Experiencing God’s Mercy

UnknownWe are more than halfway through the season of Lent. The word “Lent”, derived from Old English, means “spring”. This particular week in March we seem to be experiencing an early spring with 70-degree days and sunshine. The Church calendar sets aside these forty days of the Lenten season to have us prepare for the celebration of Easter. In this particular year, Pope Francis has called for a Jubilee Year of Mercy – “an invitation to love, kindness, and unbounded generosity. Pope Francis is offering [us] the opportunity to encounter the incredible mercy of God. Encountering mercy means encountering God. It can transform [our lives], [our] relationships, [our] work, and [our] ability to embrace and experience all of life.” (dynamiccatholic.com)

How do we experience God’s mercy? Merriam-Webster defines mercy to be “kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly.” In my elementary school religion classes, mercy was further defined by the Church’s outline of the corporate and spiritual acts of mercy. The corporal acts, responding to the physical needs of others, include: feeding the hungry, shelter the homeless, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick, clothing the naked, ransoming the captive, and burying the dead. The spiritual acts include: instructing the ignorant, bearing wrongs patiently, counseling the doubtful, forgiving offenses willingly, admonishing the sinner, comforting the afflicted, and praying for the living and the dead. These concrete acts help to shape merciful decisions and actions in our lives.

As I reflect, some of the corporal and spiritual acts can be very much a part of my everyday experience, while some others might be further removed. I might consider feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless as works of mercy that I support indirectly through monetary donations to organizations and causes, yet forgiveness, counsel, and bearing wrongs can be conscious daily efforts with family members, coworkers, and students. Moreover, our individual work calls us to integrate other values that sometimes may seem to be in conflict with being merciful. For example, in upholding rules and procedures to be equitable and fair, a person might be perceived as “merciless.” Conversely, sometimes those in positions of power are perceived to be “weak” or “unfair” if they are thought to be administering “kind or forgiving treatment to someone who could be treated harshly,” as Merriam-Webster defines “mercy.” So does mercy have boundaries?

When we talk about God’s mercy, we describe it as “boundless.” The Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent was the parable of the Prodigal Son, the very popular story of two brothers who led very different lives, one obedient to his father and the other squandering his inheritance only to come home to his father, who accepted him back with great joy. It is a most interesting story, when we consider the perspectives and interactions of the father and each of his sons. The father showed mercy on his prodigal son to the upset of his obedient son who was angered and felt slighted. He said to his father, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ (Luke 15:11-32). To me, his father’s response gives critical insight into being merciful. He told his obedient son, “You are here with me always and everything I have is yours.” But that statement was not to the exclusion of what the father was feeling: “But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” If we think about it, the father gave each son what he needed and deserved: the obedient son would have everything the father has promised him, and the other son received the love and acceptance he had come to appreciate. It is interesting that the father did not say that the son who returned would have his monetary inheritance reinstated; he did say that to his obedient son: “everything I have is yours.” This might suggest that God’s mercy is not about the equability of things in this life; there are consequences to actions. Rather, God’s mercy is about acceptance, love, caring, and concern. A merciful person helps another “get through” the rough times, like the wayward son who will have to rebuild his life.

As I think about the idea of “mercy,” I think about my parents. Many of us may have experienced parents who sacrificed much for the sake of the rest of the family. My father’s family story is particularly difficult, beginning with his father’s untimely death at age 50, leaving his 40-year-old widow with eight children, ages 13 to 2 years old. Both of my grandparents were Italian immigrants, who spoke broken English. At the death of my grandfather, the social service agency wanted to place my father and his siblings in foster care, since my grandmother had no means of support. Instead, my father, the oldest, and his older sisters down to the third grade, left school to work in the mills on the Brandywine River. My grandmother began taking in laundry, and eventually was able to open a corner grocery store in the late 1920s. As a result of the challenges of the family early in life, my father and siblings remained close, with my father serving as the patriarch. My mother had to “share” my father with the extended family when they married in 1938. There were many stressful moments when my father’s attentions were given to the extended family at the expense of my mother and brothers. But through all of the difficult moments, I believe it was mercy that provided the glue that kept the family together and happy. It was a mercy that did not expect perfection or always the right decisions, but rolled with the mistakes and misunderstandings. Like the father in the parable, mercy, love, and forgiveness could always be found in our parents’ home, but, as children, we were always told to accept the consequences of our actions.

Our students have access to so many virtual communities through social media outlets today. They can find on-line communities that can validate a variety of values and perspectives, to the point that relativism becomes a way to rationalize behavior that is counter to Catholic Christian perspective – a perspective that celebrates the suffering servant, the merciful father, and the dignity of the marginalized and the outcast. I am so impressed and encouraged by our students, many whom I believe perform the spiritual and corporal acts of mercy each day – the way they interact with one another and their teachers; their concern for the marginalized and disadvantaged through the many outreach and community service efforts, and the intellectual sophistication that they posses to be sensitive to and internalize empathetic feelings for another.

Easter patterns the rites of spring – new birth – the fulfillment of God’s promise to humanity of eternal life through His Son. It is this ultimate sacrifice of God’s Son, that is an expression of God’s mercy and love for us. I pray that all of the members of our Archmere Academy community may know that liberation of God’s mercy, and that, whatever religions or pathways to the Creator individuals’ may choose, they may know that they always have a place in the “household,” just as in the story of the Prodigal Son, just as in the story of my family, just as in the community that is Archmere.

God’s Blessings on You and Your Family this Lent and Easter,

Michael A. Marinelli, ’76 Ed.D.

Headmaster

Keep on Truckin’

imagesThe 1974 Archmere yearbook, The Patio, had as its theme, “Keep on Truckin’.” Certainly a 1970’s “Mod” term that we do not often hear today, I do believe that it is still the feeling many of us have about our daily existence. And I would also suggest that it has evolved significantly in its meaning from 1974, based on the complexities of our lives.

In a recent Scientific American magazine article, “The Four Dimensional Future of Stuff”, Skyler Tibbits, MIT Research Scientist, states, “The technology builds on 3-D printing with the added fourth dimension of time, across which objects transform.” The article goes on to report that, “Last year, his team printed various materials onto a sheet of carbon fiber that, when exposed to heat, curled up into a predetermined shape.” The future concept is that when someone opens a box, the item inside assembles itself. This notion of constant evolution presents the intriguing idea of adding the fourth dimension of time in a real way to the three spacial dimensions.

At the same time, I was reading a book by Pope Francis, which he wrote when he was Archbishop of Argentina in collaboration with Rabbi Abraham Skorka. Pope Francis writes, “What a great word: path! In my personal experience with God I cannot do without the path. I would say that one encounters God walking, moving, seeking him and allowing oneself to be sought by him. They are two paths that meet. On the one hand, there is our path that seeks him, driven by that instinct that flows from the heart; and after, when we have encountered each other, we realize that he was the one who had been searching for us from the start.” (p. 2) Experiencing God is not static, but fluid, much like the fourth dimension now being discussed by MIT researchers in developing new experiences for us.

In another book by Pope Francis, The Church of Mercy, he writes in a chapter entitled, Walking, “Walking is one of my favorite words when I think about a Christian and about the Church.” Pope Francis continues his thoughts by stating, “I think that it is most truly the most wonderful experience we can have: to belong to a people walking, journeying through history with our Lord, who walks among us! We are not alone; we do not walk alone.” (p.75)

We begin another school year, and in so doing, hope to see our students grow and evolve in so many ways, such that when they leave Archmere, they are prepared to manage the next steps of their journeys. Certainly we are focused on their academic resume; it is and has been a hallmark of Archmere’s reputation that the school provides students with an academically challenging experience. As an adult community of parents and teachers, we are also attuned to the social and emotional development of our children, though opinions vary from time to time on exactly how to best handle issues. This often puts all of us adults – parents, teachers and administrators – in a “grey area” that requires conversation and discussion. Hopefully, there is consensus and our children receive a clear and cohesive signal from us as adults. Easier said than done, however. And perhaps that is what Pope Francis, Rabbi Skorka, and even MIT researcher, Dr. Tibitts, are saying indirectly as they comment about the fourth dimension and time. You may look at an issue from any variety of vantage points, but ultimately, at some point in time, you must make an evaluation and decision. As time progresses, that decision carries revelations and consequences, which can be perceived as both positive and negative. Those of us – the adults – who are responsible for these decisions realize how difficult and challenging they are. We recognize quickly that, while we do not have all of the answers, we are asked to give them. So what do we do?

I believe that we have to approach life and its challenges, decisions and dilemmas, with the attitude of a pilgrim on a journey, as Pope Francis describes. No project is ever finished, because the ramifications of our impact on the project will be long-felt. Our paths cross, and we attempt to do the best we can to reflect our God for others – to be treated as we would want to be treated within the confines of our abilities and resources.

As Head of School for 12 years, beginning my 6th year as Headmaster at Archmere, and as a school administrator for 29 years, I can say that the journeys to which each of us are called are exciting and wonderful, but at the same time, challenging and sometimes difficult. It is easy to manage the exciting and wonderful times, but it is certainly not easy to manage the challenging and difficult ones. During the latter times, I pray for compassion, understanding, and a sense of right judgment that allows me to think through the challenge or difficulty and imagine what the time afterwards might feel like. In other words, I imagine the situation like the carbon fiber that, once opened, will arrange itself into a predefined shape. The big difference in this analogy is that I do not have the guarantee of the “pre-defined shape;” I can only hope to imagine it. And isn’t that what God is like?

So, with that sense of journeying and not always knowing what is around the bend, I wish our students and families, and particularly our newest students and families who are joining us this year, a fruitful and fulfilling journey. As there are always a few difficult days that are outweighed by many more positive and exciting ones, perhaps the 1974 advice of our yearbook theme is best remembered: “Keep on Truckin’!”

Creating Community…

On Sunday, March 8, 2015, members of the Archmere Academy community came together to celebrate the annual Memorial Mass, remembering all alumni, faculty, and staff who have died. A large group gathered in the Patio to listen to the hopeful words of the Scripture and sing songs that inspire and strengthen our faith. The experience of coming together as a community of faith provided a sense of comfort to those families most particularly dealing with recent loss. As the names of all those who have died were read, we could reflect on how much each of them left their imprint on the Archmere legacy, with which we are entrusted.

At the National Association of Independent Schools Conference at the end of February, NAIS President, John Chubb, moderated a panel of presidents and former presidents from prestigious colleges and universities to discuss the changes predicted for and value of the college experience. One area of concern and focus for higher education leadership is students’ sense of community, suggesting that many of today’s college bound students do not know how to live in community. Many young people struggle with feelings of empathy, managing group compromise, and developing a collaborative style of work and play. College and university leaders attribute students’ under-developed social skills important to fostering community as a result of excessive technology use that helps to create a cocoon around individuals and makes impersonal communication styles easily accessible. These school leaders commented that higher education institutions are reviewing and revising their residential life programs to incorporate more structured opportunities for students to get involved in developing a school community through service, activities, and other projects. School officials believe that it is important to focus on developing community among students to not only validate the expense of residential life programs, but to give college graduates all of the skills beyond academic knowledge they will need to be successful in their careers.

In Pope Francis’ message on August 7, 2013, he asks the question, “Do you give alms?”  He goes on to say, “And when you give alms, do you look the person you are giving them to in the eye?” “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t really notice.” “Then you have not really encountered him.” . . . What Jesus teaches us first of all is to meet each other, and in meeting to offer each other help. We must know how to meet each other. We must build, create and construct a culture of encounter.

Saint Norbert conceived of a community of men and women, ordained religious and lay, whose members would live, work, and pray together. He was responding to the need in his time in the 12th century to reform the Catholic Church and return to fundamental values based on the life of Christ and his apostles. That Norbertine tradition helped establish the foundations for Archmere. “Community” is articulated as one of our five core values that we talk about at Archmere. It is difficult to define comprehensively, but we know it when we experience it. Whether it is an all-school assembly or a meeting between a student and a counselor, we sense the presence of community, in an environment of respect and acceptance that sustains and deepens the roots of authentic relationships. We must “encounter” one another, as Pope Francis says, in such a way that we truly care about them, and in working together, know how to develop programs and activities that benefit others, as higher education leaders suggest. In this Lenten season, when we pause to evaluate how we are living our faith, let us think about how our actions help create community. Let us also be grateful for the communities of family and friends we are blessed to have in our lives, and, in particular, the Archmere community that is strengthened by the many individual talents, sacrifices, successes and trials of students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, parents of alumni, and friends.

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