Psalm 51: A Contrite Spirit

Tuesday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

June 16, 2020

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 51, the Miserere. Perhaps the most recognized of the penitential psalms, it is said to have been written by David after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. ( although it more likely was written separately and applied to David’s situation later.)

This psalm is so rich in deep spiritual psychology that it would be a shame to dismiss it simply as a “confessional”. The psalm truly teaches us how our soul’s vigor and wholeness may be restored in an environment of sin where we are often both consciously and unconsciously complicit.

Let me give an example of how I see this. Last night in my city, a group of protesters gathered around a statue of Christopher Columbus, supposedly, “to protect it” from dismantling by “them”. Many in the group carried clubs and bats; a few carried military-style weapons. All of the “defenders” were white, angry, and mostly men.

I ask myself what were they really there to do. What did they really feel they had to defend? Did their violent public intimidation scream out, “We love Christopher Columbus!”? Or did it shout, “We refuse to acknowledge that our heritage is laced with racism and sinful domination!”?

For me, this is the kind of sinful circumstance which Psalm 51 can help us redeem. We may not act out our culpable ignorance, violence, defensiveness, or racism like last night’s threatening mob. But we must examine what we retain of these sins in our choices, attitudes, speech, and complicit silence.

How does Psalm 51 guide us to that kind of redemption?

First, there is a broken-hearted recognition of failure in holding up our end of relationship with God. Because, as David acknowledges, it is God whom we ultimately offend in our crassness toward one another. It’s not about only one sinful act, like the list we made before our grade school confessions. It’s about a fissure in love, honesty, and loyalty to the One who gives us all life.

Second, there is confession – saying out loud the failure that has replaced love. My favorite Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, describes it as Truth-telling:

Psalm 51 makes available the truth of our life before God. On the one hand, it resists arrogant autonomy that imagines (with David) that we can live without accountability or dependence on the will and purpose of God. On the other hand, it contradicts the practice of denial that is so seductive in a society that has no time, patience, or energy for the nurture of an interior life. It turns out that truth-telling before God is an indispensable condition for joyous existence. Such emancipation makes for exuberant singing and glad generosity. (Walter Brueggemann: From Whom No Secrets are Hid)

Third, and most important because it is woven through and sustains the other two, is the immovable confidence in God’s mercy and God’s desire to give it.

For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it;
a burnt offering you would not accept.

My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.

Psalm 51 is a big one. If you have time, read the whole thing reflectively. It’s good medicine once we have the courage to swallow it.

Poetry: To Live in the Mercy of God – Denise Levertov

To lie back under the tallest
oldest trees. How far the stems
rise, rise
               before ribs of shelter

To live in the mercy of God. The complete
sentence too adequate, has no give.
Awe, not comfort. Stone, elbows of
stony wood beneath lenient
moss bed.

And awe suddenly
passing beyond itself. Becomes
a form of comfort.
                      Becomes the steady
air you glide on, arms
stretched like the wings of flying foxes.
To hear the multiple silence
of trees, the rainy
forest depths of their listening.

To float, upheld,
                as salt water
                would hold you,
                                        once you dared.

 To live in the mercy of God.

To feel vibrate the enraptured
waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
                              to clenched fists of rock.

Swiftness of plunge,
hour after year after century,
                                                   O or Ah
uninterrupted, voice
                              To breathe
spray. The smoke of it.
of steelwhite foam, glissades
of fugitive jade barely perceptible. Such passion—
rage or joy?

                              Thus, not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world. Vast
flood of mercy
                      flung on resistance.

Music: Miserere Mei Deus – Gregorio Allegri 

Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

November 10, 2019

Click here for readings

Today, in Mercy, one theme threaded through our readings is that of “The Law”. “Law” is a frustratingly elastic word and concept which runs the gamut from tyranny to benevolent guidance depending on who administers it.

2thess3_5 scale

In both our first reading and our Gospel, we find people trying to curtail the freedom of others by invoking the Law. In 2 Maccabees, King Antiochus attempts to incorporate the Jewish people by fracturing their religious practice, that which identifies and unites them as Jews. On the surface, the story seems to be about eating pork, and one might wonder if that resistance is worth dying for.

But the real conflict is between tyrannical domination and spiritual freedom, between “Empire” and “Kingdom” – a struggle we have seen endlessly repeated through history and current events.

When “law” is interpreted to advantage some and suppress others, it is no longer law. The essence of law is always the wise administration of mercy balanced with justice. The understanding of such law grows from covenanted relationship with the Creator who wills the good and wholeness of all Creatures.

In today’s Gospel, some Sadducees (perhaps sincere, but more likely trying to trap Jesus) ask him to solve a hypothetical problem regarding marriage in the afterlife.

Jesus doesn’t bite. He explains to the questioners that eternal life transcends all their human perceptions of time, relationship and law. The earthly laws by which we either bind or free one another in this world evaporate in Heaven. Only Mercy and Justice order eternal life in the Kingdom of God.

Paul tells us that we are called to be examples of that eternal kingdom now. He knows how hard it is, and so he blesses us:

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father,

who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement

and good hope through his grace,

encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed

and word.

May God’s law of love be deepened in is so that we – like the Maccabees, like Jesus – will have the courage and strength to live it in a sometimes hostile world.

Music: The Law of the Lord is Perfect

Hard Oranges

Friday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

August 16, 2019

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Today, in Mercy, our readings remind me of hard oranges, difficult to squeeze juice from!

We have in this passage from Deuteronomy part of Joshua’s farewell speech before he dies. He has accomplished what Moses could not – Joshua has brought the people into the Promised Land. In these verses, he recounts God’s faithful presence to Israel through all the years of struggle.

The spiritual message of the segment is clear: God loves us specially and faithfully, and we should love God in the same way.

What makes the passage difficult are the enduring political and justice issues inherent in it. The Israelites gain this land by war and the displacement of resident people. They consider that success a sign of God’s favor.

Many passages in the Bible, particularly the Hebrew Scriptures, reflect a similar process. The community looks back over its successes and failures, interpreting them in the light of God’s faithfulness.

In our spiritual journey, we too are called to be reflective and grateful as we look back at our lives. But we are also called to a further essential step not clearly reflected in today’s reading.

We are called to change our hearts, to become merciful, to welcome strangers, to lay down the “sword” of conflict. Jesus calls us to a whole new understanding of God’s fidelity and favor.

This dichotomy comes to its full expression with Jesus. He was expected to be the regal and militant deliverer. Instead, he comes as a Lamb – meek and humble of heart – who dies for our sins.

As redeemed Christians, then, when we look at our lives for God’s Presence, we should find it in circumstances such as those Jesus gave us in the Beatitudes: humility, compassion, meekness, right relationship, mercy, holy sincerity, peace, courageous fidelity, Christian witness.

Music: Mass in B minor, Agnes Dei – Bach

Click here for music

Tenderhearted Mercy

Friday, July 6, 2018


mercy quilt

Today, in Mercy, our Gospel reading introduces Matthew, a Jewish tax collector. The setting is a dusty Galilean square, crowds bustling by after midday marketing. These are Matthew’s neighbors, and he knows them by name. He calls any tax delinquent passer-by to his customs post, bent on collecting the levies due to the Roman occupiers.

Matthew is not a popular guy. He may have gotten his government job through the influence of his father Alpheus, a man a little better off than his acquaintances. His fellow Jews may have resented Matthew’s education, economic status, and certainly his apparent complicity with a tyrannical government.

Matthew was probably treated like Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the Red Hen Restaurant.  Maybe that’s why Jesus noticed him that day.

But buried deep in Matthew was an unlit wick of messianic hope that only Jesus could discern. With the small spark of two words, “Follow me”, Jesus lit that hidden wick. And all the ensuing ages have been blessed by Matthew’s telling of the divine story!

When Jesus dined with Matthew’s other tax collector friends, the “righteous” Pharisees, entwined in their own sinful complicities, criticized Jesus for his choice of friends. Jesus makes his position clear: I did not come to call the righteous but sinners. His words imply that “the righteous” are irredeemable.

Jesus reminds us that God desires Mercy not sacrifice. Our holy words, laws, and rituals are empty if our actions impede God’s merciful love for all Creation.

We might want to sit at Matthew’s table ourselves today, and ask him to teach us more about that tender-hearted, transformative Mercy.

Music: Tender Hearted – Jeanne Cotter

God’s Mercies Are Renewed Each Morning

Saturday, June 30, 2018


Today, in Mercy, we encounter a rare -in fact, singular- reading from the Book of Lamentations. While passages from the book are used in the Lenten Tenebrae service, today is the only time we will meet Lamentations during the Mass readings.

So, let’s give it special attention.

This tenderly written and grief-filled Old Testament poem laments the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem nearly 600 years before Christ’s birth. The disaster is seen as God’s punishment against a faithless people, who have listened to false prophets. These prophets, rather than confronting the people with their sinful blindness, enabled their guilt in order to be popular and accepted.

Lament 2_13

What does Lamentations have to say to us?  What, in particular, can it teach our religious leaders about their political voice?

Many of us recognize that we live in a toxic world. Terrorism, perpetual war and militarism, rampant consumerism, political isolationism, environmental destructionism are just some of our global “Babylons”. There are numerous local and personal ones as well.

We all play some role in the fostering or impeding of these systems in our culture. A sincere and active faith helps us see our role and responsibility more clearly. We need faith leaders who are not afraid to call us to insight, lamentation, and prayerful action. We, and the political leaders we choose, need to build a world where we live in balanced relationship with God. This is a world where all God’s people live in peace, sustainability, mutuality, and freedom.

While the Book of Lamentations is filled with sadness and regret, it also contains one of the most beautiful and hopeful verses in Scripture:

Because of the Lord’s great love
we are not consumed,
for his mercies never fail.
They are renewed each morning;
So great is God’s faithfulness.
`~ Lamentations 3:22-23

Some of us may feel that our our current socio-political world is irredeemable, but Lamentations says we are wrong. Vibrant faith, active hope, and limitless courage will prove it.

Music: Great Is Thy Faithfulness

Do Not Judge

Monday, June 25, 2018


Never judge copy

Today, in Mercy, Jesus tells us not to judge. Certainly, He does not mean never to exercise good judgement. We are all called to do that.

What we need to avoid is that critical, and hypocritical, manner of dealing with people in which we think ourselves better than they. Some of us are inclined to think the worst of others and their motives, while failing to examine our own motivations.  This is the kind of judgement Jesus counsels is to avoid.

Today, we hear so much categorization and stereotyping of people. We hear people condemned for their race, economic level, and lifestyle. We hear people called “criminals” simply because of their nationality. We see people denied normal human services, like cake baking and restaurant services, because of who they love or what their job is. We live in a world where these sinful judgements are used to immobilize, isolate, and control people.

We might pray today for wisdom to be delivered from making, or being the object of such judgements.

We might pray for the generosity to give others the benefit of the doubt, without giving up our wise and honest discernment based on Christian love and mercy.

(Sorry for the late publication. Got caught up in my life today!)

Music: Jesus, Friend of Sinners by Casting Crowns


Wednesday, May 30, 2018


1 Pet1_18 ransomed

Today, in Mercy, Peter tells us that we have been ransomed at an infinite price – the blood of Jesus. And what have we been ransomed from? The early Christians were quite familiar with slavery, some having been enslaved themselves. Peter shows them that their souls too may be enslaved.

In any form, slavery is a restriction or loss of freedom. It may be physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or intellectual. It is that place where our Truth is constricted by the negativity of another force.

Peter tells us that we have been freed “so that our faith and hope are in God” and not in anything that can chain our souls. He tells us that we have been born anew so that we can love one another intensely from a pure heart.

Today, let’s pray for those, even ourselves, enslaved in any way – through illness, addiction, stereo-typing, racism, domination, poverty or ignorance; for those who are trafficked, for immigrants cruelly separated from family, for the unjustly or inhumanely imprisoned, for those forced from their homeland by war and violence.

Let us pray for conversion and forgiveness for any role we may have played, however unwittingly, in sustaining these social evils.

Music: Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s opera Nabucco. Inspired by Psalm 137, this mournful melody recalls the enslavement of Jews during the Babylonian Captivity.

Be Bread!

Friday, April 13, 2018: Today, in Mercy, Jesus multiplies the loaves and fishes. This is the only miracle, other than the Resurrection, that is recorded in all four Gospels.

Jesus teaches us, in the story of the loaves and fishes, that the ordinary bread of our lives is the stuff of miracles. What makes the difference between Stroehmann’s and the Supernatural is FAITH! When we really believe we are marked for eternal life, our whole perspective changes. It takes courage to believe, but if we can, multitudes will be nourished by our faith! You know what I’m saying. Hasn’t the faith of your ancestors nourished you and all the generations in between? Hasn’t the witness of the saints, both canonized and known only to us, anchored our souls through many a storm? Be holy bread for your world, dear friends! ( Lovely song from Joe Wise for your prayer.)


Mercy Surrounds Us

dark mercy

We exist in the infinite embrace of God’s mercy.  In mercy, we all were created.  In mercy, we all live.  In mercy, we all have the hope of eternal life.

The lavish mercy of God pours over us in every sunrise and sunset, in every noon and midnight.  With every breath, we draw on mercy.  With every thought, we capture its spirit and turn it to our hope.  The gift of such divine power in us calls us to lavish mercy with our own lives, to be agents of mercy in all things.

This journal is offered as an act of thanksgiving and celebration for that lavish mercy.  It is a gathering of reflections and prayers which sift through our ordinary experience to seek the breath-giving grace of God awaiting us there.

My name is Renee Yann. I am a Sister of Mercy.  I love to chase God through the bright blessing of words. I love to discover words in the dark blessing of silence. It is a joy to share with you the humble fruit of those mutual blessings.

Our entire theological tradition is expressed in terms of Mercy,
which I define as the willingness to enter into the chaos of others.
James F. Keenan, S.J.