Practical Mercy: Can’t Read My Poker Face

Dorothy Therese

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Previous Posts in this Series:
The (Human) Dignity in Making Time
Blessed Are the Grouchy

As the author of the “Practical Mercy” series, Dorothy Therese is a young adult with a lay ministry degree who works as a case worker for mothers living in a homeless shelter. While reflecting on her work in light of her faith, Dorothy writes under this pseudonym to protect the privacy of the shelter guests, but can be reached via email through the link above.

I’ve been told by our shelter guests that I pull off my poker face pretty well.  They are surprised when I remind them that yes, I do have feelings, and no, I don’t enjoy punishing you.

Unfortunately, I’m not surprised that I am perceived this way: I’m part of an unjust system that has continued to oppress them, a system they have to manipulate to survive.  But if I’m going to be a Christian in this job, a disciple of Christ whose entire being was self-gift, then for heaven’s sake (literally), I need to do something differently.  I need to be just.

Return of the Prodigal Son - Rembrandt van RijnMy ‘poker face,’ is, of course, rooted in my desire to be professional enough not to dissolve into tears when I’m telling a mother that I’m kicking her out; but this needs to be in check with my status as a human being with just as much dignity as our guests.  The mission of the shelter is to break the cycle of homelessness for individuals and families, and guests cannot remain if they aren’t ready to work for this.  These mothers are indeed working so hard in a variety of ways: raising their kids, getting jobs, working on their GEDs, attending programming with open minds, attending counseling with open hearts; and yet in other ways, they keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again, and eventually the consequences of the poor choices become brutally clear.

But doesn’t this happen to all of us?

One of the most sweet, loving, hilarious moms at the Center, Anna, moved in right when I started my job, and she has been one of my favorite people at work.  She is open to growth, she wants to be in relationship with me, and (selfishly!) I appreciate that she looks at me like I’m a human being too.  But after literally ten incident reports for the exact same mistake, after asking her to write an essay about how she will change and then watching her forget to do it (twice), after countless apologies that didn’t seem to lead to change, I decided with our team that she might only learn from one thing: she would have to be asked to leave for awhile.  She knew, and we knew, that she needed a reality check.

But as we considered this choice, and what it would take for her to learn and grow, and how to help her be the person she is called to be, I couldn’t help but wonder: is this justice?

Is it ever really just to kick a mother and her children out of a shelter?  Is it just for the mom, for the kids, for the community?  On the other hand, is it just to let her stay, when I could see that she was slipping through the cracks of her own mistakes and thus that I was not helping her to grow?  This couldn’t possibly be mercy either, could it?

But I held back my tears when I told her she had to go.  We had started the meeting joking around, as we do the instant we see one another.  She had told me she was so tired from her new job that she wanted to call me just to hear my voice.  She had saved notes from me teasing her, and loves to repeat these stories to me and to anyone who will listen.  But there we were; the meeting ended with her in tears, telling me she had no where to go, that she was sorry, and couldn’t there be another way?

Walking on Water iconGod showers mercy upon me day after day after day, and with Him, there is always another way, another chance.  Despite all my mistakes and sin—mistakes I, too, make over and over again, just like Anna, God gives me another chance.  Thomas Merton called God “mercy within mercy within mercy.”  Our sins are said to be just a drop in the ocean of God’s love for us, so immense is His mercy.

After all, God is Mercy and God is Justice.  God saves us from our sins while also separating the sheep from the goats.  God lets me confess my same sins over and over again and yet calls me to something more.  If justice is “right relationship,” God’s justice is embodied in the Trinity as a dance of love.  God’s mercy is deeper and more profound than I ever knew, wild and radical enough that He would send His Son to the Cross.  His very being redefines mercy and justice, and helps me to re-think the way I go through the day, given so many important decisions to make.

After just a year in my humbling work, I’ve learned that justice and mercy are not just questions.  They also unfold before my very eyes as I walk the corridors of the homeless center.  In my office today I overheard a mom go out of her way to help out our newest resident: that’s justice; that’s right relationship.  I wind my way through mat after mat of sleeping overflow guests when I work late, perhaps the people most bruised by our unjust social system, finally given a warm place to rest their heads.  I get notes in my box from staff praising my more angry residents for resolving fights on their own, and even saying sorry.  Justice.

Maybe mercy is giving a guest the cup of coffee I brought in for myself just because I know she would like it.  Or looking her right in the eye when I ask her how she’s doing.  Or whispering to her three-year-old to give Mom a hug because she’s crying.  Or pasting up that same child’s red and yellow crayon drawing on my door to make him smile.  Or asking the guests for advice to show them they have value—and because I truly do need them while they need me.

My job is teaching me so much about what it means to love people well.  Like a good parent, I need to know when to challenge and when to hug.  I need to know that consequences do teach lessons, but so does compassion.  I need to work for a just society even within our walls, and I need to imitate the abundance of God’s mercy in every encounter with a guest.

Anna reminded me today, as we stood in the parking lot catching up with each other, that the day I told her she had to leave was a day she really realized how much I care about her.  And this usually isn’t so—most of the time, I’m considered… a lot of words I can’t publish here, and I have to accept that.  But I know in my heart that I have prayed, that I have consulted experts, and that I would never intentionally hurt someone I love as much as I love our guests.  I have to trust in my own ability to harness the mercy God showers on me in order to shower it on others.

God is the one who is ultimately offering mercy and justice to homeless mothers, and all the people in our lives, through our unworthy hands and feet…and even, perhaps, a good poker face.

Planting Seeds: Summer of Secret Spiritual Growth


Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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I read in a novel once a parable about moso, or Chinese bamboo. Apparently, during its first four years of existence, this particular bamboo exhibits no visible signs of growth, yet in the fifth year, its shoots grow at incredible rates, reaching upwards of 90 feet (9 stories) in as little as 6 weeks. This seemingly impossible growth spurt takes place because of the expansive root structure that was established during those first four years, when nothing appeared to be happening above the surface. Chinese Bamboo TreeAs hokey as the analogy might be, I’d like to posit that, for me at least, this summer has been one of underground growth. The rare-ish blog posts of the past 6 weeks might lead our readers to think that not a whole lot has been happening here at the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, but a glance beneath the surface of what’s visible online reveals that the opposite has been the case.

June brought our annual summer Symposium, entitled Beloved Children, Imitators of God: Deification and the Sacraments of Initiation. Over a span of three and a half days, we gathered with over 100 clergy, religious, lay ecclesial ministers, and theology students from around the world to pray, listen to speakers, and engage in discussion about the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. Among many other things, we learned from Professor Kim Belcher about the significance of naming: how Christian initiation is not about establishing one’s own identity by giving the giving of a name, but rather, allowing ourselves to be named—to be bestowed with a new identity in Christ through the Spirit—to be called, claimed, and named by God as his own beloved children, caught up in the very life of Father, Son, and Spirit. BaptismofJesusWe learned from Professor Max Johnson about various images of Baptism, and the meanings contained within them, particularly Baptism as a participation in the death and burial of Christ (Rom 6:3-11). Moreover, we learned the implications for Christian life carried forward by these images: if the Christian truly believes that he or she has died with Christ by Baptism, then there is nothing to fear or to lose in this earthly life. Death cannot threaten the Christian, for the Christian has already died with Christ; therefore, the Christian has nothing to lose by risking all to serve the Church in love. With each presentation, each time of prayer, each conversation, seeds were being planted—seeds nourished by the very waters of Baptism that continue to well up for eternal life within the hearts of the faithful (cf. Jn 4:14).

Just one week following our Symposium, another group gathered here at Notre Dame for prayer and conversation: the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. We at the Center for Liturgy had the honor of assisting with the liturgical prayer for this gathering, and as well as the opportunity to attend the conference sessions themselves. Wondrous Fear imageFor several days, the SSCS explored the idea of “Wondrous Fear and Holy Awe” as it pertains to the life of prayer and worship. Identifying certain negative connotations associated with fear from a modern perspective, as well as earlier more positive connotations associated with “fear of the Lord”, the Society explored the possibility for a return to this more ancient understanding of “fear” as right relationship with God—a holy fear in which the creature stands in humble awe before the Creator. Presentations encompassed many topics including art, poetry, music, and mysticism, and the sheer variety of these presentations planted new seeds of possibility—new ways in which a person might discover, nourish, and cultivate a more reverent, awe-filled relationship with God.

So many seeds scattered by God’s gracious hand, in a span of only two weeks.
And God didn’t stop there.

Among many other things, Tim has been hard at work this past month in his ministry to the Notre Dame Vision program, as well as helping to facilitate a Summer Spirituality Series on campus, where he and others introduced participants to the spiritual thought of John and Charles Wesley, John Donne, and John Cardinal Newman. For me, July brought an unique episode of significant spiritual growth (albeit hidden growth), when I found myself back in a classroom setting as a student for the first time in nearly 5 years. The class: Christian Doctrine for Catechists. The professor: none other than John C. Cavadini, Ph.D., Director of the Institute for Church Life. Let’s just say there were a few nerves about jumping back into the swimming pool of coursework (to say nothing of the slightly intimidating fact that my boss was now my teacher). As it turns out, I needn’t have been worried. God scattered seeds of grace open-handed from the first day, and all I had to do was listen and receive. And type my notes as quickly as humanly possible so as not to miss anything. The curriculum primarily covered the first two pillars of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. When class began, I equated my knowledge of this material to a movie that I’d seen on tv several times, but always happened to catch in the same spot—I knew the basic premise, characters, significant plot points, but I’d never actually sat down to watch the whole movie start to finish.

CatechismSpoiler alert: reading the Catechism intentionally and attentively is like watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy start to finish for the first time (feel free to substitute your own favorite game-changing film here). It is eye-opening, paradigm-shifting, heart-expanding truth, goodness, and beauty. The Catechism is a treasure-trove of excerpts from Scripture, Church Fathers, ecumenical councils, and saints’ writings—all compiled and arranged in order to articulate the mysteries of Catholic doctrine in a clear and accessible way. Engaging this material with an eye toward the narrative of the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery, in a word—toward love, has profoundly shaped my understanding of the faith into which I was baptized as an infant. If nothing else, reading, studying, contemplating the Catechism has formed me in what Professor Cavadini termed the “apologetics of love,” and to my amazement, this is becoming the lens through which I am more frequently looking at the world. I went into the class hoping to gain a more thorough understanding of what Catholic doctrine is; I came away from it having gained a more profound love for Christ and His Church.

The Catholic faith, the Catholic Church, is born entirely of love—the love of the Son for the Father in the Spirit—and we, the baptized, have been caught up in that love and made into new creations. Through the sacraments of initiation, we have been adopted as ‘beloved children’ and are called to be ‘imitators of God’ by cultivating a spirit of ‘wondrous fear and holy awe’ in the face of our Creator, who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and send his Son as expiation for our sins. We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in [them]” (1 Jn 4:10, 16).

The Sower (1888) - Vincent Van GoghAs the end of summer fast approaches, I look back on the weeks that have transpired since my last blog post and marvel at what has taken place on campus and within my own heart. I hope that our radio silence in the blogosphere (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?) is indicative of the fact that we have not only been working hard here at Our Lady’s University, but more importantly, that we have been striving to allow God to be at work in us. Most of all, I pray that the bamboo will begin to sprout and grow sky-high in the weeks ahead—that the time to come will begin to show forth the fruit of all of the seeds so graciously scattered and lovingly nourished by God throughout this summer.