BREAKING OPEN THE ORDINARY
By Sandy Prather
Many of us can recall the 1980 movie The Elephant Man, based on the life of Joseph Merrick, known as the Elephant Man because of his excruciatingly terrible deformities. The preacher/author William J. Bausch tells a wonderful story about the famous British stage actress of an earlier era named Mrs. Kendal and her encounter with Merrick. Merrick, with twisted limbs and huge tumorous growths covering his body, was exploited as a side-show freak until rescued by a doctor and brought into care. He becomes a minor celebrity in the high society of the time, even as he continues to suffer and feel himself an outsider.
Bausch’s story comes from the stage play. The Angelina Jolie of her time, Mrs. Kendall is a world famous actress and, out of charitable interest, she goes to meet the Elephant Man. At their first meeting, she holds out her hand to shake his. The cloaked and hooded Elephant Man brings forth the less deformed of his two hands. Mrs. Kendall stands and looks him in the eye. She shakes her head slightly, indicating that this is not sufficient. The Elephant Man stands there for a long time and finally, after a long pause, out from under his cloak he brings his more horribly disfigured and deformed hand. Mrs. Kendall takes that hand in hers and smiles at him. Just before the curtain drops on the first act, the Elephant Man remarks, “That’s the first time I’d ever held a woman’s hand.” He attributes much of the spiritual healing that occurs in his life as coming from that touch.
The story speaks to us in powerful ways: even as we know ourselves to be Merrick, deformed and fearful, afraid to trust, we are also called to act as Mrs. Kendall, gracious and merciful, holding the other with a loving clasp.
First that we are Merrick: we all have parts of our lives that we are ashamed of, things we would rather hide. More serious than thick waistlines or ugly toes, they are the mistakes we have made, the missteps we have taken, the secret vices we deplore. They concern the ways we have hurt ourselves as well as others and the guilt we carry about it. It’s as if we too wear a cloak, a persona of perfection, but underneath it are the things we would rather no one knows about and which we perhaps do not even acknowledge to ourselves. Marred and scarred, we hide; surely, we think, no one, not even God, would accept us if they truly saw who were.
Sadly, the fear of being rejected comes from a reasonable place. For too many people, harsh and judgmental is the world; for too many people, harsh and judgmental is their experience of God and the church. In too many circles we judge without mercy; we weigh and measure with a demanding eye. Flaws, mistakes, errors and sin are roundly condemned as we seek out the pure and spotless. We want people to get what they deserve and “pay up” for their mistakes. We demand retribution and recompense. In the culture it takes the form of overflowing prisons; in the church, the strictest interpretation of commandment and moral imperative.
Into this coldness comes Pope Francis and his persistent pleas for us to be a people and a church of mercy. Pope Francis witnesses to a God who behaves like Mrs. Kendall, ready to embrace what we most want to hide. Graciously, and patiently, like Mrs. Kendall, God stands ready to greet us. Our tendency when faced with the prospect of that encounter is, like poor Mr. Merrick, to offer only the better parts of our lives, shamed and afraid as we are by the other.
But, as the story relates, it is mercy we will meet when we do risk to reveal ourselves. God’s heart flows with compassion and love, not judgment, and when we allow ourselves to be grasped by this merciful love, it is then our healing can begin.
And it is then and there that we are called to act as the second major character of the story: we are called to be Mrs. Kendall to one another. The mercy we have received at the hands of God we are called to share with one another. Jean Vanier in his book Becoming Human says we are all called to be “mirrors of mercy,” that is, we mirror the mercy of God’s heart.
If it is true that disciples are to love with that heart, a heart fired by mercy, it is just as true of the church. It is a theme dear to Pope Francis. In an October 13, 2013, address, he spoke of God’s heart: “In his mercy, he never tires of stretching out his hand to lift us up, to encourage us to continue our journey, to come back and tell him of our weakness, so that he can grant us his strength.” In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis, quoting Augustine, reminds us that rules are not at the centre of the church, mercy is (EG 42). Francis also points out that eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, nor should the confessional be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with God’s mercy (EG 44).
In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Portia asks Shylock to show mercy. He asks, “On what compulsion, must I?” She responds: “The quality of mercy is not strained/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” While we cannot compel mercy, who would disagree that both Mr. Merrick, the Elephant Man and Mrs. Kendall are both blessed by the mercy and compassion shown that day.
October is a month of Thanksgiving. Perhaps it is a good time to remember and be grateful that God does not treat us as we deserve but rather looks at us with eyes of love, offering the extended hand of mercy. In gratitude for what we have received, we offer the same to one another.
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.