December 8, 2015 marked the beginning of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, as declared by Pope Francis. During this year, Catholics were asked to turn their attention to God’s love for us, and to be instruments of his merciful love to all we met. I remember that specific churches throughout the world were consecrated as holy doors. Any who entered through these doors would procure special mercies.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “ravel” means both “to untangle, disentangle, unwind” and “to entangle, become tangled or confused.” This past year has been one of both tangling and untangling. Walking through the holy doors in Kansas City back in 2015, I did not realize that my year of mercy would be almost two years later.
When I turned 27, things began to unravel—see the second definition. Grad school ended and with it came the uncertainty school had kept at bay for three years: Where would I make a life, what would I do, who would become my community? I began to realize that outside of my classmates and a handful of friends, I had no one in my adopted home of Kansas City. My family lived six hours away, as did the majority of my friends.
Car troubles, the cobbling together of a couple of part-time jobs, and subpar insurance made for an existence where work and worry were a constant mingling. The ungentle moments haunted me: I remember breaking down at a dentist’s office in the fall of 2018, and being told that if I couldn’t get through a simple filling, I’d never make it through labor. I wasn’t pregnant but the words burrowed into the part of myself that sometimes feels motherhood a certain impossibility. Meanwhile, surly student emails confirmed in me what felt so obvious at the time: that I was inadequate, as a teacher, as a person.
Lies are easy to swallow, especially if you’ve been believing them for a long time. My MFA had allowed me the necessary alone time to write, but in that alone time festered isolation, a belief that to others and to God I was of little account. I spent my days trying to fit the vision of smallness that I felt.
I remember most clearly meeting mercy when I was 23. I met mercy in Chicago on a one-way express train not bound for the station I intended. I met mercy in a conductor who watched the train doors close on my mistake, found me tearfully sitting on the steps near the doors that I so desperately wanted to open again, and who sent me back to the right stop, a note on my ticket to let me return for free.
Though I can certainly identify mercies like this one, I often wonder what mercy actually is. Etymologies don’t really help here. Like “ravel,” the word can mean both “gift” and “reward.” And, oh so different these two things are. In her “To Live in the Mercy of God,” Denise Levertov finds hints of mercy in the natural world: “To feel vibrate the enraptured / waterfall flinging itself / unabating down and down / to clenched fists of rock.” Gift or reward? I read this image as a natural giving—water to rock. Similarly, John Paul II, poet as well as pope, hits upon what mercy looks like in the poem “Magdalene.” “At times love aches: there are weeks, months, years,” the speaker meditates. “But it is He who feels / the drought of the whole world, not I.” Here, mercy seems to be the realization of an Other—someone who carries more than the speaker can. To me, mercy must be gift. If it were a reward, I could not earn it in this desolate season.
At 27 and 28, mercy has become an exercise in noticing: the unexpected coffee bought for me by a friend, a kind email from a colleague, a whole chocolate cake left on my desk by a volunteer at a nonprofit I work for. If this past year has been one of sorrows, it has also been one where I step from mercy to mercy. And because these mercies are unexpected and undeserved, I feel all the richer when I notice and accept them. Sometimes the acceptance comes naturally; sometimes it takes effort to accept.
In this ravel that is daily life, I find that the questions that entangle me are also the ones that turn me toward mercy. Though I am understanding little of God’s will at present, thank you comes more frequently to my lips. If I stop long enough to think, I can discern a God more complex than I imagined. God’s not simply a deity crafted in my image—one who sees only my failings as I do. I have this fear that God will keep knocking at my door and I’ll never open it.
But I think the mercy lies in the fact that God will keep knocking, despite my fears. And he knocks in the most personal of ways: through book recommendations, lines from poems, the ideas of friends, an image that takes hold of me in the middle of the day. One of Levertov’s images of mercy especially caught me in this reading of “To Live in the Mercy of God”: “To float, upheld, / as salt water would hold you / once you dared.”
Mercy, then, is perhaps a gift that I must choose to accept. Just as these small gifts are not forced upon me, neither do I have to float. But there’s a special courage in doing it, in allowing my whole body to move with a current, exposed to the vastness of sky above. To float is the opposite of standing up to life. It is lying down, accepting the day, its piercing blue or its nondescript grey. And so, to these small mercies in this difficult time, I can only make the tiniest of fiats: I accept. This little yes is the holy door I continue to walk through.
Lindsey Weishar holds an MFA from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is a contributor to Verily magazine, and reviews new books for the Ploughshares blog. Her chapbook, Matchbook Night, was published by Leaf Press (Canada) in 2018.
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