Mercy starts at home


By Kathy Berken

I started thinking about the meaning of doors when Pope Francis announced that the Catholic Church would celebrate a Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016 and designate Holy Doors of Mercy at special churches and shrines.
Doors are functional by design. Cupboard and closet doors keep items hidden and dust free. Bathroom and bedroom doors allow for privacy. Garage doors give us security and keep out un­wan­ted intruders. But if your home had no doors, you’d have a tough time getting in or out.

Contributed Columnist Kathy Berken created her own Holy Door of Mercy as pictured above.
Columnist Kathy Berken created her own Holy Door of Mercy as pictured above.

I love the idea of doors as passageways, so I thought it would be fun to create my own personal Holy Door of Mercy, primarily to remind myself that my baptism calls me to show God’s mercy to others. Thankfully, people never ask me to create environmental spaces be­cause I am like a deer in headlights when asked to do something with a bolt of fabric and a box of ribbons. So, I found two pictures and taped them to the inside of my entry door. Perfect.

One is a drawing of Bethany Convent, the retirement home for the Sisters of St. Joseph here in St. Paul, Minnesota, where they invited me to live for the three years I was going to grad school next door. The other picture is the front of a promotional greeting card that we made when I worked at The Compass newspaper in Green Bay, Wisconsin, that shows open church doors with the words, “The Kingdom of God is within you. Open Wide the Doors.”


The images give me two ways to respond to Pope Francis’ invitation to participate in the Jubilee Year of Mercy. I like what he wrote in his Sept. 1 proclamation; that this Holy Year is to be, “for all believers a true moment of encounter with the mercy of God. . . . and “a living experience of the closeness of [God].”

When I lived at Bethany Convent, I witnessed daily examples of God’s mercy in how 80- and 90-year-old sisters, who themselves were in wheelchairs or used walkers, helped others in need. Sister Mary Mark, still active at age 104, continues to write letters to prisoners, brings candy to every sister every day, and regularly collects leftover strips of bacon from breakfast to deliver to the sisters in their rooms who didn’t get any. I want to be like that when I’m 104!

As theologian Walter Brueggemann said to Krista Tippett in her “On Being” radio program, the Hebrew word for mercy is similar to the word for womb. Mercy is “womb-like mother love . . . the capacity of a mother to totally give one’s self over to the need and reality and identity of the child” (NPR, Dec. 22, 2011). Sr. Mary Mark embodies the corporal works of mercy that Brueggemann refers to as “the capacity to give one’s self away for the sake of the neighborhood.”

The picture of the open church doors reminds me as a retreat leader, writer and spiritual director that as Catholic Christians, if the kingdom of God is within us, we welcome everyone through our doors. The spiritual works of mercy — teaching, praying, forgiving, comforting, counseling — are also ways to give one’s self away for the sake of others.

I may not make a pilgrimage to a church with an official Holy Door of Mercy, but my own Door of Mercy reminds me to pray and to do what I can today and, when I return home, to reflect on what I’ve actually done to further that call. As Brueggemann challenges, “What will break the pattern of self-preoccupation enough to notice that the others are out there and that we are attached to them?”

(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)

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