Many years ago, when my husband and I were in Germany, we were given a…
Happy the soul that has trusted in your goodness and has abandoned herself completely to your mercy. Her soul is filled with the peace of love. You defend her everywhere as your own child.
-Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska
Decades ago a Jesuit professor of mine challenged us students to “break the barrier of familiarity,” the numbness we can develop to the riches of oft-repeated phrases of Scripture, the language of the Mass, the tenets of our faith. “Mine the treasure” was his unspoken mantra. He is now with the Lord, but came to mind so compellingly at a recent parish retreat. No mistaking my beloved Father Walsh’s voice coming right through our visiting priest. I followed the nudge to take notes.
Monsignor Bill King began with the opening line of Psalm 51–“Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness”–and proceeded to decry the weakness of our English word “mercy” compared with its Hebrew counterpart, “hesed.” “Hesed”–his tone pleaded with us to absorb this–“says, ‘passionately loave me, Lord.’ It conveys not only emotion or feeling, but action on God’s part, born of his gut-twisting desire for me to open to his com-(with)-passion. The psalmist could have said, ‘Reach from your heart directly into mine because of who you are.”” Monsignor King looked longingly out at his gathered flock and added, “If I don’t have an understanding of myself by the loving heart of the Father, I have no understanding of myself.” I later learned that Father Walsh had been Monsignor King’s spiritual director once upon a time. No surprise.
The “barrier of familiarity” popped up loud and clear in my early days in the Charismatic Renewal when I’d hear, for instance, “If you were the only person in the whole world, Jesus would have died just for you.” The sentimental tone didn’t square with my “intellectual” grasp of Christianity. I hadn’t internalized “hesed,” only the idea of “hesed.” When, out of my own desperate pain, I began to understand that Jesus’ total self-giving was for me, in all its forms from life in his mother’s womb to his ascension to make intercession for me before the Father, I was stunned. All for ME. Yes, for all the “me’s” of the world, too, from the first man to the last..but for me.
I was propelled light years forward in the absolute specificity of the Father’s love for me in Jesus by an experience I had soon after our daughter Emily’s death in 2019. Emily was blessed to be attended by Monsignor John Esseff, an exorcist and true Spiritual Father if ever there was, at her Hospice bedside. Monsignor had the gift of reading souls, and “seeing” the lifetime of suffering she had lived, proclaimed with deep joy, “I have it on interior authority. Emily has been on the cross with Jesus her whole life, and she will have no purgatory. You have a saint.” Through our tears we were enthralled. Several days after her funeral Mass, crowds gone and quiet prevailing, I was sitting in prayer. I am not one given to “hearing words,” but there was no mistaking these extraordinary ones, coming so unbidden. “Emily is not in some generic glory bubble, beautiful as that might be, but every specific agony she endured is being met with its own specific ecstasy.” I was floored–and elated beyond belief.
No words for this stunning revelation of how particularly tailored to each one of our hearts is the salvation won for us in Christ! To use the vernacular, “duh” permeated my whole spiritual world. Gone was the barrier of familiarity the next time I sang, “You know my heart and its ways…you who formed me before I was born” (Ps.139). Of course He knows my heart–He dwells within it and is closer to its every nuanced movement than I am! His gut-wrenching, action-taking hesed poured out for me on the cross is particular for every crack and crevice of my soul. Every blindness, every vanity, every fear, every shame, every anguish, every yearning–there is no place I can go where His hesed doesn’t meet me, where His rising doesn’t promise a glory particular to those impoverished places. His salvation meeting my need perfectly, His hesed love helplessly hurling itself down to me… The shortcut sum of the Theology of the Body struck me anew: God wants to marry me. I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine.
How often as a hospital chaplain I prayed Psalm 23 with the dying and their families. Ever comforting, ever familiar–but often “beige” to me, as Bishop Robert Barron would say. Lately–talk about gut-twisting–facing the wrenching move from our beloved family home has blown the “barrier of familiarity” from Psalm 23’s every word. This lovely, gracious, spacious, welcoming, old (1905) gem has been solace for the huge “family” God extended from our own. What green pastures could he be preparing for my heart? He knows exactly what thrills it. To what restful waters is he leading me? They won’t be quite what satisfies any other heart but mine. What sight could possibly console and thrill like the redbud we planted years ago, so poignantly entrancing this last spring here?! The shadow of the valley of death seems real. Exactly how do you carry that rod and staff to give me courage? You will surely situate them at my side as we sign the contract this week.
Then comes the clincher, You spread a table for me in the presence of my foes… Oh yes, the foes. Present and accounted for. Voices niggling from the sidelines–“how can anything that feels like home happen on your budget in this inflation?”…”what if you’re to be stripped of all the beauty that anchors your heart?”…”will I have a new sidekick—covetousness of friends who remain secure in their homes?” Despite the chorus of spiritual antidotes, fear can grip. But hesed’s gut-wrench meets mine: “turn away from the foes. Behold the table–rich, juicy fare, corresponding exquisitely to all the known and unknown hungers of your heart. I know that heart and its ways–I created it exactly so, to give me glory. The Feast where I have spread the table is abandonment–utter surrender to the Fare: your Bridegroom in the Eucharist. Lose yourself in my Beauty, keep your eyes on the prize, and only goodness and kindness will follow you all the days of your life.
St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, writing to her friend Madame Marie Angles, urges her to “Launch your soul upon the waves of confidence and abandonment; remember that whatever troubles or frightens you does not come from the good God because He is the ‘Prince of Peace,’ the peace which He has promised to those of good will. He wants you to go out of yourself, to give up all that preoccupies you, in order to withdraw into into the solitude He has chosen as His dwelling place in the depths of your heart. He is waiting for you and wants to establish a ‘wonderful exchange’ with you…the intimacy between bride and Bridegroom. Through this continual contact with you, He can deliver you from your weaknesses, your faults, from all that troubles you….you must believe that He never changes; that in His care for you He is always bending over you, longing to bear you away and establish you within Himself…we shall never be purified by looking at our own misery, but by gazing on Him who is purity and holiness itself.”
Dear Jesus, in your passionate MERCY, you act. Your right hand is raised in blessing for my circumstances, your left opens your cloak to reveal a heart constant in its outpouring for my need, your feet are on the move toward me. Your hesed is not general, but entirely specific. Even so, without you I can do nothing. Keep my eyes fixed on you, my Lord and my God.
Copyright 2023, Bonnie West