Shortly after noon on Holy Thursday, I was in my van, ferrying four fifth graders from the parochial school to the Food Bank to spend a couple of hours sorting bulk grocery items into family-sized bags. A great field trip to start off the Triduum celebration, especially for someone who’d been trying to spend Lent focused on “mercy.”
Although, to be wholly truthful? My in-flight entertainment consisted of death threats and body humor. So I couldn’t quite get that “I’m doing something holy” vibe going.
Which, come to think of it, isn’t all bad.
The thing about good deeds—and probably the reason certain Christian denominations are so suspicious of considering “works” a vital component of salvation—is that when you do good things, you tend to get really, really self-aware about it. You get this warm glow of self-congratulatory satisfaction, as if you can actually feel your halo expanding.
Well, anyway, I do.
And that’s problematic for growth in holiness. It seems to me that the people who are truly merciful are the ones who would say, “What, this? This is no big deal. It’s just what I do.”
To give a different example: I get up every day and I exercise and I write and I cook meals…a lot of meals. I don’t need affirmation or congratulations, I don’t get all goosebump-y with pride about it, it’s just what I do. It’s who I am; what else would I do?
There are people who are like that with good deeds. It genuinely doesn’t occur to them that someone might compliment, praise, or affirm them for the mercy they show to others. They run the Giving Tree at Christmas, they buy a sandwich for the guy on the corner, they talk to emotionally needy/annoying people without betraying the least hint of impatience. They offer words of wisdom without any of the ego that raises others’ defenses. They don’t speak ill of anyone. Ever. At all. (Can you sense my awe?)
And they seem unconscious that any one of these individual attributes is amazing, and bringing all of them together is downright heroic.
In case I am being at all unclear, I am not one of those people.
My experience of Holy Thursday at the Food Bank was, if not self-congratulatory, at least a little giddy at the fact that I was, y’know, separating miniature chocolate chip cookies into bags for two hours. In the company of fifth grade boys, no less. It felt good to be involved. But still, I couldn’t help thinking, “chocolate chip cookies? I mean, does anybody really need these? This isn’t big enough! It isn’t grand enough! I should be down there in the trenches, washing the face of Jesus, not sitting (well, all right, standing) safely in the volunteer room of the Food Bank, with zero chance of having to interact with a real live person in need.”
And then I thought, “But this is a whole lot easier.”
Clearly, the distance between me and the Mercy Hero I described above is vast.
But I think the key is practice. Like anything else that begins with great concentration and difficulty and painful self-awareness (learning Spanish from an audio course comes to mind), the more a thing is practiced, the more automatic it becomes. I’m sure the first time I blew in a flute I was feeling very self-aware. But now, thirty-odd years and two degrees later, it’s closer than second nature. I choose to place my hope in this little truism I picked up I don’t know where and with which I now drive flute students absolutely mad: practice makes permanent. Not perfect. Permanent.
Make mercy permanent in me, God.