Channels of the Divine Mercy
Third Day of the Novena in Honour of St. Anne (St. Anne’s Church, Hamilton, Ontario) Channels of the Divine Mercy

What I want is mercy, not sacrifice

I used to teach at an all boys school in Toronto. It’s quite an experience being in a school of all boys, no girls. I have come to see that girls have a civilizing influence on boys. Those were very memorable years. I had a few students with mental health issues. I recall one student in particular telling me how excited he was that the Columbine shooting took place and how this is just the kind of thing he would love to be a part of. I remember a real emptiness in his eyes, the first time I met him. But he joined my chess club that I had going at the time, and the following year he was in my philosophy class. I eventually learned that he was under the care of a psychiatrist.

He would ask questions that were very bizarre. He had theories about reality that were terribly outlandish, and I had to do my very best to give his questions an appearance of respectability; I had to make them appear as if they were really insightful questions, to keep him in the best light possible for the other students. And I had to work to keep the class on task and not get side tracked by some of the outlandish questions and speculations. It was a real juggling act.

I developed a good relationship with this student, who had no father at home. He attempted suicide one New Years eve, jumping off a parking garage in New York City. He spent months in a hospital down there and months in Sunnybrook up here. He told me that when he jumped at midnight, as the ball dropped in Times Square, he landed, broke so many bones in his body, couldn’t move, but he said there was an old man sitting down nearby, and so he called out “help, help”, but the old man just walked up to him and said: “You just lie there and think about what you’ve done”. And then he returns to his place and sits back down. I often wonder: “Was that an angel?” Well, the garbage collectors discovered him that morning and called an ambulance.

He was somewhat different after that, much happier, I’d say. We kept in touch after I had left that school, he’d call me once in a while, and some of those conversations were as bizarre and strange as strange could be, his theories about God, who God is, what good and evil is, etc.

In any case, it was 2005 and I was at a new school, and it was a Friday evening in October. I was sitting at my desk and literally there was nothing for me to do, which is very rare for me. So I sat there, thinking, who can I call? And I realized that I hadn’t heard from Allan in quite a while, so I looked up his number and called him. A man answered, who sounded drunk. So I said: “Is Allan there?” “Who?” “Allan” “Allan’s dead”, the man said. All sorts of thoughts went through my head. Did he commit suicide? I wondered. He said he was killed in a car accident with his mother. So I looked it up on the Internet, and there was his picture in the Star. He and his mother had been killed by a drunk driver. The driver was trying to pass him, but he veered back into the lane, clipping the bumper, sending the car into a tailspin, and my former student was T-boned by an oncoming vehicle. He was killed instantly, and so was his mother, who was driving the vehicle. Everyone else in the backseat was seriously injured.

And providentially enough, the very Sunday of that weekend that I called, the Star ran a front page story on his death and that was the first day of a week long series that the Star ran on drunk driving, and every day it featured an aspect of this story of my former student’s death and the suffering it caused the extended family.

I began to reflect upon my purpose with this student. I began to wonder why he was in my philosophy class. God knew from all eternity that his life would be short lived, that he wasn’t going to live past the age of 21. What was our purpose with regard to this particular student? Why did God place him in my class? Did God really want him to learn about the history of philosophy? Did God really want him to learn calculus so that he can become a successful engineer? No, not at all. God knew he wouldn’t live past the age of 21.

Now I can’t answer that question for any other teacher, but I can certainly reflect upon what his presence in my classroom meant for me, or should have meant for me, whether I was aware of it at the time or not. The Lord put him in my classroom not primarily for the sake of learning a curriculum. There’s no doubt that in this light, curriculum was secondary. The only answer I could come up with is that the Lord, in placing him in my classroom, was calling me to something more fundamental, more primary, and that was to be a channel of His mercy. My vocation is first and foremost to be a channel of the divine mercy. The classroom is the context in which that occurs, the curriculum is a vehicle in some way, and it’s an important vehicle, but it is secondary. And it was that one death that enabled me to see something that witnessing hordes of students going off to university was not able to help me see.

If I am not a channel of the divine mercy, then everything I impart to my students ultimately has no meaning, because the knowledge I impart dies along with the student the moment that student dies. Everything in this life, if it is to have any ultimate and eternal significance, has to be a vehicle that serves an eternal end, an eternal purpose. Our purpose here is to be channels of the divine mercy, and the spiritual life is all about becoming more and more fully disposed to being used by God for that end. All religious laws and observances, if they are to have any meaning at all, are merely a means to that one end, which is to become living vessels of God’s absolute mercy.

Then life becomes meaningful. It is only then that being a classroom teacher becomes meaningful, being a carpenter becomes truly meaningful, being a chef becomes genuinely meaningful, being a janitor becomes genuinely meaningful, being a nurse becomes truly meaningful. In his Memoirs from the House of the Dead, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote: “For loving-kindness, gentleness, human sympathy, are often more important to the patient than any medicine.”

But I cannot be a channel of the divine mercy unless I know that mercy, unless I’ve tasted it, unless I’ve been lifted up and transformed by it. The Latin word for mercy is misericordia: the heart of God touching our misery. The central mystery of the Christian faith is that the Second Person of the Trinity, the eternal Son of the Father, joined a human nature precisely in order to enter into human misery, to join himself to human suffering, so that in our suffering we would encounter a presence, a divine and eternal presence.

This past Christmas, December 23rd, the very last day of school before the Christmas holidays, I came down with a serious illness. It is still a mystery. Doctors could not figure out what it was. I went right home after classes ended, did not stay for a Christmas social, just went to bed, and things got progressively worse. I was in emergency on Boxing Day. I had to spend Christmas alone, without my family. I simply could not get myself out of bed. I had to be put on prednisone. Doctors thought I had polymyalgia rheumatica, but thankfully it was not that. They don’t know what it was, but it took a few weeks before I started to see light at the end of the tunnel.

But although it was probably one of the most painful illness I had experienced—my hands were in pain, my arms, my head, then it all moved into my legs, I had chills constantly—what I noticed is that in the darkness of that suffering, I wasn’t lonely. I wasn’t alone. There was a light, a very real presence, in the very depths of that darkness. My body was aching, but I was not lonely.

It was a difficult time spiritually, because I had to battle against temptations to despair. No one knew what this illness was or if it would come to an end. I didn’t know whether I’d be returning to the classroom.

I remember speaking about this with my spiritual director, Father Frank Kelly, a Salesian of Don Bosco, and he said to me: “As a teacher, you are in control, and when you preach as a Deacon, you are in control. But now you are not in control. You just have to say “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit”. Now of course, that’s something I’ve known all along, up here (in the head), but when he said it then, it struck me. I said, of course. If the Lord wills that I spend the rest of my life in a wheel chair, then so be it. Let it be done to me according to thy word. Into your hands I commend my spirit. That night I had the best sleep. It was a profoundly joyful sleep, although my body was still in a lot of pain. It was shortly thereafter that I began to heal and was able to return to the classroom.

But what I found striking was the experience of the very heart of God in the depths of my own misery. The eternal Person of the Son entered into the worst of human suffering, both physical and mental suffering, and because He is an eternal Person, His presence within human darkness encompasses every moment of time. If Jesus were a mere human being, he would not be present in our suffering, but because He is divine, both God and man, the union of divine light and human darkness has changed the meaning of suffering forever.

And that’s why there is never any need to fear suffering. It is in suffering that we taste the mercy of God, the heart of God that descends to keep us company in the midst of our darkness, and because He suffered, he gives us the honor of keeping him company in his suffering. Once we’re touched by that mercy, once we’ve tasted it, we want nothing else than to channel that mercy to others. Amen.

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