I vividly remember the first time I read a poem by Jessica Powers. It was while I was making use of the time on a flight home by investigating a complimentary copy of a spiritual magazine I had brought along to see if it was worth a future subscription. The issue highlighted her poetry, and I ended up spending the entire flight on a single work, The Garments of God. I have always enjoyed poetry, but rarely have I been as captivated by any one piece of writing as I was by this poem. The Garments of God still stirs my soul, though I have to admit that much of her poetry has that effect. That one, however, will always remain special. Why I have chosen to reflect upon some of her work now is that a frequent theme in Powers’ poetry is God’s mercy. It is appropriate as we celebrate the Jubilee Year of Mercy, a time when we should be reflecting upon mercy and its place in our lives. It is not only through the gospels, but also through the writings of holy men and women that we learn that mercy is something both offered to us, and to which we must cling, even if feebly.
Jessica Powers was a successful writer who entered religious life when she was in her late 30’s. She lived as a Carmelite nun, known as Sr. Miriam of the Holy Spirit, until her death at 83.* All of her poetry attests to a deep immersion into the heart of Jesus. One of her poems, Repairer of Fences, is based upon a passage of Scripture (Isaiah 58:12) which obviously touched her deeply.** There is a line in that poem which leaps out and speaks of mercy: “Fumbler and fool that I am, with things around me of fragile make like souls, how I am blessed to hear behind me footsteps of a Savior!” Seemingly with a sigh of gratitude, she acknowledges that no matter how fragile we are the Savior is not far off. Her point is very astute and quite important: we must acknowledge that indeed all people are fragile, and that God is well aware that He made us, and therefore our world, this way. We could ponder (and even get stuck on) the question of why a perfect God would make everything this way. But I think that would be a futile pursuit. Instead, as Jessica Powers seems to encourage, rather than tarrying over why God did something which is complex and beyond our understanding, we should reflect upon the mercy of God who is ‘behind us,’ accompanying us on our journey. I do not think God dwells on our imperfection, but rather is focused on how much He loves us. We are the ones who get caught up in our perceptions of our own weakness and therefore lose focus on the great gift of mercy offered to us. It is not that our sin is unimportant: we should be aware of it and be sorrowful for it. But the point is that we should not get so caught up in the knowledge of how imperfect we are that we lose sight of the unfathomable depth of mercy into which we are immersed. We should never fear to approach God in asking for help or forgiveness.
One thing we observe in the gospels is that in every encounter Jesus had during His ministry, He was focused on the healing of a person, not on their affliction, whether spiritual or physical. His eyes were on the person, not the infirmity; He welcomed people and did not focus upon their lack. Jesus proclaimed “glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and a year acceptable to the Lord.” (Slight paraphrase of Luke 4:18-19) He certainly knew the world into which He entered not only because He was fully human, but also because of His oneness with the Father, the Creator of the Universe. He did not look down upon that which He had created, nor did He judge those of us who, as Powers put it, are ‘fumblers and fools.’
When Jesus approached someone, He did so with the tenderest mercy. If it was a man born blind, a woman with a flow of blood, or a leper who probably smelled bad, Jesus brought the freedom from sickness which they sought. If he came upon a dreadfully corrupt tax collector, a possessed man, or an adulterous woman, He would set them free from the burden of their sin. But instead of berating them for their previous behaviors, He would simply say to sin no more. He knew that maybe some of them would not be able to be as strong as they wanted to be, but He also knew that after such a loving encounter, they would be forever changed. His mercy would not make them perfect, but it would help them to fight the temptation to self-loathing or self-recrimination, and instead move them toward the goodness that He saw in them. They would know that they were loved not for what they did or did not do, but for who they were and for whose they were as children of God. The footsteps of Jesus were indeed behind them, giving them courage to try to live a renewed life with God. But we can be assured that not one of them became perfect, nor did the healing mercy of Jesus expect this of them.
We are meant to focus on the presence of Jesus who accompanies us throughout our lives. As Jessica Powers points out in her poetry, we are blessed to hear the footsteps of Jesus behind us. He is not watching to see if we fail or to keep tabs on our sinfulness. Rather, He is there to offer mercy when we need things to be repaired in our lives. He offers graces to us that help us to deal with our own imperfection and for us to grow in holiness. He is there to build up, not to tear down. What makes God’s mercy so amazing, however, is that Jesus does not just offer it to those who approach Him, but He offers it to everyone. In the gospels we can see that He brought it to His enemies and detractors continually, even when He seemed to have lost His patience with them, such as when He overturned tables in the Temple. He wanted the blind Pharisees to have new insight in which to see that their behavior was not merciful toward the poor, and that they were arrogant toward those to whom they were meant to be an example. Jesus was merciful with the people who gathered around His cross yelling slurs and abusive comments at Him, asking His Father to forgive them because “they know not what they do.” Jesus made His entire life about mercy and the acceptance of our imperfection. He did not condone sin, but He opened His heart to forgiving it without end.
Just as Jesus offers mercy to His people, so too are we called to be people of mercy. Through Baptism He anointed us to also proclaim liberty to captives and to help those who are blind to His ways. We are called to help the oppressed go free in whatever way we can. This might be through helping someone to get needed care in battling addiction, or to help someone who thinks they are unlovable to know they are indeed loved. It might be in aiding one who is captive to a habit, a toxic relationship, poverty, neglect, sickness, or injustice, to find the care they need. Possibly it is to simply sit with someone from time to time, letting them know they are important to you and that they are not forgotten because of their imperfections. As Jessica Powers put it, we are all fumbling, surrounded by our own fragility and that of those around us; but Jesus is always near. Perhaps part of our call is to help others hear the footsteps of the Lord, especially those who have been unable to perceive them. Or perhaps we are the ones who need to recognize that Jesus never abandons us though we fumble and are often fools. It is only if we try to cling to the ‘voluminous robes of His mercy’ (The Garments of God) that we can know the love He offers us. And if we can clutch His robes, we can reach out and take the hand of another, helping them to grab ahold of the fabric of His love, too.
May we trust the power of God’s mercy! May we approach God, grasping the ‘voluminous robes of His mercy’ when we are suffering or feeling lost! May we be beacons of that same mercy and love to those who are unaware that they too are loved in this way! May we have the awareness of the footsteps of Jesus behind us! May we be filled with gratitude for the mercy and love of God! And may we continue to desire to grow in holiness, focusing not on our sin, but on the invitation into God’s mercy, seeing ourselves as He does! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of our Merciful Savior! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* There is not much on the internet which I could find that was helpful as to the biography of Jessica Powers. Here is one link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessica_Powers. However the best biography I know of is in the book of her poetry, of which I have a well-worn copy. It is called Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers, edited by Regina Siegfried and Robert Morneau.
** Here are links to each of the two poems I quoted. The text of The Garments of God can be found at https://alifegivinglent.wordpress.com/the-garments-of-god/
The text of Repairer of Fences can be found at http://www.philipchircop.com/post/44312711499/repairer-of-fences.
The first image is an inset of God the Father which is part of a larger icon, She Who Reigns, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. The image of God the Father is brilliantly painted, and is one of my favorite versions of God the Father. You might notice that Fr. Bill modeled the Father on the one done by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. The entire icon can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/she-who-reigns-276-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Next is one of my own photos. It was taken in South Dakota. I chose it because it represents life in the midst of an unexpected place; life thrives even in the desert when we can hear the footsteps of a Savior behind us.
Next is an image, also by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It is called The Galilean Jesus. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-galilean-jesus-266-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Following Jesus is another of my photos, taken on a path on Copper Mountain in Colorado.
Last is a mosaic of Jesus encountering the hemorrhaging woman who reached out and touched His robes. The Mosaic is found in The Cathedral of Monreale, in Monreale, Sicily.
Heart Speaks to Heart