I’m not much interested in evaluating how well I did with my Lenten commitments. Some years I’ve done well, and others I didn’t even make a commitment to break. Life went on and Lent ended only with gladness that the sacrifices would let up, or that the guilt of ongoing failure would relent. But there’s a new question for me this Holy Week: “What happened to me despite what I did or didn’t do?” This question has the capacity to change me; its answer will help me “do well.”
This question began growing in me after Fr. Kieran, an 89-year old monk of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Kansas, passed away two weeks ago. I began remembering my time with him while I was part of that community. He was blind and I, along with the other junior monks, had the privilege of helping him with some basic needs throughout the day.
Fr. Kieran spent his life serving God in the poor in both Kansas and Brazil. He knew that Christ was in the flesh of those he encountered. I remembered how it was assisting him with his needs, such as finding the right chapter in his audio books: I was startled, again and again. The man gave his life to Christ and his people, and I was asked to give to him. I knew who I was and, frankly, I wasn’t impressed. But no matter what I’d done or not done, no matter how much I neglected charity or doubted my vocation, I was asked to be by his side toward the end of his remarkable life.
This was a mercy. Nothing I could have done, no failing, prevented the invitation to be with Fr. Kieran. I was asked to do it, despite myself. I grew in love and friendship, despite myself. I was given a gift, despite myself. Despite myself, mercy happened. I’d look at the photo on his wall of him in front of a church while on mission in Brazil and think, “How the hell am I here with him?”
When this mercy came, it was neither grand, nor extravagant. It was a quiet conversation about a book he was listening to, or planning what time he’d have me get him for Mass. It was subtle. You might have called it mundane: A young guy helping an old guy, often because it was his job. It was easy to miss. But the grace to see the whole reality with Fr. Kieran, that I was a sinner receiving a gift, alerted me to mercy.
That memory got me paying a more attention to where mercy happened to me this Lent, rather than where my successes and failures rested. Despite everything I am or do, what has happened? This Lent I was given opportunities to love. I was forgiven again and again. I was surrounded by friends. Challenges confronted me. Through this I’ve desired to pray, to give, to sacrifice, even to “do well.” I’m being given life. I don’t know how much my Lenten sacrifices contributed to these happenings, or how much those sacrifices have helped me to see them. But I did see mercy happening.
Mercy happened to me this Lent. Nothing awesome, just mercy in the flesh. Nothing loud or grandiose, but the “silent whisper” Elijah heard, which could have been drowned out by preoccupation with Lenten success and failure. It is a mercy, too, that I can end this Lent with a judgment that he who is mercy touched me. It’s much better than being glad only that life (viz., my diet) will return to normal… but I’m glad about that, too.