Who, here, is familiar with Divine Mercy? The second half of the twentieth century found a great deal of focus in the Roman Catholic Church on the merciful aspects of God, culminating in the work of St. Faustina Kowalska to explain and promote the message and image of Divine Mercy (“Jesus, I Trust in You”). The image itself shows Jesus beckoning with rays of red and white, symbolizing blood and water, promising not to turn anyone away who merely trusts that He means what He says… in Scripture, from the cross, and through His vicars in the Church. In 2015, Pope Francis declared an “Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy” whereby the theme of God’s mercy was highlighted as a source of joy and hope throughout the world. It is difficult to approach any Christian church, from the Catholic Church on through the post-Reformation denominations, and not hear about mercy.
What is mercy? It is knowingly stepping out of a position of power to assist someone’s need, without expecting reward, compensation or applause.
What is God’s Mercy? God’s knowingly stepping out of His position of power to assist us in our needs.
People who set their positions aside to help others are commendable. What is the appropriate response if they are not seeking compensation, especially when our needs prevent us from returning the favor? Certainly, a gesture of gratitude – but more than an impersonal “thank you.” A personal response, a candid sharing of ourselves, would be meaningful for both parties. In this way, mercy necessarily connects people.
The same holds true with God. In showing mercy, God is aware of our limitations and the impossibility – the absurdity – of producing anything to reward an Almighty Creator. How could we, inhabitants of His earth, give Him anything He has not imagined into being, which we have not already taken from His treasury?
We can give our personal response, a sharing of ourselves. We possess and govern our own will. Yielding a share of that to God is indeed a true gift which He does not already possess.
Numerous teachings on Divine Mercy have been proclaimed by saints and theologians of recent time to counter the despair, fear and littleness we experience with the expanding awareness of evil in our age. Thousands hear and turn toward God in the comfort of this loving embrace. Yet, thousands more do not, who embrace the post-Christian messages of humanism, relativism and individualism with dysphoria and distrust. Thousands fortify themselves in self-esteem, self-justification and self-preservation. Such mindsets reject mercy because they do not perceive any use – any need – for it.
Recall this from our thought earlier this month: Brokenness permits mercy to penetrate the shell of self-reliance. It is through our brokenness that mercy reaches us.
Brokenness is the most fundamental common denominator of humanity. We are all broken. Brokenness will win the battle of spiritual deprivation because need is not a weapon… it is our supply pipeline… our very lifeline. Without need, life has no purpose. Even the staunchest individualist can be persuaded to see – and experience – the validity of this argument.
Need opens doors.
If we have no place for need, we cannot understand mercy; because, without need, mercy is meaningless.
Jesus Himself is God’s finest and most concrete demonstration of His need to connect – He is Need Incarnate. Thus, embracing need is but one shade of awareness away from embracing God.
Consider this: Missionaries of St. Thorlak regularly appeal for mercy by leading with our need, by practicing voluntary humility. By offering our need willingly to others, we very literally draw mercy out of others – giving them an opportunity to experience the connection that mercy permits, even on the smallest scale.
Now, consider this: God Himself demonstrates voluntary humility par excellence. He is all in all; yet, He chooses to need: He chooses to need our recognition, our understanding, and our willingness to trust that He does not reject us in our weakness. He needed this so badly that He took the flesh and constitution of a human to get that much closer and speak His longing that much more clearly.
God does not require an elaborate response. In fact, the words are provided for us in the image of Divine Mercy: “Jesus, I trust in You.”
We might say that Missionaries of St. Thorlak embrace that in the particular way of our charism: in recognizing that Jesus dwells in the hearts of those around us, and entrusting our needs to them, we echo: “Jesus [-in-others], we trust in You.”
Pray: Jesus, I Trust in You!
Contemplate: Does the degree to which we trust others reflect the degree to which we trust God?
Relate: How do we trust others? Do we trust as though we are trusting God-in-them?
To see an earlier Missionary Thought on “need,” visit https://mission-of-saint-thorlak.weebly.com/mission-activities/missionary-thought-of-the-week-for-april-10-2017-dont-fear-the-need
So far, our Missionary Objectives have looked at human need and how active awareness contributes more to our cause than looking for problems to fix. We have asserted that humans need to be recognized and appreciated in order to thrive spiritually.
We now move on to Objective #3, which is: To make people aware that these needs spring from God's thirst to be known and loved.
Our needs to be noticed and understood… originate with God?
Not that God designed us that way deliberately… but that these are an offshoot of God’s same needs?
Yes. In fact, that is exactly what we are saying.
We know this is going to be a tricky thought for anyone, believers and non-believers and those somewhere in between. Even if you are not inclined to believe such things, we hope you will keep reading if only to see where we are coming from. We feel that the thought process behind our belief is sufficient to retain even those who firmly oppose any notion of deity. If you take the time to see how we form our concepts, you might be able to discern why, and that might be enough to hold your interest. We hope you stay because you are an important contributor to our Mission, and even if you can’t reconcile this God stuff with your own thought processes, we ask that you stick with us – unless you genuinely conclude that pondering “God” is harmful to the cause of fostering human connection, in which case it doesn’t make much sense for you to stay.
Who is this God-with-a-capital-G?
God, in the Jewish and Christian traditions from which this Mission derives, is simultaneously a Father and Creator, the Source of all that exists and One Who loves all of Creation.
This “God” certainly contrasts with other deities who very often (but not exclusively, we note) exhibit attributes we might describe as: demanding, vengeful, greedy, aggressive, tyrannical, or indifferent. If we could only use one term for such traits, we would choose self-focused: acting from desire to gain for the pleasure of one’s self. Certainly, this is neither an exhaustive list nor a challenge to other traditions. It is here for the purpose of contrast.
Likewise, the Judeo-Christian “God” is not simply a force, a master, a creator, or an adversary to evil. As “self-focused” does not fit, unidimensional energy is just as incomplete in attempting to describe this “God” of whom we speak. Furthermore, none of these descriptors reflect the fact that “God” is alone at the top of the hierarchical order. There are no co-gods or goddesses who are equal agents of good or evil in any of the Judeo-Christian traditions.
So what, then, defines this “God”? What sets God apart from other deities?
We could give numerous theological responses and provide plentiful scholarly references. They do exist, and we encourage readers to delve as deeply into such research as they have the desire.
We have our own way of saying it.
We believe the answer is, “Divine Need.”
The Judeo-Christian God to whom we refer in the Mission of Saint Thorlak is a God with a Divine Need: The God who comes time after time to find our ancestors, to find us, to reach out to us, to try multiple ways to demonstrate Himself to us in ways we can understand. To prove that His interest is quiet, meek, and longing for our companionship.
Not longing for just any companionship – longing for our companionship.
Throughout the themes of the Mission of Saint Thorlak, the voluntary humility and wonder and caritas and mentorship, the gentle approach of sincerity, the willingness to need… we are, in fact, imitating the very ways that God Himself is said to have acted since the very beginning of Sacred Scripture.
Genesis 3:9: “Where are you?”
Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Psalm 23:4: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me, your rod and staff comfort me.”
1 John 4:8: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
James 4:8: “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.”
John 3:17: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”
That last one is a hinge on which Christianity rests – the belief that God loved the people He created so much that He became one of us in order to prove His benevolence.
Once more, we emphasize, our thought here is not a substitution for a theological discourse, nor is it meant to be a catechism of the Christian faith. Rather, we ask readers to put on the mind of a child, just for a moment, and imagine at the heart of Christianity a God who stands quietly, not demanding, not showing off, and in full wisdom of what He is asking... reaching out to us, pleading:
“Can you be My friend?”
More on this, and its implications, next week.
Pray: God… open my heart and mind to this notion that You long to be known and loved.
Contemplate: This week’s thought bypasses a lot of theology and catechism, but does not intend to discard any of that. Can it really be this simple, that the Judeo-Christian God has a need for our recognition and love? Ponder this response: God does not “need” anything from us in order to exist; is it possible, though, that He created us in the hope that we would recognize and love Him?
Relate: How are any of our relationships different than the way we relate to God? People of all beliefs are encouraged to consider this question. The manner in which people relate to one another generally echoes the manner in which they relate in their spiritual experiences.
We have spent the past several weeks talking about need – as we should, since that word is found in four of our six Missionary Objectives. We readily accept that humans have fundamental physical needs. By “fundamental,” we mean built into the design of being human, requiring attention and cultivation throughout our lifetimes. Most of us also acknowledge the similar existence of spiritual needs – not simply those things which make us happy in the moment, but conditions leading to enduring satisfaction and purpose.
Last week’s thought cautioned against coming into Missionary work with the hope of fixing need. Rather than viewing need as something to be eliminated, we considered need as a state of being. In no way do we suggest that need is advantageous, but it is not necessarily a disadvantage, either.
For us, need is a point of realizing the importance of connection. Think of everything thereafter (whether acceptance or intervention) as balancing on that one point: the more we embrace our need, the greater our connections, the greater our stability, the greater the strength of the current supporting us.
Last week, we mentioned the word “brokenness.” In English, the word “broken” has hundreds of connotations, most obviously beginning with the ones which mean shattered, ruined, fractured and unusable. Such nuances evoke anger and despair, as that which once was intact is now broken. Implicit, too, is both victimhood and blame, even if the act of breaking was accidental.
“Human brokenness” more often refers to matters of the spirit, not the body. The nuance here leans more toward vulnerability and a succumbing to those forces which threaten to convince us of our worthlessness. Again, despair prevails.
When it comes to people and circumstances, why is it that do we not first turn to the other, equally valid meanings of “broken” and its related word forms, such as:
opened (The envelope’s seal was broken)
revealed (They broke their silence at long last)
begun (Morning has broken)
interrupted (The reporter broke in with a question)
just happening (Breaking news)
separated (The conference sessions were broken into 30-minute blocks)
relented (Her fever broke by evening)
pause (I’m taking a break)
What, too, of those things that require pushing through something in order to begin use, such as in breaking out of an eggshell, or getting our first big break?
We are not out to play word games or come up with something clever. We are firmly serious when we say that “brokenness,” in referring to the human condition, has to us many layers of meaning. It is both paradox and parallax, separate and simultaneous. “Broken” means both pain and comfort, ending and beginning, old and new. It is neither strictly lamentation nor celebration. It is not something to be sought after, nor something to avoid. It is the strange reality of the human condition. We are solitary creatures who never stop needing others. We are imperfect people constantly striving for perfection. We expect better than we get, and we give more than we seem to have. There is a curious multiplication to be found in the spiritual life which is at the center of the Christian worldview and is that from which we draw as Missionaries of Saint Thorlak. (To be clear, we do not require our followers to identify themselves as anything besides human – but a willingness to understand Christianity is incredibly helpful in seeing where our ideas come from).
We do need a specific definition for the purposes of our Mission, or else we are going to fall down the endless rabbit hole of philosophy instead of getting down to business. Thus, for the Mission of Saint Thorlak, “brokenness” will be used in reference to how we relate to others. Our brokenness can mean how we have been wounded, how we have healed, how we struggle to relate, and how we open ourselves to be shared. Hopefully, it will mean more and more as we cultivate, pray, contemplate and relate as Missionaries on our journey together.
Now that we have our baselines, we are almost ready to move on to the most ambitious of our objectives, that of Number Three: To make people aware that our needs spring from God's thirst to be known and loved. Before we do, we have one last consideration:
To the degree we resist need, we resist connection.
Related to this: To the degree we are broken-open, we may give and receive mercy.
Mercy? Do we have to contend with another matter of theology? Not strictly.
Compassion, kindness, and relief from distress transcend theology and ideology. They are the best aspects of our humanity toward one another, no matter what your worldview is. It just so happens that Christianity is also rooted in mercy, but we’ll get to that; it will become apparent as we go along.
Go back to our last consideration: To the degree we are broken-open, we may give and receive mercy – that is to say, compassion, kindness and relief from distress.
If we insist we have no need, that we are self-sufficient, that we cannot afford to trust others… if we block posts in our newsfeeds from people who oppose us just because they oppose us… if we fortify ourselves to defend against the worst, or isolate ourselves and call it safety… mercy cannot penetrate those shields.
But brokenness can.
More precisely, brokenness permits mercy to penetrate.
To modify a slogan made popular a few years back:
No brokenness, no mercy;
Know brokenness, know mercy.
If any of this stretches our thinking to the point of absurdity, be ready for next week, when we dive headfirst into the proposition that God Himself embodies and demonstrates these very principles of longing to be known, of brokenness and mercy.
Pray: God, Heavenly Father: I have known brokenness in many ways. Please help me in particular to recognize the instances where ‘brokenness’ has been, for good or bad, an openness to receiving mercy.
Contemplate our modified slogan: No brokenness, no mercy; know brokenness, know mercy.
Relate: As we relate to others this week, is it easier to see our own brokenness, or that of others around us?
In feeding the spiritually hungry, we do not have a classic situation of hungry people lining up with bowls, beaming as we serve them. We more likely find people who are emotionally exhausted, weary, frustrated, distrustful and confused – and may outright refuse us if we approach them with exuberant smiles and outstretched hands. The most commonly observed behaviors among the very spiritually hungry are those we generally find off-putting. Before that surprises us, remember that spiritual starvation is rooted in disconnection, so it stands to reason that avoidant and disagreeable actions go hand in hand with spiritual hunger.
As Missionaries, we are called to recognize these needs… in people who seem uncomfortable around us, in people who directly challenge us, in people who seem one day friendly and the next day impossibly defensive… in the frustratingly insecure, and in the perfectly put together.
Our Mission Objectives state that we are to be aware and help others be aware, and (looking ahead), we are to teach and encourage. Nowhere does it say “fix.” Not in the objectives, and not in the Mission Statement, which uses the verbs understand, recognize, address and prevent. “Address” may come close, but even this means to examine a problem with intent to make a plan... not to fix anything.
How can ours be a Missionary approach without the intent to correct?
First and foremost: We do not believe that anyone has the power, ability or presumptive right to “fix” anyone else.
We alienate ourselves from others when we tell them their wrongs, or approach them from “if only you would just…” Then, what? We won’t help you, we won’t like you, until you conform? Even when dealing in matters of absolute truth, our job is to understand a person’s thinking, not try and correct it. Missionaries of Saint Thorlak set out to learn from each person we encounter, familiar and unfamiliar, comfortable and uncomfortable. Of course we still hold our own beliefs, form our own opinions, and feel strongly about matters we find important. We may see others heading toward horrible looking consequences (and it goes without saying, we would never let people walk into danger without speaking up) – but, for the purposes of our ordinary Mission work, we strive to know and be known, not to change others. If our first instinct is to fix, we will do more harm than good to the cause.
Second: Spiritual need is part of the human condition.
A “fix” mindset suggests that a need eventually goes away if we work hard enough. There has been no point yet in human history when personal connection is no longer needed. We can neither “fix” people so that they connect better, or “fix” situations so that better connections are possible. People are not products, and connections cannot be quantified.
Third: The call to “fix” suggests a problem with brokenness.
This one is a little more complex to think about. This requires us to concede that every person, in one way or another, knows the pain of imperfection – both the consequences of our own shortcomings and those of others. Our problems – whatever they may be – are part of our circumstances, and our degrees and types of brokenness determine the manner in which we approach them. Take away our brokenness, and the problems still remain. If we are looking to solve the problems of day to day living, “fixing” our brokenness only shifts the focus onto us instead of the problems at hand, tempting us to despair and despise our weaknesses (and still leaving us with the problems).
We believe it is possible to live with our needs while still hoping that, with our efforts, they do not impact our capacity for happiness. Consider, too, that a person who can live with their need ends up being more resourceful than a person who hopes to master their need and then quit. So, while we do not suggest whatsoever that brokenness and suffering is to be sought after and celebrated, we do acknowledge that, in this life, things go wrong… people aren’t perfect… and comfort clouds our judgment. Seeking a “fix” quickly becomes unrealistic, frustrating and counterproductive.
Fourth: A “fixed” problem requires no further attention, case closed.
Can we ever say that about a person? Pairing a lonely person with a volunteer friend once in awhile is no more a solution for spiritual hunger than tossing an apple to a victim of famine. Food can’t simply be distributed; eventually it runs out. Food must be cultivated, constantly. It cannot be checked off a list. Likewise, our Missionary mindset must be one of cultivation.
Fifth, and finally: Our work is not simply a matter of dispensing goods from our plenty to the needy.
We Missionaries of Saint Thorlak need right along with those whom we encounter. And, paradoxically enough, living from our need is the one thing that offers a continuous solution (or, do we dare say, “fix”?) to the problem of disconnection.
Pray: God Our Father, You are the source of our life and all Creation. Even if we clearly see the brokenness before us, it is beyond our ability to fix the broken aspects of humanity. Help us unite in our struggles, rather than divide; that You may heal us through the bonds of connection and support.
Contemplate: How does brokenness lead to healing? Can there be healing in the absence of brokenness?
Relate: This week, let us remind ourselves as often as necessary: It is not our job to fix broken people. It is our job to recognize need – in ourselves, and in others.
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak