Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent for many Christians. While we tend to focus on sacrifice — “giving up” candy or alcohol or whatever it is we’ve chosen — there is also an aspect of service. Sacrificing our time and thinking about the people we sometimes forget can make all the difference for a successful Lent, from a spiritual point of view. Kerry Weber is author of the new book, Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job, and helps with this. She took some practical questions – including about her time in prison — in anticipation for Lent.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What is mercy, exactly, and what makes you an expert on it?
KERRY WEBER: A lot of times we think of mercy as a single act that we bestow upon someone. But I think mercy is meant to be more of a mindset, a way of proceeding. Pope Francis used the term “mercying” to describe this active process. When we live merciful lives, we accompany each other through challenges, we invite others to participate in our lives and we must be willing to participate in the lives of others. As a Mercy Volunteer and a Mercy Associate I’ve spent about ten years trying to learn about and live out this charism. And I’ve certainly had a lot of practice in participating in God’s mercy, offered in response to my own mistakes. But in terms of expertise, I think the only person who can lay claim to being an expert in mercy is Jesus.
LOPEZ: After describing a Mardi Gras party that you threw for friends, you write of the empty bottles left behind and the “plates filled with bits of food” you were now “no longer allowed to eat”: “I take a deep breath and decide to tackle it bit by bit. It is time to clean up the mess.” Is that a metaphor for the spiritual life?
WEBER: Yup. So many times our spiritual lives seem overwhelming and messy. We feel like we won’t ever be able to work out of the chaos, but the key is to realize that we don’t need some sort of big revelation to make progress in our spiritual lives. We just need to take small steps. We need to acknowledge the mess and get working. And we also need to realize we don’t have to go it alone. The beauty of being part of a church is that we have a community that helps to hold us accountable and helps to support us when we want to become better more authentic versions of ourselves.
LOPEZ: Reconsidering whether or not you needed to give up ALL alcohol for Lent, you write: “What about potential dates, which, in New York, frequently take place at bars? How do I handle having to broach the topic of religious belief straight off the bat? For me, this is more of a social challenge than the not-drinking part.” Now that you’ve written a book on mercy, is that sort of thing – broaching the topic of religious belief straight off the bat – less of a concern?
WEBER: Lately, I haven’t had to worry about this type of conversation prior to dates, because I’ve been dating a wonderful man, who is Catholic and who doesn’t like alcohol. However, in general, having worked in Catholic publishing for most of my life, I’m used to the topic of religion coming up fairly quickly on a first date, or in any social situation. People understand pretty quickly that my faith is part of my daily life. Still, I find most people to be really accommodating and even interested in learning more about my faith, even if they don’t share it.
LOPEZ: “At the core of my worry is this: I won’t be able to adhere to these sacrifices perfectly, so maybe I shouldn’t try to adhere to them.” Is that among the most pernicious temptations?
WEBER: I think this sort of thinking is so easy to fall into, because it makes us feel good about ourselves – by acknowledging our desire to serve God perfectly – but it also gives us an easy out. We can trick ourselves into thinking we’re so sincere in our desire that anything less than perfection isn’t worth the time. All too often that is really just an excuse to avoid challenging ourselves. The reality is that we’re all imperfect, but I also think most of us actually are more skilled and compassionate than we give ourselves credit for.
LOPEZ: You write about a priest, describing him as exactly the man you’d want to greet you if you were not Catholic but walked into a Catholic church wanting to know more. How can all Catholics be that kind of Catholic? That’s what we’re called to be, isn’t it?
WEBER: Indeed. I think it helps to start out by acknowledging the messiness of everyday life, as Pope Francis has put it. I think the church has a reputation for being rule-based rather than person-based. Of course I’m not saying that the church should throw out its doctrine, but I think sometimes we need to be reminded to to consider the person first, within the context of those rules. No one wants to join a group where they immediately feel judged and condemned.
LOPEZ: “After spending several months talking to smart young people who chose to join the church, even after the scandals, even with its often unpopular views, I’ve grown enthusiastic about my role, and more encouraged in my faith.” Do tell! How do you stay encouraged? And why do you have such joy?
WEBER: As someone who grew up Catholic, it’s easy to take some aspects of the faith for granted, to see as ordinary some really extraordinary aspects of our church. As an RCIA sponsor, I am constantly reminded of the joys and challenges of being a Catholic. I see the candidates and catechumens encounter various aspects of the church for the first time, and it reminds me of why I continue to practice my faith. I get to see how they let these new Catholics allow the church transform their lives — especially the sacraments. I’ve heard about the joy friends felt about being married in the church. I’ve been reminded of the relief and grace of confession. One friend, after she received her First Communion, ran out of the Communion line, grinning like crazy, and hugged me. That we should all feel so joyful every Sunday!
LOPEZ: Why did you want to get into San Quentin so badly?
WEBER: My visit started out as a reporting trip for America, because I was intrigued by the idea of a chaplain teaching theology classes to prisoners. But, if I’m honest, there was a part of me that was attracted to the fact that the whole visit seemed sort of edgy and cool and unusual. But as I did my research and as I connected the visit to the prison to the Works of Mercy, I was able to see how much more there was to it than simply visiting a place that has a Johnny Cash song as a namesake.
LOPEZ: What’s the most important lesson you learned there?
WEBER: I learned that we have a tendency to label people by a single action. We tend to look at the men and women in prison simply as criminals rather than as people who have committed criminal acts. And that’s not to say that the things some of the men and women have done aren’t horrible. But I think we need to remember that that single action doesn’t define them. Who knows, if given a different upbringing or neighborhood or set of circumstances what we might do in a desperate moment. There, but for the grace of God . . .
LOPEZ: I loved reading about your Holy Thursday visit with the retired Sisters of Mercy. Are they a portrait in humility?
WEBER: They were wonderful to speak with because they were so patient with me as I questioned them and because they were so funny and engaging and they just had so much life in them, especially when they spoke about the ministries they’d been a part of over the years. There’s a matter-of-factness in their tone of voice when they talk about their work that reveals a certain sort of humility: This is what we did, because this is what God calls us to do. They have no airs about them. Despite the many challenges and the uncertainty about the future, you can tell they’d all do it all over again in a heartbeat.
LOPEZ: “I often just replace the sweets with another food, which, I confess, isn’t really the point. Instead of detaching from the need to snack or allowing myself to be hungry in solidarity with the poor, I find myself arguing that Cinnamon Toast Crunch is not a dessert, but simply a breakfast cereal that I happen to be snacking on after dinner.” Why is the detachment and solidarity and sacrifice so important to the spiritual life?
WEBER: All of these practices are only useful when we use them to help refocus our lives on Christ and on seeing Christ in one another. It’s very easy to get caught up, for example, in the rules surrounding fasting, and to spend half of Lent worrying if your small meals are small enough, or some such thing. But Lent is more than just a checklist of tasks that need to be completed. These actions seem like solitary actions, but they take on extra significance when we do them not as some sort of self-improvement regimen, but as part of a community and on behalf of an even larger community. They remind us of our role in the Body of Christ.
LOPEZ: I heard Cardinal O’Malley talk about the “art of accompaniment” that is at the heart of this “culture of encounter” he keeps talking about. You’ve seen that in jail and on the bread line, haven’t you? How do you break free of fear and awkwardness?
WEBER: I think we can break free from that fear when we realize that whatever help or guidance or comfort we can offer comes from God’s grace, and that all we can do is ask that we serve as conduits of that grace. If a person goes to a breadline or a prison with the mindset that they are going to “save” the people there, and doesn’t recognize how much they can learn from the people they’re serving, awkward situations are likely to occur. It’s only when we’re humble enough to admit that we don’t know how to fix the world’s problems, that we have so much to learn, often from surprising sources, that we can really begin to be present in a loving way to those around us. And that’s what Christ asks of all of us.
LOPEZ: “God challenges us to commit to a lifestyle – and a lifetime – of mercy. And that’s not easy, because maybe in the end, the Works of Mercy aren’t things that can be completed the way one can finish playing a board game or paining a picture. Each act is not an isolated incident, but a part of a process, akin to sweeping the floor. You have to do it regularly or things begin to get messy. They must become habits without becoming mindless. Ultimately, the Works of Mercy point us toward ways in which we can build God’s reign on earth. There’s no guarantee we get to see how it ends, but I know I certainly won’t make progress if I don’t begin.” Where do you recommend one starts living a life of mercy?
WEBER: Wherever you are right now. There’s no specific time or location that is the perfect place to start this sort of journey. The important thing is to make sure we begin. We will do it imperfectly, and that’s okay. But it’s good to realize that we don’t need to travel to far-off destinations to live mercifully. We need to start by living lives of mercy in the midst of our friends and family. In recognizing and lifting up those small moments of mercy in our everyday lives – moments that might seem ordinary, but are truly sacred when we see them for what they are. When we get in this mindset of mercy, we can then be better prepared to recognize other opportunities for mercy outside of our homes or normal routines.
LOPEZ: It must have been exciting working at a Jesuit magazine during the first year of the first Jesuit pope? Will there be a breaking of Lenten fasts for the one-year mark?
WEBER: America always has been a wonderful place to work, but it has been especially exciting this past year. Pope Francis has given so many people renewed hope in the church, inspiring people to recognize the joy that comes with our faith, even when he challenges us to deepen our commitment to it. So, in that spirit, we at America will likely challenge ourselves to stick to our fasts – but to do so joyfully! That said, a bakery in the Bronx makes Pope Francis cookies, and those could be quite the temptation.
LOPEZ: Do you find that young people have a healthy freedom from some of the divisions there have been after the Second Vatican Council? If you’re any indication, you seem to want to know and live your faith. Is this representative of what you’re seeing?
WEBER: I think that many lay Catholics in their twenties and thirties are seeking to build on the opportunities for lay people that emerged from the Second Vatican Council, while also working to forge a new and meaningful path for the church of the 21st century. I’d guess that most young Catholics are divided more by political issues than liturgical ones these days. And many people are still trying to work out how to best reconcile their political and religious beliefs. Still, overall, I have found an encouraging sense of unity among young people trying to live out their Catholic faith today. In some ways, being Catholic today is an unusual choice, so we need all the support we can get from each other.
LOPEZ: Is your next book on the Spiritual Works of Mercy?
WEBER: Well, a few people have suggested that, but as beautiful as the Spiritual Works of Mercy are, they don’t lend themselves to a similar experiment, so I’d need to take a different approach. I can’t exactly force someone to offend me so that I can forgive that person willingly. And I’m not great at admonishing. In some ways the Spiritual Works of Mercy present a unique challenge, because they require you to be more attuned to the people around you in order to identify their intangible needs. Hunger, thirst, nakedness, imprisonment, etc. are relatively easy to quantify and identify. To find people who are doubtful, sorrowful, and afflicted, you need to pay closer attention.
LOPEZ: What’s your Lenten advice to fellow Christians? What’s your prayer for your brothers and sisters in the faith?
WEBER: In living a life of mercy, don’t forget to be merciful toward yourself. Lent is a time to seek forgiveness for our mistakes, but it’s also a time to recognize the ways in which we already connect with God and with the people around us and to consider how we might build on the good we already are doing. I pray that we all recognize how loved we are as children of God and to see the sacredness of the relationships in our lives.