A PLACE OF MERCY
[A talk at the Mercy hospital, Cork]
Seventy-one percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water. We are now quite used to seeing photos of it, taken from space. We see our blue planet floating in the immense darkness, beautiful beyond words.
All the rivers of the world are making their way to join that vast body of water. Some of them, like the great rivers of India and Pakistan, or the Amazon, can be seen from space, but the endless network of lesser rivers cannot be seen from so far away. You can't see the river Lee from there! If you want to see the Lee, you have to come near it, not move away. If you wanted to see it in its entirety you would have to go to Gougane Barra and walk the length of it, all the way to Cork harbour! If you were to do that, you would know the Lee in a way that no one watching from space could ever know it. Your knowledge of it would be more detailed, of course; but it would also be knowledge of a different kind. It would be intimate knowledge: the river would become part of you; you would come to love it, having travelled with it every inch of its fifty-six miles. You would see it in all its moods: you would see it as it struggles through narrow places, and you would see it as it calms out into the lakes at Inniscarra. You would have struggled with it, and so it could never again be just a line on a map for you, or a photograph. It would have become part of your life.
You may not feel like walking fifty-six miles at present, and it isn’t really necessary! Like every river, the Lee has many tributaries. Most of them have names, but the smallest of all have no names. Focusing in very closely you can give your attention to the mesh of little streams and gullies that no one bothers to name. Some of them don't live long enough to be named; and yet even these trickles of water after a shower are making their way, like the Ganges, to the sea.
How far in can you focus? The raindrops running down your window pane are on their way to the sea. They are part of the vast ocean, and they are coming home. Without raindrops there would be no sea, without the sea there would be no raindrops.
The tears running down your face are part of the world and not separate from it. They are not visible from space; they are close and intimate. Only your family and your closest friends are allowed to see them, and sometimes even they are not allowed.
Is there anything closer than this? Yes, there are unshed tears. Many people want to hide their tears even from themselves. Many have a water-table of unshed tears that only God can see. Don't think of God as living in outer space, watching from a distance. God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, said St Augustine.
Our life is many things, but it is never free of suffering. To hope, or even wish, for a life free of suffering would be like wishing for a world without water. Tears and suffering are life-giving, if we don't divert their proper course. The great Christian affirmation is that our suffering is redeemed by Christ, it is channelled into life; it is a breaking through into deeper life. “Those who have not suffered, what do they know?” wrote Henry Suso. “All the saints are cup-bearers of a suffering person, for they have all tasted it once themselves, and they call out with one voice that it is free from poison and a wholesome drink.” Medicines can taste like poison; healing can feel like sickness. Sometimes we are being healed of illnesses we scarcely know we have, particularly illnesses of the heart and the spirit. We have to be patient. We are in the right place: here we are referred to by everyone, visitors and staff alike, as ‘patients’.
“Go into the cave of your heart,” said the monk of Spencer Abbey, “and you will hear the roar of mighty waters. They are the tears of the whole world.” We don't suffer alone. Our suffering is part of the world’s suffering. Sickness appears to isolate us: we are physically separated for a while from our own place, our family, our friends, our work. But in a strange way it draws us into a caring community. The hospital community takes care of us; they are with us and for us; when they ask, “How are you?” they want to know; they are walking beside our river of pain. Nor are the other patients just looking on; they are suffering with us. We are not alone; we are part of poor wounded humanity – more intimately so, it may be, than when we are well. It is a privileged time to see deeply that we are part of the Body of Christ. It can be a time of homecoming.Looking out at the river Lee as it flows past the Mercy hospital you can put these realities together in your mind and heart: your tears, the tears of the whole world, and the place of mercy. A hospital is a school of mercy, and for the people of Cork this particular hospital is ‘The Mercy’, not only in name but in fact. Here the grace of God is at work, drawing us into the healing ocean of God's mercy.