Mercy and Many Hydrangeas 

In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone. – St. John of the Cross

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There’s a theme running through my days, lately, like a weather pattern. A simple and radical idea as ineffable as a sudden summer rainstorm. I really think it started with my reading Anne Lamott and Pope Francis (come on, you know they’re kindred spirits). It’s also been echoed in recent homilies at our Episcopal church, and it took a tragic shape with the heartbreak in Orlando. I even thought about it in reference to both swimsuits and hydrangeas.

Let me explain.

Sometimes, in the evenings, I walk with the dogs on a certain winding circuit of our neighborhood. On this route, there is a lovely and odd grey house that I’ve secretly christened the “hydragea house,” because its front yard is elaborately and ridiculously full of white hydrageas. As in, rather than a square of soft green grass, it has a lawn of hydrageas. As in, there are more oversized hydrageas in this medium-sized front yard than I have ever seen at any wedding or garden store. There’s a small patio area in the middle of the yard, but in June, it’s completely eclipsed by the exuberant bloom of white petals and healthy green leaves the size of hands. It’s absurd, and delightful. And in a strange way, its current abundance reminds me of something Pope Francis talks about when he talks about mercy.

In December of last year, Pope Francis declared 2016 a year of mercy, by which he means, in essence: love, healing, forgiveness, less judgment and more openness and grace. Because, as he summarizes in The Name of God is Mercy (I highly recommend the audiobook version, if you’re interested to learn more), mercy will always be greater than any sin, or, I would add, any differences, rifts, or clashing mentalities between us. Most astonishingly, God never tires of giving it, so neither should we.

So, as I’ve been listening to Pope Francis’ healing words these past couple of weeks, their timeliness has struck me to the core, especially after the devastating news from Orlando. More than ever, we need love and mercy (side note: watch that Beach Boys movie with Paul Dano and John Cusack if you haven’t already; it’s a miracle). We need to let our hearts expand enough to love what is different from what our own eyes see every day, from the shape of our well-worn and familiar lives. We need to give mercy; to others, and to ourselves, too.

I suppose that’s where Anne Lamott enters the scene, because I recently finished Traveling Mercies, Anne’s luminous book of essays about her own reluctant and meandering faith. It’s a beauty, and so wise and loving, like her. (I consider us good friends, so, you know.) The most radical thing about it, though, is its central idea that love can be elevated by grace into something large enough to contain even your own self. Love big enough and brave enough to become as inescapable and kind as the sky. The kind of love that blesses not only you, but your spouse or partner, your children, your friends, your parents, and even, in small moments, strangers. It begins beyond us, and begins within us.

So, with all of that said, I’ve been experimenting. Because this last part is a tough one for me. But what if, even in the smallest everyday ways, I let mercy invade my imagination and interactions and even (gasp!) that secret self-talk that can be so cruel? What if, while trying on swimsuits–that traumatic summer rite of passage that seems to plague me annually, but I’ll spare you the historical details–in all silliness and gravity, I walked out empty handed, telling myself I’ll try another store, another day, telling myself, you don’t have to be perfect to be beautiful?

What if what is merciful and gentle, is also true?

I think it’s a question worth living out. I think it’s a gentle, radical idea — wild and lovely and abundant as a thousand hydrangeas resting on one small corner of the world. And I think we can claim it, marvel at it, and hold it in our own two hands, if we reach for it.


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