Finding ‘Mercy’ in daily life

I read the first few pages of Kerry Weber’s Lenten book with trepidation. It promised so much and could so easily go so very wrong.

A book about Lent that promised to be uplifting and even funny, without being glib or, even worse, shallow. A book by a witty young author writing from New York that promised not to be arch. A book about performing the corporal works of mercy that promised not to be didactic or — shudder — ironic. A book that claimed both Jesuit and mercy roots. A book about faith that promised to inspire without being either dire or saccharine. Could such a thing even be possible?

Mirabile dictu, it’s possible, and “Mercy in the City” (Loyola Press, $13.95) is it.

Weber writes about what to many young people is not so much a rejected as an unknown or underground world, one in which people hold parties the day before Ash Wednesday to use up all their beer or slip in to an early morning Mass before work. But it’s also an ordinary world, in which one frets about wearing the right shoes or obeying the unwritten rules of riding the subway.

In a series of short chapters with names like “In which I attempt to create Lent-appropriate date,” and “In which I avoid thrusting cups at runners,” (all chapters should have titles beginning with “in which”) Weber goes through an ordinary, extraordinary Lent in which she tries to decide whether or not to become an associate of the Sisters of Mercy, goes on dates, acts as a sponsor for a parishioner entering the Church at Easter, and, yes, attempts to perform all seven of the corporal works of mercy.

Weber
Weber

She goes about the latter with some reservations. Is she trying to do too much? Is she taking them too literally? Is she doing them in the wrong spirit? Just checking items off a list? And how do you bury the dead in a city the size of New York when you don’t know anyone who has died? But she, and the reader through her, quickly discovers that the works of mercy can’t be checked off a list. Mercy is a way of looking at the world and at others. It’s a way of being.

Of course, it’s also a lot of doing concrete things, some of which involve considerable planning (like arranging to visit San Quentin prison), and some of which require getting up very, very early in the morning. Mercy takes effort and sacrifice, even if it’s the sacrifice of little sleep or the discomfort of being in a strange place with strangers, and Weber writes with rueful humor about just how hard it is to make some of those “small” sacrifices.

She also writes with clear, unsentimental wonder at what she finds wherever she goes: people. Whether it’s meeting prisoners whose chilling crimes she reads about later or homeless men who jokingly assure her they’re “high quality homeless people,” or watching the fastest and best marathon runners pass her water station or crowding into St. Patrick’s Cathedral with all the RCIA candidates, she meets people. People who are homeless, people who want a sandwich, people who have names and pasts and problems and hopes.

After she spends time giving clothing away at a women’s charity set up like a store so that the women clients have the dignity of “shopping,” she looks at her own clothes in a different way. Instead of wondering whether she should hang on to a shirt she rarely wears, she realizes that she would give it to any of the women shoppers who asked for it without thinking twice and so she gives it away. The works of mercy, it seems, aren’t as much about the particular actions being done as they are about serving particular people and their particular needs.

Visiting the sick, a sick Sister of Mercy tells her, is about becoming aware of the goodness of other people. Visiting prisoners, a chaplain tells her, is about becoming aware of the goodness of other people — even people so violent that they must stand inside their own personal cages. Walking the Stations of the Cross, talking with a man who digs graves, pulling a sandwich cart or joking with her longtime friends, she sees more and more of the goodness in other people as Lent progresses.

Yes, it’s funny (“In which I get locked out of the church while trying to help people into it”) and sad and thought-provoking and inspirational. If you take even one thing away from this book, you’ll be a better person and a better Catholic.

But you’ll take away a lot more than one.

Gail Deibler Finke writes from Ohio.