Years ago, a friend entered a crack house in the middle of an epidemic which laid waste to the bodies and dreams of thousands. In the dark hours after midnight he waded through his fears, crack pipes and excrement to rescue a friend who the drug had soaked through and tossed around like a hurricane might tissue paper.
Unlike many interventions, this one was successful, moving from chronic addiction to sustainable recovery because of a leap of faith by a good friend and 12 steps by an addict who admitted that he was powerless over his addiction and that his life had become unmanageable.
My friend’s courage was an act of mercy. Mercy is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another’s life. It is an amphibious virtue standing on the shores of hope and possibility, ready to wade into the depths of suffering with the knowledge that life is often tragic, that many lives end in wasted potential.
We cannot force others to embrace the dawn or respond to an invitation to conversion. We are all muddling our way. And, it is exactly this muddling through and the mess we often make of our own lives which should inspire us to be more empathetic and merciful.
Love is partly a recognition that we share a common journey. One of the fruits of that love is mercy. We should not eagerly mount our moral high horses when we see a joneser. All of us are addicted or seized by habits or deadly sins which require conversion of heart and mind. There is less space in our hearts for mercy when we have self-righteousness and judgmentalism coursing through our veins.
For Christians, Christmas is a celebration of the incarnation of the Author of Life into the very marrow of human being in the person of Jesus Christ. It is a reminder of God’s generosity and mercy.
As a season of gift-giving it is also an invitation for us to be more generous with the gifts manifest in the Incarnation. So, before we go leave our gifts at the altar or under the Christmas tree, we might consider how generously or miserly we have offered to others or received the gifts of mercy, reconciliation and forgiveness.
Such reflection is equally an invitation to conversion beyond the wrath and pride, greed and envy, lust and gluttony which seize our desires and imaginations, our bodies and spirits, becoming corrosive habits of the heart which shadow our days and years, our intentions and actions.
Of course, conversion is not automatic or easy, a truth embodied in Twelve Step programmes for various addictions. It requires us to be born over and over again. The story of St. Paul’s conversion is less about a single moment and more about his ongoing transformation graced by a Power greater than himself.
The life-long and hard work of conversion should inspire in us a merciful spirit that is tender-hearted but tough-minded. Under the guise of love many of us enable the poor habits of family members and friends.
This often has more to do with our own attempts at face-saving or mistaken belief that we can force others to change. Our well-intentioned efforts, however, often have the unfortunate result of perpetuating in those we seek to save perpetual moral adolescence.
Many drug addicts never faced certain rock bottoms cum opportunities for conversion because family members stepped in to save them from the responsibility for their own actions. While the reasons for addiction are complex, the responsibility for sobriety is the addict’s.
Likewise, the invitation to conversion is an invitation to acknowledge and accept responsibility for our own change of heart and mind. It requires openness to growth that issues forth in a response, no matter how tentative or fragile are the first steps.
Perhaps the stirrings of conversion we have this Christmas may become New Year’s resolutions that are sustainable and progressive next steps we can take over the course of the upcoming year rather than bold declarations which may evaporate as the new year unfolds.
The brutal betrayals and loss of love and trust we experience do not yield easily or automatically to the spirit of reconciliation. Like conversion, forgiveness is a process, a discovery of one’s capacity to renew frayed bonds rather than wallow endlessly in the narcissism of self-pity, rage and revenge.
Those suffering from a hardened or angry heart or a wounded spirit this Christmas because of alienation from family or friends, may pray for the gift of forgiveness. If that is not possible, perhaps the prayer should be for a desire to forgive. If that is not possible, one should pray for the desire to have the desire.
The desire for reconciliation matures over time. So, even as we pursue reconciliation, we must live with the reality that it may never come to past with those with whom we seek to be reunited in kinship, fellowship and friendship.
There is a blessed paradox in the extension of mercy and forgiveness to another. As an individual heart expands, there is also more space, tenderness and capacity to forgive someone most of us often have a difficult time forgiving – oneself.
Forgiving oneself is a process of liberation, freeing ourselves from the scrupulosity, unbridled pride or sense of unworthiness and shame which stymie the refreshing spirits of forgiveness and reconciliation.
In many ways, the greater sin is often our refusal to be open to God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness. These are the restorative gifts of the Incarnation and Christmas, which bring joy to the world and solace to individual hearts.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi present the infant Jesus with fine gifts, in recognition of a greater wealth, the dignity of every human being made in the same image and likeness as the Christ-child. These Wise Men recognized a fundamental human giftedness more luxurious than gold, myrrh and frankincense.
When we rediscover and reawaken that sense of the radical dignity of others and ourselves, the gifts of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation tend to flow from grateful hearts often paralyzed by our failures and sometimes tragic mistakes.
Forgiving oneself is not about rationalizing one’s behaviour or making excuses. It requires an acknowledgement of our betrayals, selfishness, favourite deadly sins, ingratitude, and habits of commission and omission.
It is also an acknowledgement of our own hypocrisy and that often the best we can do over a lifetime is whittle down, yet never fully remove many of the planks in our own eyes.
And, as we should expect of others, there must also be a commitment to change, in word and deed. Such change tends to take root through next steps which retool and reinvigorate our moral imagination and capacities, one step and one day at a time.
My friend’s rescue of his friend from a cracked up life many years ago was an act of moral solidarity, a recognition that “there but for the grace of God”. We are all in need of conversion and help from those who love us because and in spite of ourselves, who love us beyond our wildest imaginings, anxieties and deepest fears.
As we offer others the blessings of the season and other gifts, might we also extend to family, friends and ourselves an invitation to take those small and perhaps not so small next steps which may seed the fruits of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation? Surely, this will make for a blessed and merry Christmas.