It’s always a good time to practice compassion and forgiveness.
In December 2015, Pope Francis declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy, in which the faithful will “direct our attention and actions on mercy.” The Year of Mercy ended last November 20, but putting compassion into action, forgiving others’ transgressions, and remembering God’s providence and mercy, don’t have a time limit. As Pope Francis said, “Let us be renewed by God’s mercy … and let us become agents of this mercy.”
But if we’re honest with ourselves, mercy isn’t what most of us are agents of. We are agents, yes, but of other stuff, as determined by our busy schedules.
We bring expertise to work, and we bring order to our homes. We put money in the bank and food on our tables. We tackle to-do lists and squeeze in some Netflix at the end of the day if we’re lucky. But while we do it, we don’t think of what this year is supposed to be all about, especially when it comes to showing mercy to those who most need it — the lonely, the poor, and the suffering.
1. Forgive yourself
I have a habit of beating myself up. I do it when I make a mistake at work, or when I snap in anger at a loved one. I have done it after I’ve sinned. One way to practice mercy is to do what I don’t do when I’m too hard on me: forgive yourself.
Why is the first thing on the list showing mercy to ourselves? Isn’t that … selfish? Well, no — according to Leah Darrow, coauthor of Decent Exposure, we’re more likely to forgive others if we can forgive ourselves—and more likely to forgive ourselves if we seek forgiveness from God when we need it.
In other words, we’re as hard on others as we are on ourselves. But, Leah reminds us:
“St. Teresa of Calcutta said ‘we have forgotten that we belong to one another. Today, when the world is in dire need of compassion, mercy, and hope, we can begin with ourselves, by going to God and asking for forgiveness. Then we can share that mercy with our family, our neighbors, and the world.”
2. Forgive somebody else
Once we’ve practiced mercy by forgiving ourselves, we’re better equipped to forgive other people. And starting in this year of mercy, we should do so with generosity. “Practice radical forgiveness,” said Stephanie Calis, author of Invited: The Ultimate Catholic Wedding Planner and co-founder of the website Spoken Bride.
That means that this act of mercy won’t be easy. If someone has transgressed against you, it can be almost comforting to hold on to anger and resentment. Forgiving someone is an active choice, one that requires a certain strength of mind.
“Most of us get that love is more than a feeling; it’s an act of the will,” Stephanie said. “Let forgiveness also be an act of the will. Making the choice to forgive, even when you’re still annoyed, speaks to a willingness to put yourself aside for love of another. I have to believe the face of the Father’s mercy and the face of His love must be nearly identical.”
3. Make a phone call
It is quick to text, but texts are devoid of what your friends and family members often long for: your voice, your presence, and your full attention. Taking the time out of your day is a small sacrifice, but making a sacrifice is an act of compassionate mercy. So make the call — whether it’s to your grandmother, or to an old friend, or to your neighbor. That you’d disrupt your usual routine to include them in your day will express what mercy always does: your love.
4. Embrace a doubter
For instance, people of the Catholic faith often encounter people who have doubts about what the Church teaches. I’m a lifelong Catholic, but Protestant-educated—I was a student at a private, non-denominational Christian school for eight years, and my default was not to embrace the people who struggle to believe what I believe is true. It is an act of mercy to do it anyway.
“Don’t turn away from people’s questions or misgivings or fears (regarding faith),” said Sr. Helena Burns, author of He Speaks to You. “Be a solid rock in the midst of the storms of others’ intellects, wills and emotions that cause them to be ‘blown and tossed by the wind’ (James 1:6).”
Painstakingly research what we ourselves are unable to answer, in order to explicate and reassure, or to find and recommend the very best resources. This — counseling the doubtful — is a spiritual work of mercy, and the spiritual works of mercy help to remove and assuage very real spiritual pain in people’s lives.”
5. Talk to a stranger
How easy it is to pass by people we don’t know when we’re in public. But we can practice mercy by doing what comes less naturally: talk to them.
“Say hi to someone who is alone after Mass,” said Tommy Tighe, therapist and Catholic Hipster. “Creating a world where people are merciful starts with us, with one person we show mercy to. This small effort can change the world.”
There can be great mercy in being wholly present with the people who surround you. Make it happen by unplugging when you’d rather not. Keep your phone in the car at the restaurant, leave your laptop at the office, or turn the TV off. Your undivided attention might be what your loved ones need — and providing it in a culture that isn’t conducive to it is an act of mercy.
7. Say ‘I love you’ when you’re mad
I can think of several phrases that are easy to say when I’m upset about something that somebody I love has done. “I love you” isn’t one of them. Say it anyway.
Conflict is inevitable in relationships, and nobody likes it. But commitment itself is merciful. In the midst of it, nothing expresses your commitment to your loved one, be it a significant other, a parent, a child, like the reminder that you love him or her — and that you aren’t going to walk away.
8. Be kind on purpose
When I divulged my virginity to 400,000 people on a Sunday in this essay for the Tampa Bay Times, the newspaper’s web editor had to shut down the comments and deleted most of them already there. What some readers said about me isn’t fit for print. “Words hurt. More than we realize,” said Sarah Vabulas, author of The Catholic Drinkie’s Guide to Homebrewed Evangelism.
She says there’s a practical way to practice mercy, in life, and on the internet.
“Be kind in every word you speak,” she said. “This can impact those around us in countless ways. I will always believe that servant leadership is the way God calls us to lead those around us. Seeing your actions in kindness and service can teach them to do the same. We learn by watching others. Show kindness and mercy and watch your world change.”
9. Do something ‘insignificant’
Sometimes it is in what we don’t bother to do that great mercy would be shown—stuff like making eye contact with the cashier, acknowledging a stranger, holding the door for the person who follows behind us. And why don’t we bother to do these things? Because we think they mean nothing.
But Fr. John Wright, author of The Smallest Spark, says they do.
“Focus on little things that perhaps seem to have no significance,” he said. For example: “Has any effort been given to simply acknowledging someone’s presence with a smile, especially when it’s someone who does not make us feel like smiling? That is mercy.”
10. Clean somebody else’s bathroom
Or clean a bathroom you share with others when it isn’t your turn. Odds are good that if you’re allowed in it while it needs to be cleaned, your relationship to the person who uses it is such that he or she won’t be insulted that you cleaned it.
Instead, they’ll have felt your mercy. They’ll know you’ve seen the kind of mess that they can create — and they’ll know that you love them anyway.