Oh, Mercy, Mercy Me, Still

From last year, slightly updated, my tangled relationship with the Divine Mercy devotion:

Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me their song
And I hope you run into them, you who’ve been traveling so long
Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control
It begins with your family, and later comes round to your soul
Well, I’ve been where you’re hanging, and I think I can see how you’re pinned:
When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned . . .
~ Leonard Cohen, “The Sisters of Mercy”

As I crossed the plaza in front of my parish church on a mad dash not to be late for Good Friday services last year, a woman stopped me and handed me a leaflet. (That’s rare in itself. We were not big leafleters at St Charles.) Divine Mercy Novena and Chaplet, the leaflet was titled, and I stowed it with a quick Thank you because I was curious.

As a recent revert, I’m always being caught off guard by Catholic devotions and practices that were either newly introduced during the three decades I was lapsing around or are revivals of things I never knew about in the first place. Some of these are debatable liturgical innovations, like that whole business of bowing and extending cupped hands to the celebrant at Mass when responding to “The Lord with you,” like a roomful of Japanese executives exchanging business cards, or yoga students returning the teacher’s Namaste. Huh, what? I thought when I first saw it. (I thought it might disappear as we switched more comfortably from “And also with you,” which always did strike me as provoking a toss-the-tennis-ball-back reciprocity, to “And with your spirit,” but it seems to be a geographical/cultural phenomenon. At my new Glendale parish, many people mimic EVERY gesture of the celebrant. It’s like Mirror Mass.) And I never remember praying the Fatima invocation (“O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy”) after every decade of the rosary as a child, but maybe that’s because we weren’t big Legion of Mary devotees. I’ve incorporated that one now, maybe because I like the old-fashioned emphasis on those Last Things—and certainly because I know what it means to be in need of mercy.

Mercy, yes, but the whole Divine Mercy devotion has always been foreign territory. The first time I heard of it was back in the 1990s when I was editing religion textbooks (insert required mea culpa for bad catechesis here) and my contact at the publishing company requested including the popular image of Jesus in a circle of light with rainbowish rays of light extending from his heart. My response, I have to admit, was YUCK. I was supervising an art program that drew on the finest religious art of the world’s Christian traditions, and I thought this image looked like something you’d find on velvet hangings being sold at gas stations in LA. I have a fondness for religious kitsch, but this did nothing for me. “But you have to use it,” I was told. “It’s how Jesus told Blessed Sr Faustina he wanted to be shown. The artist followed the description in her diary!” (Well, not exactly. Apparently the first attempt by a painter to follow Jesus’ artistic direction made Sr Faustina weep with disappointment because it failed to approach the beauty of her vision, but Jesus told her no worries, it was his grace and not the artist’s skill that counted. Good thing, because even the more popular later attempt, by Polish artist Adolf Hyla, makes me weep with disappointment, too.)

Blessed Sr (now Saint) Faustina? Huh, what? I may have been lapsed, but I knew my holy folks, and I had never heard of this one. I thought they were making the whole thing up (a nun named for a guy who sold his soul to the devil?), and I was sure it couldn’t possibly be an approved devotion. Turns out I wasn’t alone. For 20 years (just as her diaries had predicted), between the papacies of John XXIII and John Paul II, Sr Faustina and her Divine Mercy revelations were suppressed by the Church, her writings placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, and the only place one could find the image was in the chapel of the convent of Polish sisters that had been founded by her inspiration.

The problem, apparently, was that Sr Faustina’s take on things seemed to suggest that sinners could seek mercy directly from Jesus, without passing the Go of the Church and the sacraments. In this she is reminiscent of the very different sisters of mercy in Leonard Cohen’s song, who bring unquestioning comfort to those whose lives are “a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn.” That this seeming overemphasis on mercy rather than justice emerged from Europe on the run-up to the Anschluss would seem to make it fairly understandable; it was a time in which many had lost hope. In 1978, finally, Blessed John Paul II stood up for a Polish sistah and permitted the devotion to Divine Mercy, which spread rapidly, first among Polish Catholics and then around the world. Faustina was canonized in 2000, and her emphasis on encountering the merciful Jesus rings very clearly through the life and homilies of Pope Francis, whose motto is Miserando et Eligendo—”having been looked on with mercy, and chosen.”

The next time I encountered St Faustina and that image of Jesus was in Rome in 2010. On our first morning in the city, our archdiocesan pilgrimage group celebrated Mass at the Church of Santo Spirito, within blocks of St Peter’s. (Santo Spirito, as a papal church, is actually Vatican territory, though it is outside the Vatican boundaries. Our guide had us hopping from one foot to the other on the steps of the church chanting “Now I’m in Rome, now I’m in the Vatican, now I’m in Rome . . .” Pilgrims, no matter what their age, are essentially fourth graders on a field trip.) A huge banner showing St Faustina pointing to the image of Jesus decorates the facade of Santo Spirito, which contains a shrine to Divine Mercy. It was on that trip that I received what I understood to be a call to return to the Church—but I still have to say it wasn’t that image that moved me.

Actually, I owe my biggest exposure to St Faustina’s devotion and to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy to, of all people, John Corapi. The whole Fr Corapi Phenom was another thing that happened While I Was Out; I had never heard of him until someone sent me an email with a link to the story of his suspension in March 2011. When I confessed that ignorance, my friend said, “Oh, he has this amazing conversion story”—so I checked it out, and amazing (in the sense of wholly and laughably unbelievable) I did indeed find most of it. I became somewhat obsessed with researching and documenting L’Affair Corapi—which is, in a backhanded way, how I came to hang out in the Catholic blogosphere—and though there was much, perhaps most, of his schtick that was pure Elmer Gantry grifting, there’s no denying the power of the key turning point in his reversion story. As he told it in a 2009 EWTN video (using the same words he always used to tell the well-rehearsed tale), John experienced something life-changing when, after having been a self-described “somebody” on top of the world of Hollywood vice and sin, he hit bottom and found himself a nobody near suicide:

I said to God, “Lord, I don’t even know if you’re real, but if you are, you’d better help me and help me now, ’cause I just can’t go on.” I had completely lost hope. That night I had an experience that I cannot explain and won’t even try to. It’s beyond my ability. Peace. Deep, penetrating, all-pervasive, all-encompassing peace. I couldn’t move, I was captured by peace. And when I was released from that peace early in the morning, I knew one thing: I knew God’s name. It was an inner knowing. No preacher had preached it to me. I hadn’t read it from a book. I knew it from the inside out: God’s name is Mercy.

In all the hype, those words ring as true as anything. And whether it was the road-to-Damascus lightning bolt he characterized it as or the more likely (and thus, to my mind, more common and therefore easier to identify with) response to the desperate freefall of a 34-year-old failed real estate huckster and junkie with nowhere to land but on his devout mother’s couch, it was right on. God’s name is Mercy. And whatever else Corapi may or may not have been responsible for, he paid the gift of that inner knowing forward, and nudged quite a few who mightn’t otherwise have taken the leap back into God’s merciful arms. I always found it significant that this man who made more on his preaching than he ever did churning West L.A. condos gave only two things away for free: you could go to his website and pray, along with his recorded voice, the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.

So I took a look at the leaflet I got handed last year, thinking I’d give it a shot. Novenas—prayers prayed for a special intention over a duration of nine days—I know about, from long experience. My mother and our next-door neighbor, Auntie B, used to sit in the breakfast nook and pray rosary novenas for the intention of delivering their husbands from alcoholism. (They saw no irony at all in the fact that, their prayers concluded, they would share a pitcher of martinis while airing their mutual sorrows.) My ex-mother-in-law, a woman of at least Mama Corapi’s level of devotional proficiency, taught me what she called her Storm Novena—intense, heartfelt prayer sustained for 9 consecutive seconds—for emergencies. Chaplets (non-Rosary combinations of prayers counted off on a rosary or other set of beads), not so much, though my ex-MIL also numbered quite a few of these among her spiritual artillery: the Franciscan Crown, the Chaplets of St Anthony and St Michael,  the Seven Dolors, and so on.

Per the leaflet, the Divine Mercy Novena consists in praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy for 9 days—ideally, beginning at 3pm (the “hour of mercy,” because it is traditionally considered the time when Jesus died for our sins) on Good Friday and continuing through today, the Vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday. There are intentions associated with each day, taken (as are the other prayer texts) from the writings of St Faustina. I have to admit my resolution didn’t survive beyond Day 1. It’s not that I have anything against the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. On the contrary, the prayers are short and sweet—making the Chaplet preferable to the Rosary, I’m told, among overscheduled young converts—and I especially appreciated the repeated emphasis on asking God’s mercy “on the whole world.” Speaking that phrase aloud these days conjures up a mental newsreel of horrors, and is a terrifically effective reminder that we are a planet desperately in need of mercy.

A contemporary icon of
The Merciful Christ

Last year, it just didn’t seem that I needed to add another devotion to the many I’m rediscovering. Perhaps you couldn’t teach an old revert new tricks. But then, last September, I traveled on another archdiocesan pilgrimage, to the Marian shrines of Portugal, Spain, and France. We paused each day at 3 to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy together, often led by the sweet, prayerful voice of a young Filipina who was discerning a vocation to religious life. On our return, my friend Michael gave each of the pilgrims a CD with the recorded recitation from the day we were at the Cathedral of Santa Maria Real de la Almudena in Madrid. When I heard of the Newtown shootings in December, I played the CD and wept and prayed for mercy. I join in the Chaplet at Adoration now in my new parish.

I still can’t get organized enough to complete a novena (just as I can never complete a streak of more than 3 or 4 First Fridays), so I’ll leave that discipline to others. My friend Frank Weathers is wrapping up an excellent series of posts on the novena today.

But in any case, I will continue to pray—not just this week, not at certain hours only, and not just on this Divine Mercy Sunday (a much better name, admittedly, than the traditional Low Sunday, with its eponymous attendance levels, or Doubting Thomas Sunday, or even Quasimodo Sunday, which is kind of cool)—but every day and always, for God’s mercy. On me and on the whole world. On the painter of that icky image. On the churchmen who told Saint Faustina she was wrong. On those who were led home and those who were led astray by L’Affair Corapi. Even on John Corapi himself, wherever God’s mercy may find him.

Other Resources
For those who want to learn more, the National Shrine of Divine Mercy website probably has all the answers.  Fr Dave Endres has a lovely reflection on Divine Mercy Sunday on the blog of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

UPDATE: Wow! Steven Greydanus, at the Register, had my thoughts before I had them today. Check out his post for the original Divine Mercy image (better, I think, but still not terrific) and more on chaplets and devotions.  H/T to Joseph Susanka for the connection.

UPDATE II: The Crescat doesn’t care much for the Hyla image either. It’s a Divine Mercy pile-on today. Best takeaway: Kat’s allergy to “shitty Jesus art,” which I share.

  • Billy

    Wow, thanks. I learned a lot. I've seen that picture of Jesus and never liked it. Always struck me as either New Age-y or like the deity art from India (and a bad Occidental attempt at imitation of the style at that). Still can't say I'm a fan, but nice to know the story.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00442985285647041700 Melody K

    I'm not a revert, but Divine Mercy and Sr. Faustina weren't on my radar either until Pope John Paul II officially designated the Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday. I was thinking at the time, why not use one of the Sundays in Ordinary Time, we've got plenty of them. The Sunday after Easter is still about Easter, for me. But reading St. Faustina's diary I read that in her vision the Lord asked for it to be then, so I guess one can't argue with that.As far as the images, I'm not a big fan of the Hyla one either. I prefer the original. Though both of them have an interesting history. I read that Mr. Hyla painted his image as a thanksgiving for his family having survived the war. And the original painting was lost for a long period of time, was only found and restored years after WWII. Jesus art is pretty much always bound to disappoint, some more so than others.I like the chaplet, it's sort of a rosary for people like me with a short attention span.

  • http://roughplacesplain.tumblr.com/ nancyo

    Divine Mercy chaplet, Fatima prayer, none of it was on my cradle Catholic radar either, but I’ve also incorporated the Fatima prayer into my rosaries. I’ve always resisted the Divine Mercy devotion, in no small part because of the images. There are a few I’ve recently seen – some icons and also the one that Elizabeth Foss features ( http://www.elizabethfoss.com/reallearning/2013/03/thoughts-on-divine-mercy-novena-begins-today.html ) that are much better, and I might end up softening toward Divine Mercy one of these years.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Yeah, I had never heard of the Divine Mercy practice until I got serious about my faith a few years ago. Every friday at our local Eucharest Adoration chapel there’s a group DM chaplet prayer that I try to attend whenever I can, which unfortunately isn’t that often since I work full time during the week. I think DM is a fabulous prayer.

    You reminded me of the Fr. Corapi affair. So sad. I really hope he’s found a way to come back into good graces. Divine Mercy certainly applies to him and his problems. Let’s pray for him.

    By the way, an even better song regarding Divine Mercy is “Divine Mercy Flood My Soul” by Annie Karto. I posted it on my blog Friday. Here:
    http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/2013/04/faith-filled-friday-divine-mercy-flood.html

  • cminor

    I’m a cradle Catholic and have been active all my life, and I had never heard of any of it until within the last 10 years or so. My parish celebrated Divine Mercy Sunday last weekend, for I think the second time. ( I missed it due to illness, so I’m still uninitiated.)

    I’m relieved to find that I’m not the only one who really doesn’t like that image, by the way. It’s hanging in our sanctuary right now and looking at it just makes me reflect on all the gorgeous Byzantine iconography or Renaissance art I could be looking at instead. Offer it up, I guess!

  • Marye

    I was embarrassed to admit that I didn’t hear about St. Faustina and the Divine Mercy devotion until a few years ago, when I attended Mass at a different church while I was on vacation, and there was a special devotion after the service ended. Or rather, I’d heard about Divine Mercy Sunday, and something about Saint Faustina, but never put the two together until then. The devotion must be more popular in some areas than others; there was a mention of Divine Mercy Sunday at my church this week, but the sermon focused on Thomas, which I was happy about since he is my favorite Apostle. A man after my own heart.

    The image of Jesus is schlocky–it should be painted on velvet. But there’s an audience for it somewhere.


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