Mercy is a dated word, kind of like calumny or felicity. It has a definite old school ring to it, something vaguely medieval or Pilgrim-ish, a king granting pardon from an ornate throne, or a judge overturning a guilty verdict in a hushed courtroom.
It’s a word you don’t hear much these days outside of church, and there, too, it’s a top-down deal, petitions from the pews, largesse from above. Have mercy on us sinners, do not consider what we truly deserve, temper your justice with mercy.
The idea of one ordinary human being extending mercy to another sounds almost quaint in 21st century America. People who do good works, who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, tend to define such activities as service. They might shy away from describing their efforts as merciful. To our modern ears, mercy sounds slightly patronizing, Lady Bountiful alighting from her carriage with a basket of food for the needy. You’re poor. I’m not.
But my favorite definition of mercy has nothing to do with conferring gifts from on high. Mercy, I once read, is “entering into the chaos of another.” It’s a description that is as simple as it is daunting.
Ten years ago, I left my post in academe and spent three years working in a shelter for the poor and homeless. I took this job for a variety of complicated reasons, and there were many days when I felt that I had jumped out of a plane without a parachute. I went from quiet white corridors and a tidy office to a shabby downtown building with leaky plumbing and cracked linoleum and a waiting room full of people in crisis.
I was there to raise money. On my first day, dressed in a blue suit and pearls, I made my way across a parking lot strewn with broken glass and walked past the day shelter. A man with one leg was sprawled on the curb, smoking a cigarette. I averted my eyes, but he would not be ignored. Hey, Miss Lady, he shouted. Hey. Look at me. I made cautious eye contact, and he seemed to size me up. I figured he wanted money, and started to open my purse. But he shook his head. What time is it, he asked. I told him. That was it.
In the months that followed, I would be offered this lesson time and again. Sometimes I welcomed it, entered willingly into another’s story. There are faces from that period that stay with me, a young woman with two small children who had chosen a succession of wrong men and used up her family’s good will and ended up homeless. A Vietnam veteran laid off from a good job and now sleeping on a cot in a shelter, his possessions in a shopping bag. A man who told me about his years of wandering, hopping freight trains, living out of a battered canvas sack. He opened the closet in his newly rented house and showed me his shoes neatly lined up, his four shirts hung precisely on hangers. He showed me the canvas sack, now empty.
There were other days when I crossed the street to avoid an encounter with the wild-haired woman who was clearly off her meds. There were nights when I walked to my car and kicked away beer cans and empty bottles of Mad Dog and muttered to myself that enough was enough.
Graham Greene wrote about “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” but to me, human mercy holds its own mystery. It is the link that connects us to each other, in chaos, in conflict, in glancing moments of recognition. Sometimes it holds. Sometimes it breaks. It is not forged in a day.