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The Year of Mercy was instructive; the Year of Prayer may be immersive

Pope Francis prays during Mass on the feast of the Epiphany in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Jan. 6, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

St. Philip Neri once had a penitent confess to indulging in gossip. He advised the contrite soul to bring him a chicken, and to pluck its feathers as he walked the streets of Rome. When the man showed up with the chicken, his penance fulfilled, the great saint told him, “Now, brother, gather up all the feathers you’ve strewn about the city.”

The man’s face fell. “It’s impossible,” he protested, “they’re everywhere…”

“Yes,” Philip nodded, “as is gossip, once it is strewn about…”

During the “Year of Mercy,” concluded in November 2016, I benefited from weekly meditations on what mercy looked like, what it did not look like and how the actual practice of mercy in our lives — be it the simple act of holding one’s tongue or something more — was both easier and harder than we believed.

The mercy of showing forgiveness to another, for instance — certainly difficult, when the hurt is huge — can truly set us free, especially when our forgiveness is unconditional. I learned that on a very deep and personal level, back then, when someone who had spread a terrible lie about me came to admit it and sought my forgiveness.

Part of me wanted more — wanted this person to endure further humiliations by telephoning everyone to whom she’d lied about me, admitting what she’d done.

But I quickly saw that such a requirement would be more vindictive than merciful and that a sincere expression of remorse — while making imperfect amends to the truth, or to the reality of my larger world — was still evidence of a heartfelt regret deserving my respectful response. Recalling Philip Neri’s lesson to the gossipy penitent, I suddenly understood that there was nothing this woman could ever do to fully repair my reputation among those who now believed a lie, because in the depths of our hearts we all believe what we really want to believe about others, whether for evil or for good.

So those people who had always rejected her story believed better of me. Those who accepted the lie believed worse and that, I suddenly knew, was on me. Something existed within my character that made some people willing to believe an untrue thing about me.

Realizing that among some the shards of my broken reputation could never be gathered up, and that the situation could never be wholly repaired, I felt something like peace well up inside of me. That a small number of people would continue thinking ill of me might not be “fair,” but I’d already learned that in life “fairness” is an illusion — something complex and subjective on too many levels to count. I had no doubt that over the course of my life I’d done plenty to deserve a measure of justified enmity, and decided it didn’t matter whether the contempt stemmed from a lie or not.

Therefore, I was able to say the words “I forgive you” — and really mean them.

That whole episode has been a valuable gift to me. The woman, by her lie and then her contrition, had administered to me a dose of much-needed self-awareness — given me interior food to chew on for the rest of my life as I contemplate all the ways I hurt others, then help others, and then fail again.

There were plenty of lessons to be learned in that “Year of Mercy,” but now we are in a “Year of Prayer” — so designated by Pope Francis in anticipation of the 2025 Jubilee Year. I’d been castigating myself for getting off to a slow start, but a recent, serious bout of pneumonia gave me opportunities to make offerings of my illness and discomforts — to practice a form of prayer that we don’t much talk about in the church, but which takes a direct line through the apostle Paul’s example: “I am rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church” (Col 1:24).

It is a good and intimate prayer to whisper one’s agonies into the ear of the suffering, unjustly crucified rabbi-God and ask to be admitted, in the smallest way, into his unfathomable salvific act.

It is a strange privilege to look out from the cross with him and view the terrible beauty, and nearness, of paradise.

Elizabeth Scalia is editor at large for OSV. Follow her on X (formerly known as Twitter) @theanchoress.

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