“HAVE YOU COME TO DESTROY US?” (Mk 1:21-28): 15 January 2008 (Tuesday)
I saw “Dead Man Walking” almost ten years ago, but it remains one of the most powerfully moving and disturbing films I’ve ever seen. It’s about a true-to-life Louisiana nun, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), who momentarily interrupts her work with inner city children when she receives a letter from Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), a prisoner on death row for rape and murder. She visits him only to find that the prisoner is far from likable or repentant: He is rough, insolent, and is a liar. Despite all this–and to the horror of the victims’ families–Sr. Prejean campaigns against capital punishment, insisting that no one deserves to be killed–even for the most heinous crimes.
The film was a blast from the past during a conversation with a friend about the gospel reading today. A man whose unclean spirit recognizes Jesus shouts out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
That’s probably what Matthew Poncelet thought Sr. Prejean would do when she first visited him. He probably half-expected a religious sister who would condemn and “destroy” him. But instead she went there determined to campaign against his execution and to bring him to confessing to his crime and to be sorry for it. That Poncelet was unrepentant and defiant didn’t at all make it easy for Sr. Prejean, but with faith and even love, she visited regularly, talking to him, listening to him until finally, to her great relief, the hardness of his heart melted away and for the first time, he confessed to her of his crime and repented. Although she failed to save his life, she was able to save his soul. As he walked to the death chamber, she placed her hand on his shoulder and whispered, “The last thing I want you to see in this world is the face of love, so you look at me.”
This completely undeserved mercy and love–they make absolutely no sense! But that’s how God is. In another place and another time, many, many years ago, I wrote a short poem to express this same mystifying, disturbing mystery about God’s mercy:
Could something about
the hen hiding her hatch
also ache to mother
the circling shadow?
Others who read that poem said it would have to be one crazy hen to want to mother the very predator that was out to kill her chicks. But that’s exactly how crazy our God seems to be, merciful even to those hostile to him, as shown and symbolized by Sr. Prejean in the film. As a priest told me once at some confession, “God is more merciful than we can ever suspect!”
In the gospel today, the unclean spirit was so sure the Lord would destroy it, but what did Jesus do? He did not destroy it even if it certainly deserved to be destroyed. Instead the Lord commanded it to be quiet and to come out of the man it possessed. That’s it? The unclean spirit must have scampered away in bewilderment!
I’ve experienced that bewilderment many times in my life. Because of my weaknesses and my wickedness, I have often felt that I deserved to be destroyed, that any moment, the earth would be well within its rights to open up and swallow me. But against every expectation and to my great relief, the much deserved condemnation and destruction never happened.
The mystic Thomas Merton writes about his experiences in the monastery, and talks about one particular practice. Each night, a brother monk is tasked to go up to their bell tower, the highest point in the monastery, for the nightly firewatch. The firewatch is a service provided by the community to watch over the city at night and to sound the alarm should fire break out at any point during the night.
But more often than not, no fire breaks out. And for this reason, more often than not, the firewatch turns into an examination of conscience, and becomes a privileged moment of prayer as one becomes “alone with the Alone.”
Merton tells us that it was during those times alone in the bell tower, when he took his turn for the firewatch that he received some of his most powerful prayer experiences. It was there in the silence and in the dark of night, sitting among the stars, watching over the city, that he came to know the heart of God.
And what was it that he saw? What he saw was that the heart of God was not power. It was not justice. It was not glory. God is all of that, but these do not comprise his heart. Merton writes: The heart of God is “Mercy within Mercy within Mercy.”
Note; If you’re interested, watch the trailer of “Dead Man Walking” directed by Tim Robbins.