none of us is in a position to judge the other, because underneath it all we’re no different at all. We are all walking through this life with bandages and a limp.
Since in wider society we are conditioned to assess, categorise and judge almost all of the time (clothes, class, gender, age, job, weight, skin colour, income, ethnicity, religion, education level, etc) we have to work hard to overcome these prejudices. It seems to be like a little used muscle that only grows with practice, training and cultivation. As Anne Lamott says, “Mercy means that we no longer constantly judge everybody’s large and tiny failures, foolish hearts, dubious convictions, and inevitable bad behaviour. We will never do this perfectly, but how do we do it better?” The Just For Today Card is a useful way of improving our behaviour by practising kindness, compassion and above all showing mercy. This is the mercy that I know I need from my fellow beings and above all from God for all my slips, errant behaviour and sometimes downright nastiness. I don’t deserve it and maybe others I meet don’t either, but mercy is never about just deserts. Encouraging those runners (and walkers) in the Great North Run is not about what they do or don’t deserve. It’s a gift, and when I saw the increase in pace, smile or look of gratitude on the faces of those I encouraged this year who would not in the past have made the cut, I realised that they were bandaged and in need of my support. And in that brief moment there was connection and the Kingdom of God became real to us both.
Mercy, mercy, looking for mercy. Peter Gabriel
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Jesus of Nazareth
Mercy is the stuff you give to people that don’t deserve it. Joyce Meyer
Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved………The good news is that God has such low standards, and reaches out to those of us who are often not lovable and offers us a chance to come back in from the storm of drama and toxic thoughts. Anne Lamott
Most of us were taught that God would love us, if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change. Richard Rohr
Compassion is not a virtue — it is a commitment. It’s not something we have or don’t have — it’s something we choose to practice. Brené Brown