Christine M. Bochen (ed), The Way of Mercy. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2016. 143 pp. $18.00
By Anne M. Windholz
Worldwide, we have experienced a violent, divisive summer. Respect for human dignity and compassion for the outcast seem to be crumbling. Innocents die. Afraid, we choose sides, claim righteousness, and judge anyone who is “other” or thinks “otherwise” as misguided at best, evil at worst. Too often we thank God that we are on the side of “right,” that our insight is the gold standard by which all things ought to be judged, making it a duty to sacrifice our neighbor on the altar of our rectitude.
But then, through the din of disillusion and grief, the cry of Hosea rises: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
The contributors to Christine Bochen’s The Way of Mercy offer prophetic indictment of a society wedded to what Thomas Merton calls “the demonic falsification of mercy.” The slimness of Bochen’s volume is deceptive: She gathers spiritual heavyweights to take up Pope Francis’ Jubilee call. Jim Forest quotes Flannery O’Connor’s warning against a tenderness “detached from [its] source” in God, leading to “forced labor camps and the fumes of the gas chamber.” Jon Sobrino decries “sheer sentiment” shorn of praxis. Elaine Prevallet insists that authentic mercy “sees things as they are, sees the cruelty, the pain, looks the brokenness right in the face, takes it all in.” Their messages resonate with a central lesson of chaplaincy training: that avoiding conflict, offering pious platitudes, and looking away from injury is not ministry but self-indulgence. It can cost people their physical as well as their spiritual lives.
While directed toward a wide audience, this book might be a guidebook to our profession. Francis’ documents set the tone, extolling mercy as key to the psalms, wisdom literature, Gospel parables, and the Beatitudes. He appeals to an ecumenical, interreligious, and active mercy that “eliminate[s] every form of close-mindedness and disrespect, and drive[s] out every form of violence and discrimination.” Other writers underscore his counter-cultural emphasis on forgiveness, unconditional love, and openness to neighbor. Leonardo Boff speaks of an “ethic of urgency” and a “potency of service” that could constitute a chaplain’s job description: “always opening oneself to others, letting them be, listening to them, welcoming them, and if they fall, reaching out to them.” To adapt Prevallet’s argument, our call is to create a space for mercy where healing can occur.
This is no passive, comfortable vocation. Boff describes mercy as transfiguring, a “colliding meteor.” Mercy “loves to the point of folly,” Dorothy Day reminds us, dares rejection and heart-crushing sorrow. Willingness to suffer — and to suffer with — becomes, Joan Chittister maintains, “the measure of the God-life in us.” That alone must be the gold standard against which we measure our competence, the core of Pope John XXIII’s “medicine of mercy” (quoted by Bochen, ix).
During what remains of this Jubilee year and beyond, may we have the courage to bear this elixir to those sick in body and heart. May we receive the grace to share mercy with each other when we falter from pain or stumble over injustice. And, as we move ahead, let’s keep The Way of Mercy in our pocket to remind us why we do what we do, and for whom.
Anne M. Windholz, BCC, is staff chaplain at AMITA Health Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village, IL.