Paschal Worton on an undeserved gift of God

Denis was not the easiest friar to look after. Bedridden with arthritis, this previously dynamic priest used to shout for me at all times of the day or night with his still-powerful voice – ‘Brother! Brother!’ – and I would come running. He would need help out of bed, into the shower and into his wheelchair, with eating, and with many other things. The Superior thought that his shouting down the corridor was not very edifying, and he had a brain-wave: ‘I know, I’ll give Fr Denis a whistle!’ From then on I was summoned into the presence like Fido the dog.

As a young man I was rather frightened by Denis’s gruffness and razor-sharp responses. Whenever he wrote me a little note, however, in his felt-pen scrawl he would always sign it ‘Under the Mercy, Denis SSF’. Stuck in his daily reality of restriction, diminished by his lack of independence, and only occasionally able to say mass from his wheelchair, this formidable Anglo-Catholic ex-missioner’s three little words both puzzled and moved me. However, I came to understand that this man, in his physical – and at times emotional – brokenness, understood that there was a reality stronger than he was; that there was a truth deeper than his constant pain; and that there was a healing power more life-giving than his medication. That was God’s Mercy, and so under it he lived each day of his life.

I wonder when Denis first experienced mercy. Was it from his study of the Old Testament Scriptures, where the Hebrew word for the active mercy of God – chesedh – occurs 150 times? Was it from Psalm 136, about the mercy of God enduring for ever? Or was it from the New Testament: perhaps from Jesus’ Beatitude ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’; or from St Paul’s sense that the Gospel for the Gentiles was a wonderful gift of mercy from God; or from the Lord Himself on the Cross, when the Penitent Thief got much, much more than he hoped for – ‘today you will be with me in Paradise’?

I don’t know the answer; but I do know that at some stage in his life Denis got it really wrong with the Franciscan Order and needed time apart to deal with all that – but then returned and became a full part of the community again. He knew, despite his later physical suffering, that to live under the Mercy of God is to be touched by another world – a place where human anxiety and fears give way to trust. It is to have some understanding of what the St John calls ‘remaining in God’s Love’. May this be the same for us – for mercy will only remain a word or a theory unless we have felt it, been smitten by it, been lifted up by it, and lived under it ourselves. Everyone deserves true justice in life; but mercy, on the other hand, is pure gift. Mercy is more than the removal of a penalty or the relaxation of an enforced demand. It does not come about because a sparkling defence has been found, or excusing causes have been skilfully argued. Mercy is the free response of the giver. Mercy does not suggest that the guilty are not guilty, but nor does it demand satisfaction for the wrong. In Brighton Rock Graham Greene talks about ‘the awful strangeness of God’s mercy’, and indeed it is not logical at all – just freely given.

The point about Mercy is that nobody deserves it. That’s what we rediscover each Good Friday as we stand at the foot of the cross. We don`t get what we deserve. We get what God wants to give us: forgiveness, hope, and new creation – and we can’t quite believe it. ND

To be continued next month.

The Revd Paschal Worton is Team Vicar of St Mary’s, Somers Town, London. This is an edited version of an address given at the Bishop of Fulham’s stational mass at St Mary’s, Rotherhithe, on 12 March.