Reflection: Making Mercy

“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.”   Ezekiel 36:26

They were not words I expected out of the mouth of an ex-nun. That’s why I wrote them down.

This COVID era calls me to reflect on meaningful meals I’ve enjoyed over the years. Moments of good food and great company. (Or sometimes just great company and mediocre food—it’s the company that makes it memorable.)

So January 13, 2016, my friend swung through town and called to see if a last-minute dinner was possible. Since she now lived in Kenya, I only see her about every five years. Since she was in her late 70s, simple math predicted our remaining meals together were limited. So, of course.

Dinner happened at a local Italian restaurant, and she gave me a recap of her life story.

Early adulthood was spent living out her vocation as a nun. But strange things happen. Unexpectedly and serendipitously—in her 50s—she fell in love and married. She had ten beautiful years with her beloved. “That was a special season,” she recalled with a sparkle in her eye.

Yet life is full of cruel ironies. "When my husband was diagnosed with cancer, we knew we only had two years left together. Miraculously we got four. I did hospice care for him in the end.”

Now I always imagined her decades of convent living, silent retreats and rosary beads might temper the tongue. Apparently not. My friend speaks honestly and colorfully. She’s been known to make me blush.

“One day, when he had withered down to less than 100 pounds,” she said, “I had just finished changing his diaper and I noticed he was crying.”

“Why are you crying?”
“You shouldn't have to do this,” he responded quietly. “I just feel bad you have to see me like this.”

And then the words I wrote down.

“So I kissed his bony ass, looked him in the eyes and said, ‘This is how we make love at this stage of our lives.’ ”

My cheeks reddened to match my marinara sauce. But that night her free-speaking truthfulness schooled me on what making love looks like for those who’ve cultivated a merciful heart. It is presence, patience, humility, and compassionate love when all the glitter is stripped away and the only thing remaining is a promise. Making love means changing diapers.

Anne Lamott writes, “I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and the human: the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I’m starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”

I think we’re all starving for mercy in a world that accentuates differences, celebrates convenience, and worships celebrity. Despite this opposition God offers a different path forward. “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” New hearts. A new spirit. This sounds really hopeful.

The year after her husband’s death was difficult for my friend—lots of tears and days when getting out of bed was near impossible. But as she gazed in the mirror one day, that “new spirit” ignited. She again saw herself as a woman with a heart full of merciful love.

So at the ripe age of 68, she jumped on her first international flight, headed for Nairobi and spent a year loving babies with HIV. New roots were planted in a new place, and I’ve witnessed the writing of one of the most fruitful final chapters of a life. That heart—broken, softened and opened in the crucible of watching the love of your life wither away—is now shared with orphan girls who lapped up mercy like hungry kittens around a saucer of milk.

That’s a story for another day. Today I’m just asking Christ to carry me a little closer to this kind of love.