SASKATOON — The bishop whose motto is “Mercy within mercy within mercy” shared insights and reflections Feb. 21 to launch a lenten series during the Year of Mercy in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon.
In his presentation entitled “Mercy all the way down,” Bishop Donald Bolen wove together poetry and story, philosophy and physics, personal experience and Scripture, offering the first of three presentations about God’s mercy organized by the diocesan Foundations: Exploring Our Faith Together office. The diocesan series for the Year of Mercy continued Feb. 28 with speaker Bishop Emeritus Gerald Wiesner, OMI, and March 6 with author and theologian Leah Perrault.
“With the God who is revealed to us in history and in the Scriptures, who is also revealed to us in the depths of our human experience, it is mercy all the way down,” said Bolen. “The well that never exhausts is the well of mercy; it is mercy that is at the heart of things, mercy by which we live. The name of God is mercy within mercy within mercy.”
The bishop of Saskatoon tackled questions of ultimate meaning as he opened his talk, citing a First Nations story about the nature of the universe, Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, and a childhood friend’s haiku poem: “did you ever wonder / how big is the universe? / don’t think about it.”
“Poetry is good at asking ultimate questions, asking what is going on here, what are we here for,” said Bolen, noting that the many distractions of our life and culture can keep us from reflecting on the central meaning of existence until some circumstance brings it to the fore.
“How do we live deeply? How do we live with our ears to the ground of the most fundamental questions: why are we here, what is being asked of us, what’s going on here?” he said.
“Those questions also arise out of human suffering,” noted Bolen, relating a moment bringing communion to a dying friend, when the response “Only say the word and I shall be healed” resonated profoundly with the experience of suffering. “What is that word? What is the word that governs all things? What is at the foundation of things?” Bolen queried, before exploring Scripture and experience to offer an answer — namely, the “inexhaustible well” of God’s mercy.
The mystery of God that Moses encounters in the burning bush in the Book of Exodus is revealed in an invitation to relationship, as God acts in history, “forming a people and accompanying them in time,” responding to suffering by sending Moses to set his people free.
“Thirty chapters later, after this has all happened and God has led the people of Israel out of Egypt and into the wilderness, Moses again has an encounter with God, and on that occasion, in chapter 34, Moses hears these words: “The Lord, the Lord: a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation.’ So, the God cloaked in mystery — ‘I am who I am’ — is revealed also as a God boundless in mercy,” described Bolen, “concealed and revealed as a source of mercy and life.”
That boundless mercy becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ, Bolen continued. “That Word that God speaks, the Word that God speaks in creation, the Word that God speaks through the prophets, the Word that God speaks in the wisdom literature — that Word takes flesh,” he said, describing the message of mercy that fills the New Testament.
The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy proclaimed this year by Pope Francis has as its theme Merciful Like the Father, which resonates in parables from the Gospel of Luke about the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to find the one that is lost, the woman who does everything to find the lost coin, and the merciful Father who eagerly runs to restore relationship with the returning prodigal. “Those are images of God going in search of us, the God who comes mercifully to find us.”
Reflecting on what word Jesus may have been writing on the ground when the crowd brought forward the woman caught in adultery (John 8), Bolen asked, “What word did Jesus’ whole life speak? What did his ministry speak? It spoke mercy.”
Bolen reflected on his own personal encounter with the mercy of God. He described being surprised to find a scrapbook he created at the age of 21 that includes the Thomas Merton quote that would eventually be the source of his episcopal motto.
“By 21, I was starting to learn that I had an abiding sinfulness which I couldn’t deal with well. I tried to be a great disciple and kept falling flat. I came to realize in some way, shape or form that Christian discipleship wasn’t about what I would become, and it wasn’t about what I was going to do, and it wasn’t about achievement. It was ultimately about being a recipient of God’s mercy,” said Bolen.
Bolen quoted Pope Francis, who writes in The Name of God is Mercy: “God does not want anyone to be lost. His mercy is infinitely greater than our sins, his medicine is infinitely greater than our illness that he has to heal.”
That belief allows us to live with “a kind of joy, freedom and hope that nothing can vanquish,” said Bolen, stressing that belief in God’s mercy is grounded in the Paschal Mystery.
“The core of Jesus’ life isn’t just something he said. It is what happened to him. It’s how he gave himself fully. Pope Francis says about the death of Jesus that ‘it’s the greatest act of love of all history.’ It is God taking on our darkness and shining light. It is God enduring the worst, and forgiving it,” said Bolen. “It is where the worst moment in human history breaks open by God’s grace to be the greatest moment, the definitive moment: God will not abandon us. God can transform even the worst that human beings do.”
Responding to suggestions that it is love at the centre of things, rather than mercy, Bolen reflected on the profound love of God that underlies all of creation, asserting that there is no contradiction between mercy and love. “Mercy is the sort of the love that we need when our lives are marred by wounds, when our world is scarred by conflict and violence and injustice. Mercy is the kind of love that we need from God, the love which restores relationship, the love that gives us the strength to keep living, which plants a hope within us that we can live by.”
Bolen added that he is also sometimes challenged by those who say, “What’s all this mercy business, what about justice?” The bishop agreed that God desires justice for every human being, for all of creation. “Justice is the name of love in action, love trying to make broken situations whole, and distorted relationships right. And to do so, justice requires strong action that sometimes might not look like mercy or love.”
Bolen pointed to strong and angry words that Jesus has for scribes and Pharisees. “But there is mercy in that, too. It is a call to justice. It is Jesus calling them to wake up. God’s justice is always shaped by mercy,” he said.
Asked about the call to work for both charity and justice, Bolen added: “God’s mercy is always attentive to human suffering, and the church’s impulse toward justice issues isn’t an ideological thing. It is when we hear the suffering of others, what does God implant in us? I think (it is) a desire to address that suffering, a desire to reach out compassionately.”
He added that the justice work of Pope Francis and of the church is not driven by a political vision. “It is driven by a sense that God wants to respond to the needs and sufferings of others, and God summons the church to be there on God’s behalf, and engage in that work. For Pope Francis — for the church as a whole, too — charity and justice are not opposites. These are two sides of the same coin.”