Thursday, June 11, 2009


For those of us fortunate enough or, more accurately, crazy enough to stick around after our college graduation and establish roots in the heart of downtown Chicago, the thickening of our skin became a required adaptation for survival. Everywhere one turns, shops or dines they’re boldly confronted by a disorienting dichotomy: excessive wealth meshing with dire poverty. 

To dwell on it, to care too much, is to dangle ineffectually between feelings of envy and disgust for the monumental chasm separating the haves from the have nots. I, myself, soon grew accustomed to the anonymous outstretched hands begging the hordes of rushing, cappuccino sipping, passersby for leftover change out of their bulging pocketbooks. The first thing I abandoned was eye contact, followed shortly thereafter after by a dropping of my half-hearted, “no, sorry, not this time” response, until finally those fingers, the soiled clothing, their pleading voices were ignored completely, like the white noise of ocean waves or a ceiling fan.

 I had one friend, however, who never evolved like the rest of us, whose thin and sensitive skin remained, against all odds, translucent and tender. Much to our dismay, and despite our consternation, she kept her ears and eyes wide open, laying dollars and coins in every dirty palm that beckoned from grocery store exits and street corners.

 “What are you doing?” we’d hiss in frustration, “That newspaper you bought is like three days old. He just picked it up off the ground and sold it to you.” But none of our sound advice could penetrate that dense skull of hers. She stubbornly continued on with her imprudent habits until, finally, after one too many accusations that she was essentially funding drug addictions, my benevolent friend quietly but firmly relayed to us that it wasn’t her place to make judgments on others’ motives or intentions. Someone in need had asked her for help and she gave what she could.


I could tell by the way it was presented on the flannel graph board in my second grade Sunday School class that I was supposed to be happy about the Prodigal Son’s celebratory reunion with his father and disapproving of his older brother’s snotty attitude toward the breaking out of the fatted calf in honor of what? Greediness? Stupidity? Utter failure?

 Perhaps it was because I was just a kid, and hadn’t yet experienced true remorse born of foolish and destructive behavior, that the parable left such a sour taste in my mouth - that in fact, to me, the whole story seemed to reek of injustice.

I could have stomached it, maybe, could have possibly even embraced its significance and symbolism had, as a footnote, the teacher merely added, “Isn’t it ridiculous and amazing that God’s compassion has nothing to do with our worthiness or actions?! Isn’t it crazy that, heavenly speaking, mercy trumps evenhandedness?!” Because who more than children are still open to outlandish possibilities, are pliable enough to snuggle up to, and feel at home with, such backward notions?

 Each year we spend here on this earth we are that much more in danger of becoming encased in our “eye for an eye” logic in which charitable acts are only commendable when bestowed upon the innocent and deserving. Giving aid to orphans in Africa? That is good, very good. Exonerating thieves, liars or rapists? Handing out cash to homeless and reckless alcoholics who will surely squander it? Unacceptable.

Uncomfortable with ambiguity, our default reaction when attempting to wrap our finite minds around salvation and eternity is to try and apply that sensible ethos to matters of faith and redemption. When we are kind and brave and selfless we, albeit often unintentionally, have a tendency to feel at least a tad deserving of God’s grace.

When we hate and hurt and doubt and whine, however, we find ourselves fighting off the despair nipping at our ankles, threatening to devour us, if ever we lie down and let it, with the assertion that it makes zero sense for us to be pardoned over and over and over again, with no strings attached.  We cannot, on our own, bridge the abyss between divine love and fairness and thus we dangle ineffectually from a noose of our own making. “God is disgusted with us,” we assume, “because we are disgusted with ourselves.”

 The only way that the peace producing elements within genuine mercy, as exemplified by the father of the prodigal son, can even begin to puncture our rationalistic worldview, is by us allowing the whispered directives of the Holy Spirit (as opposed to our own human understanding) to become the context out of which all of our thoughts and deeds originate. 

When we can accept that revelation is a gift, made available through our obedient participation in prayer, communal worship, the sacraments - the rich and abundant Life of the Church, we will transcend the mental imprisonment barring our freedom to both give and receive unconditional love.

Jesus forgave his mockers, his torturers, his deniers, his murderers – every one of us, while in the throes of an agonizing crucifixion, and thus it is imperative that we also forgive - forgive others and ourselves. God desires that “all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth,” and thus we must petition Him for that exact same longing, for the wherewithal, the wisdom to see holiness in everyone.

Blessed are they who have the audacity to believe in, to be content with, Mystery, tossing aside their temporal and shortsighted suppositions. Blessed are they who rejoice in the compassion so generously showered upon them and in thankfulness respond by spreading out that same mercy like a blanket of impartiality on a world whose fragile inhabitants are in desperate need of some warmth and unreserved kindness.

Blessed are they who come home again after making a big old fat mess of their lives, and blessed are they who with tears of joy open wide their arms to welcome them. Blessed are you, blessed am I because the infallibility of the Gospel trumps speculation, biased agendas, prejudice, the popular opinions of society. Blessed, oh how very blessed, are we.