Photo: Gino Valenti
Availability is the Prerequisite for Putting Love into Action
By Dan Valenti (May 22, 2008)
Good news, everybody. It's game time. Feel like playing? Okay then, let's go.
Quick: What's another word for mercy?
Time's up. What did you come up with?
When I played the word association game, the word "availability" came to mind. Why this word? Because being "available" to someone else describes mercy as love in action. You might call "availability" a synonym for mercy. Let me explain.
When I was a kid, I had the enormous blessing of being raised in a stable home with parents who loved my brothers and me more than just a great deal. They loved us more than they loved themselves.
"True love," wrote poet William Butler Yeats, "is a discipline in which each divines the secret self of the other and refuses to believe in the mere daily self."
Parents instinctively love their children this way. They have seen "the secret self" of their kids from the moment of birth, the inner being that begins life as pure innocence. That's how my parents loved me. No matter what I did, even in times of mischief, they never lost sight of my good and innocent secret self. Children reciprocate this love by observing the Fourth Commandment, although they don't fully see their parents' secret selves until (or unless) they grow up, realize that they don't know it all, and begin to see that Mom and Dad actually did know a thing or three.
With reciprocal love, mercy is inevitable.
My childhood is peppered with examples of this. Let me share a couple small ones.
'Availability' — Mom
I'll never forget the summer night long ago, when my mom took me and my seven years shopping for a new pair of sneakers. For the first time, she let me pick out my own. After all, on May 9 of that year (1959), I had made my First Holy Communion. I guess she thought I had come of age by achieving the age of reason, which gave me the ability to make the conscious decision to receive the Body of Christ. Surely, that qualified me to pick out my own sneakers.
I selected a pair of white Keds with green rubber souls and bearing the endorsement of Boston Celtics' basketball star Tommy Heinson. They were the first pair of white sneakers I ever owned. No more clunky, black PF Flyers for this lad. My feet would henceforth fly in stylish, dazzling white, which I was convinced would help me run faster.
When we got home later that night, it was too dark to go out and play. I spent all night thinking of those white sneakers. The next day came, overcast with early morning sprinkles that left the ground coffee-ground moist. Not ten seconds after stepping off the back porch to get into a game of Run the Bases, I tripped and fell. Fortunately, I was safe and sound, but when I got up — no broken bones, no bloody nose — I saw my sneakers caked with mud. I was heartbroken. I would have much-preferred bumps, blood, and bruises rather than have those beautiful white Keds sullied. I began to cry.
Mom saw it all from the kitchen window. She called me in the house. She was in the frazzled, stay-at-home midst of the million and one chores that went into running a household. I'll never forget what she did.
She made herself available.
Right then and there, Mom interrupted her busy day. Dusting, vacuuming, paying the bills, making the beds, washing the floors, and preparing lunch could wait. She wiped away my tears, took my sneakers off, tossed them into the Maytag, and turned on the washing machine. Imagine. She did a special load just for those sneakers. When the wash cycle finished, she dried those Keds by hand with a hair dryer.
They looked as good as new.
I never forgot. She had shared herself with me, becoming a part of my life by letting me enter into hers. Isn't that mercy — the caring presence of compassionate people making themselves available, even when it's a hassle or an inconvenience?
'Availability' — Dad
When I was 8 years old, I played baseball in the Squirt League on a team called the Mt. Carmel Acorns. We played our games on Saturday morning. The itinerary looked like this: bike up to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel School, get into a station wagon driven by one father or another, drive to the baseball field, play the game, get driven back, hop on the bike, ride home, and gobble the cookies and milk Mom was sure to have ready.
I happily went through this routine one summer Saturday in my eighth year. Biked the one mile to the school, got driven to the field, played, got driven back, and ... what?
No, it can't be. Impossible! My bike was gone.
I couldn't figure it out. Not knowing anything about the darkness of heart that can harbor let alone conceive of theft, I was utterly baffled. It took a grownup familiar with such cynical topics to explain to me that my bike had been stolen.
The news shattered me on two accounts, first that someone would break the Fifth Commandment and second, I flat-out loved that bike. I trudged the long mile back home.
When I told my mother about it, she comforted me as best she could and then went into action. She called my father at work. I had no interest in the conversation and went out to the back yard to keep company with the only living being a heartbroken little boy could imagine talking to under such circumstances: my beloved beagle dog, Chubby. I poured out my heart and soul to Chubby, who listened and understood with the wordless expertise of her canine kind.
Dad was much later getting home that night than usual. I attributed it to another busy day at the store. Later that evening, after supper, the 1955 blue Pontiac station wagon drove into the backyard. Dad ... only he didn't come in right away as he always did. What was up with that? Finally, he walked through the back door and called me down from my room.
Uh-oh. Was he mad at me because of the missing bike?
He gently asked me what had happened. I said, choking on the words, that some kid had stolen my bike. He put his arms around me, took me by the hand, and said, "Come on." We went out the back door, walked down the driveway, and up onto the front porch.
There it stood, poised proudly on its kickstand — a beautiful new bike, deep maroon with blue and white piping, gleaming in the shafted orange rays of the early evening sun. I turned to my Dad, who smiled and said, "Why don't you take it for a ride?"
When I got back home from my delightful first spin on the new set of wheels, Dad got the Three-in-One oil (what I used to call Trinity oil) from his tool chest and lubricated the bike chain. He then checked the air pressure of the tires and gave me another hug. He didn't say anything else. He didn't have to. He — this man who has risked his life as an infantryman fighting on the front lines in the Battle of the Bulge, to this day the bloodiest campaign ever waged by this country — knew the language that communicates best, what St. John of the Cross called "the silent language of love." That's the vernacular of mercy, a dialect all can understand.
With a stay at home mom and three kids to support, there wasn't a lot of discretionary income in our household. Yet despite that, my Dad took the time he couldn't afford to take, bought a bike with money he couldn't afford to spend, and mended the hole in a little boy's heart he couldn't bear to see hurt.
He made himself available.
The 'formula' for mercy in action
The "algebra" looks like this: (Dm) A = >a 2o, or "Divine Mercy (Dm) put into action (A) equals greater availability (>a) to others (2o).
For me "mercy = availability" in small examples rather than large.
I like the small acts of mercy because they are often overlooked. The Small Way is ordinary, you see. The small deed won't get your picture in the paper nor will it lead to Citizen of the Year honors. If that's what you're after, help out in a Big Way. Make a show of it. Toot your own horn. Be like the Pharisees.
You've seen it a million times. A billionaire philanthropist donates a million to a charity. He gets the write up in Time magazine to inflate his image (to say nothing of his ego). Or a Big Shot local executive is called to kick off the Big Annual Community Fund Drive. He cuts a ribbon, makes a boring speech, and poses next to a giant thermometer that indicates the progress of the drive. Next morning, the local daily has his picture on the front page. He is lionized and his company reaps favorable press coverage. These counterfeits of mercy measure their worth by the number of boards they sit on and how many times their name can adorn a letterhead. They are today's Pharisees.
Jesus put the Pharisees on the hot seat for preferring showy deeds, for parading, chests thrust out, in their fancy clothes. He called them "whited sepulchers" beautiful on the outside but inside full of death and decay.
Besides, some "Big Way" acts of mercy aren't so much merciful as they are knee-jerk human reactions. Think of the guy who instinctively dives into the icy lake to rescue a dog that broke through the ice, or the woman who, unthinking, risks her life to push a boy out of the way of an approaching car. Who wouldn't do that? True, some wouldn't, but they are the exception.
The "Small Way," on the other hand, doesn't call attention to itself. It seeks to avoid notice. The Small Way is Red Sox baseball superstar Ted Williams spending hour after hour with dying children at the Jimmy Fund building, Boston's famed center for cancer research and treatment. Ted, in his day the biggest name in baseball, spent countless nights doing this, always with one proviso —no reporters, no photographers, and absolutely no publicity.
You want the Small Way? How about Mother Teresa and her selfless sisters, who took in Calcutta's sore-covered homeless, its maggot-infested wounded, its abandoned dying, people that no one else wanted. There's one image I will never forget. It was a photograph of one of the nameless of the Missionaries of Charity, holding in her arms an emaciated man.
The man is dying, in his last moments. He gazes into the sister's eyes with an indescribable thankfulness. His eyes are crying with the broken joy of someone beyond consolation who has, miraculously, been consoled. The caption says that minutes after the photo was taken, the man died. Think of it. The last thing he saw was Divine Mercy, flowing from the heart of the good sister. I'm sure she saw that man's way into heaven.
Small Way? Who thinks to make a hot meal for a sick friend? Who goes out of their way to welcome a new fellow worker? Who shovels a home-bound neighbor's sidewalk after a snowfall? Who helps an elderly lady carry her grocery bags to the car? Who gives a dirt-caked homeless man the time of day? Who can see Jesus in the blank eyes of someone suffering the bite of the black dog of severe depression? True, some do, but they, too, are the exception. Human kindness is being beaten down by the frightful speed and jagged coarseness of our blaring, 21st century Technocracy.
The Pharisee approach
Availability, like mercy, requires a firm, almost radical commitment to see Jesus in everyone we meet.
Robert J. Wicks, former Director of the Graduate Program in Pastoral Counseling at Neumann College and member of the Counseling Committee for Religious of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, wrote:
To be really available to others is to open our hearts
to them while looking for the Lord in their midst.
To do this we don't bring ourselves and our busyness;
we bring the awareness of God that we can only
receive in prayer ...
That's easier said than done. What Wicks called "careless Christianity" refers to the tendency of some to measure their "Christian-ness" by compulsively listing how busy they are performing good deeds, how "righteous" they are flitting about pouring the milk of human kindness indiscriminately into glasses so that they might receive a worldly reward. You know, the Pharisee approach.
The Pharisee approach has long since turned away from Christianity but doesn't have the courage to admit it has done so. On the outside, it adheres to Christian ideals but the inside has gone over completely to secular ways. Such calculating, "what's in it for me" availability sours the milk. This curdling occurs when pseudo-merciful acts are performed, as Wicks put it, "to feel good or look good in the eyes of others."
That's what makes mercy and availability disciplines whose strictures separate the merciful from the do-gooders. Here's the litmus test: Mercy glorifies the one who receives it. Do-gooding glorifies the one who originates it.
Look no further than the Sacraments to be impressed by this truth. Take the Holy Eucharist, please.
The person who receives the Body of Christ benefits incalculably, for therein lies the forgiveness and absolution of which we are all in need. But think of the One who's making Himself available. It's Jesus Himself, faithfully present to us in our brokenness. It's also the priest re-enacting as Christ's "stand-in" the sacred mystery of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. This doesn't happen if that man hadn't made himself available to others by responding to God's call through his vocation. He had to sacrifice plenty. That man is making himself available to us in the most selfless way possible.
The people of God
One benefit of working on Eden Hill, home of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy and the Marian Helpers Center in Stockbridge, Mass., is to come into contact with the holiness of God's calling.
I daily move among people who bathe in Divine Mercy for a living and who know about availability from the practical standpoint of putting it into action, living it. A recent, life-threatening illness sent me tumbling into a desert from which I questioned whether I would return. But in my colleagues here on Eden Hill, both clergy and laity alike, it produced only understanding and prayers in a strength and fervor proportionate to the seriousness of my condition. Upon my return, better than ever, they exuded a tangible sense of joy.
We would all do well to reflect on the people that God allows to enter our lives as parents, husbands, wives (thank you, Paula), friends, colleagues, mentors, advisors, confessors, bosses, employees, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, associates, acquaintances, and yes, sometimes enemies. When they make themselves available, they become the people of God for you. None of this is by coincidence.
When we inquire into the fundamental question of what comprises the religious mind, we will see these kinds of people standing before us in their availability, which is mercy itself. Look at your own life and try to identify those who are making themselves available to you. Give thanks for them and express thanks to them.
The exciting proposition I want to put forth to all who read this article is that you, too, can be such a person for someone else. All you need to is make yourself available.
The strange and deep discontent we all sense or see in the turbulent, crazy world around us needs healing. It needs our time. It needs our acts of mercy. It needs our availability.
So back to the word association game with which we started. Tell me — when I play the game with you and I say the word "mercy," what word first comes to mind?
I am serious in asking this, and I would invite anyone who wants to take up the challenge and fun of the game to respond to my question. Please. I want to hear: What does the word "mercy" inspire in you, and why?
What's your other word for mercy?
Dan Valenti is senior editor and writer for Marian Helper magazine and for many other publications of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception.