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The blog of the Dominican student brothers at Blackfriars, Oxford.

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Year of Mercy: Dominican profession: what do you seek? God’s mercy and yours

Friday, February 19, 2016

On the Feast of St Michael the Archangel in 2013, my three co-novices and I lay prostrate on the cold stone floor of the Cambridge Chapel, making our simple profession, and we were asked by our Provincial: ‘What do you seek?’ Our response, as for many thousands before us: ‘God’s mercy and yours.’

I found the experience very moving and I definitely meant what I said. However, two and a half years on, I realise how little I understood the immensity and the beauty of what I was asking for. Since that time, through my studies and more general reflections on the nature of mercy, I have come to a much deeper appreciation of God’s mercy. Where once I saw mercy as derivative from justice, I now know it to be something much more profound, much richer, something that goes beyond sin, to the very gift of our being. I have become aware as I live the contemplative rhythm of the religious life of the action of God’s mercy in my life and not only how I am so much more in need of it than I ever realised before, but also that His mercy is so much more abundant than I ever knew before.

Yet it’s not only God’s mercy that we seek. We seek the mercy of our Provincial and by extension that of all our brothers. When I fail in charity, it is normally my brothers who suffer, and it is their mercy too which helps sustain my joy and my delight in being a Dominican; their mercy which sees my repentance, often all too feeble, be the start of something liberating rather than a descent into a trough of anguish and despair over the unforgiven wrong. When God forgives and my brothers forgive, they set me free, not to sin all over again, but to allow God to dwell within me and set me free from the cycle of sin which would otherwise trap me.

Aquinas often spoke about the mercy of God and how we need His mercy to live our lives. He saw mercy as the greatest attribute of God. He tells us that ‘God is never self-seeking, but acts only and always with selfless generosity, pouring out, from His abundance, good gifts on His creatures. Showing mercy is therefore proper to God, in a special way, for it manifests His infinite perfection, and His infinite abundance and generosity.’ He goes on to say ‘God acts mercifully. . . but by doing something more than justice; thus a man who pays another two hundred pieces of money, though owing him only one hundred, does nothing against justice, but acts liberally and mercifully. The case is the same with one who pardons an offence committed against him, for in remitting it, he may be said to bestow a gift.’ No wonder we seek God’s mercy on making our vows.

I know many people think that in entering a religious order, I have run away from reality, exited the real world, and it is true that there are many aspects of the religious life that liberate you from the daily concerns that I used to have when I worked as a lawyer. However, what I have certainly not run away from is truth; in fact, truth is what I seek, the Truth that took on mortal flesh and made God’s mercy manifest. Learning about this Truth, seeking to live in this Truth each day, is a privilege and a joy.

Yet truth, if it is to be lived, cannot remain abstract knowledge, and so we have to grow in self-knowledge. The religious life provides a sacred space for this growth, though we are all called to cultivate such a space in our lives.  What we discover as we grow in self-knowledge, is often much uglier than previous reflection, if trivial, would have us believe. Yet this is not a cause for despair, but the start of path to holiness, no matter how tentative and doddery those first steps may be. For I think there is reticence about holiness in many of us, the false notion that life as a saint might somehow be dull – though we need only pick up the Lives of the Saints to dispel that myth – the nagging worry that something of myself might be lost if I conformed myself completely to God’s will.

Pope Francis, in his book-length interview The Name of God is Mercy, was asked ‘What do you need in order to obtain mercy? Is it necessary to have a certain predisposition?’ The Pope’s answer is stark, honest and challenging:

The first thing that comes to mind is the phrase, ‘I can’t take it anymore!’ You reach a point when you need to be understood, to be healed, to be made whole, forgiven. You need to be able to get up again to resume your path.’ Quoting St Augustine, he says ‘Search within your heart for what is pleasing to God. Your heart must be crushed. Are you afraid that it might perish so?’

The honest answer, at least in my case, is, ‘Yes’ and it can be a paralysing fear, a fear that has us more attached to occasions of sin than to Jesus. But it’s the awareness of the ugliness within ourselves, of the futility of sin, and of our own weakness – an awareness that only comes with self-knowledge – that is the beginning of letting Christ in. This is not because our repentance is the condition of God’s mercy; his mercy has been there all along, but we need to accept it, to be aware of it, to allow it truly to transform us. As the Pope says:

I have always said that the Lord precedes us, he anticipates us. I believe the same can be said for his divine mercy, which heals our wounds; he anticipates our need for it. God waits, he waits for us to concede Him only the smallest glimmer of space so that he can enact his forgiveness and his charity within us.

The Pope goes on to suggest that only when we have experienced the mercy of God can we be said to know God and this is why paradoxically our sins can be the place of encounter with the Lord. Certainly, in my life, it is in the sacrament of confession where I have had the most profound experience of God’s mercy, the awareness that I am loved despite my sin, and loved so much that God wants to set me free from my sin.

The initiative for confession is always God’s, but it’s never coercive, and this calls to mind the William Holman Hunt painting, The Light of the World. I know it’s not the normal interpretation of it, but as I reflect on the sacrament of confession, I think we can see Christ the Priest in the confessional, waiting for us, longing that we should experience his loving mercy, but the door handle is on our side: He will not force his way into lives, we must enter into Him. The confessional and what we encounter there may seem small compared to our lives outside of it, but this is the distorting power of sin: making the small seem significant, distorting our view of reality and our priorities. In fact, life within Christ is so much grander, so much larger than we could possibly conceive, even though the entrance seems narrow. Life in Christ, living in His light, is the only place where we are truly free, yet inexplicably we often cower away from Him in the familiar surroundings of the small dens our sins enclose us in. We know that it makes no sense to stay as we are, and yet we do the thing we do not wish to do; only grace can break through and take us from the smallness of sin to the largeness of love.

As I reflect on those words at profession, I think how simple they are, how obvious that I should seek something as beautiful as God’s mercy, and yet how unfathomable that paradox, of knowing already the source of God’s mercy and yet knowing that what I seek is almost certainly more than the work of a lifetime.

Br Toby Lees O.P.

Br Toby Lees O.P. Br Toby Lees is a deacon based at St Dominic's Priory in London but assigned to the Priory of San Clemente in Rome for reasons of study. He is completing his STB at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas ("Angelicum") in Rome.  |  toby.lees@english.op.org


Comments

Peter commented on 19-Feb-2016 09:51 PM
I have read your article over and over
again. It has been a great help to me as
late on life I prepare to become a Catholic
after over 40 years as an Anglican Priest
Thank you so very much for sharing your experience
and understanding of God's mercy.
FRANK EVANS commented on 23-Feb-2016 07:12 PM
A beautiful, challenging and uplifting sermon.Thank You
Nicole commented on 28-Feb-2016 04:16 AM
My sister and I visited Oxford 2 years ago during a trip to England (from New Zealand). We were loitering in the entrance of Blackfriars trying to work out if we could attend Mass there when we were greeted and helped by one of the Brothers, who encouraged us to attend morning prayer the next day as well as Mass that evening, which we did. The two services we attended at Blackfriars remain one of our most enduring collective memories of the whole trip; it inspired me to begin and continue morning prayer as a devotion, and often during a Mass here in NZ my thoughts are transported back to the Mass we celebrated at Blackfriars, and the beautiful way in which it was celebrated. Br Toby made us feel so welcome so far from home; a friend to us when we knew no-one there. I'm so glad I randomly decided to have a look at this blog today. Such wisdom shines through this article, and such wonderful truth. It made me cry. Thank you Br Toby for being a light to us in Oxford two years ago, and for continuing to be a light for us today.
Ben Bano commented on 28-Apr-2016 08:42 AM
Thank you for this beautiful reflection. 20 years ago I did the Peace Preaching Course and this has inspired me in the work I have done for Justice and Peace particularly with migrants

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