When Preaching On Love and Mercy Can Go Too Far
A reflection on balance in our image of a loving God, from the view of my new Jesuit community
"Prayer ribbons" with student's intentions in front of Gasson Hall
I had a “meh” start to my week… a stressful midterm, everyone around here is sick, the bathroom door that I sleep across from decided to be extra squeaky at 2AM–– you get the picture. College life isn’t always glamorous. I’m fortunate enough though to live on a Jesuit Catholic campus, where there’s always priests and scholastics milling about. I’ve taken a liking to some of my Jesuit scholastic classmates and some solid young Jesuit priests who say our “candlelight” 10PM dorm Mass every weeknight. However, I’ve noticed something. Something that is innately good: these priests and future priests have a charism very centered around teaching about love, mercy, and forgiveness. There’s a big focus on pastoral counseling, care of the whole person, but very much a sentiment that our God is so much awesomely bigger than any of our fears, worries, or sins. He’s loving, merciful, and forgiving.
Now you may be wondering, how is that a bad thing? It’s not. Not quite. Our God is love. He is loving. And He is certainly merciful and forgiving and will erase any wrongdoing when you coming running back to Him like the Prodigal Son. But there’s an interesting tidbit I learned in a theology class about the Parable of the Prodigal Son: his father was wearing robes, and when he ran to meet his son, he would have had to gather up the robes in his hands and run. Exposing his legs though, would be seen culturally as embarrassing, as making a fool of himself. He does it anyway, and sprints foolishly toward his son. Oftentimes this parable is seen as a story about repentance when in reality the son never ever says he’s sorry–– instead the parable is more focused on the illogical, foolish, and reckless love of the Father. He loves with a love that is messy, not afraid to be embarrassed, and is ready to get in your mess with you.
Being surrounded by Jesuits as teachers, classmates, and at every Mass every day, I hear a lot about love, mercy, and forgiveness. It’s beautiful, it’s good, it’s a reminder we all need. This is not criticism or making blanket statements. But, our Church is a church of balance. For example, we need to know we’re sinners yet know we’re beloved. We need to know we’re unworthy but that we’ve been made worthy. Balance in faith and theology is crucial. I didn’t realize that I was craving this balance until candlelight Mass on Wednesday night.
Overwhelmed and exhausted from studying for a physics exam, I hadn’t been to candlelight on Monday or Tuesday. After the exam Wednesday, I dragged my exhausted brain to Jesus. With our regular priest out of town, it was an Australian Jesuit who I learned is a friend of a friend. It was a normal, beautiful Mass, but fewer people than usual and I was exhausted. During the Prayers of the Faithful, suddenly I was snapped back to my senses and overcome by peace. Intertwined with prayers for mercy and forgiveness, the priest said something along the lines of a heartfelt prayer that he, the priest, was earnestly saying for all those struggling with anxiety or any mental illness, that they find peace. This statement was something messy, and something of home for me. At my home youth group (y’all who are reading this know 😉) our priest, and our youth group in general, always makes a point of praying for those affected by mental illness, naming aloud anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. We know it’s something that affects a record number of teens in the room, and thus out of love we pray. It’s the same kind of messy, reckless love that the Father hikes up His robes and runs with. Those prayers are unafraid of getting into the mess, naming it aloud, and doing something with prayer. It’s an acknowledgment of the real.
At this prayer on Wednesday, I was struck, confused by why it brought me peace. In prayer, I realized it was a breath of fresh air, a balance to the almost idealized love and mercy. The priest, reminding me how God views us, was willing to jump into that mess in prayer. He was able to break the “God is always loving” happy-go-lucky mentality and acknowledge suffering, and just be with the student population in that. Sometimes rather than an image of God smothering and suffocating your hurt or sin with His goodness, it’s better to know that He’ll walk with you in that pain and melt it away when you’re ready.
I’ve realized recently that it’s a gift to have two categories of people in your life: those who immediately jump to a solution and just want to take care of the problem, and those who will walk with you in the moment and allow you to feel what you need to feel. You absolutely need both. Constantly being reminded of God’s almost fluffy mercifulness sometimes needs to be balanced by the image of a Father who will hold you in your sadness. A Jesus who will let you take the spot of Simon and carry your cross with you. A God who sees suffering and will just be with you in that mess, with a love that is illogical and reckless.
Being fully aware that God will stand by you in suffering or sin or annoyance or temptations, deepens your image that it’s a God who knows you, and thus compliments the belief that He is always merciful and forgiving. As the Catholic faith often is, it’s a both/and. He’s loving, and sometimes that’s in mighty overwhelming forgiveness, and sometimes that it’s gently picking up the cross beside you.