Mercy Me, How to Crack Open a Hardened Heart

The sacrament of Reconciliation offers us a chance to accept God's mercy into our hearts.


It neither arrived like a lion nor exited like a lamb. It was 31 sunless days, a gray smear of a month, without color and, seemingly, without end.

"Ideal for Lent," John said, reflecting his belief that the cosmos and the liturgical year were made for each other.

John was sipping his after-dinner decaf. His two girls, Ellen, who was 10, and Maggie, 13, had been excused from the table. Ali, his wife, was nursing the icy remains of a Manhattan.

John and Ali always had a cocktail hour before dinner, the winding down of the day, attitudinal adjustment. One drink each. John did not remember when Ali started building a second drink to accompany dinner. It sat directly in front of her plate. Whenever John looked across at her, his eyes also took in the amber mix of Canadian Club and sweet vermouth.

"I suppose so," Ali shrugged.

"We're going to the Penance service tonight," John said.

It was half-question and half-fact. Last Sunday after Mass John and Ali had agreed they would go to the Holy Week Reconciliation service on Tuesday. John thought it would be good for them. "Confessing is good for the soul" was one of his many theological one-liners. He never explained them, just slipped them into conversation the way other people might say "damn."

Ali agreed to the Penance service because she felt it would be good for the girls. Ellen was fine, still a bubbly girl. But Maggie was straining at the leash. Ali thought anything that made her look at herself would help. An examination of conscience was just what she needed to slow her down.

"We're going to the Penance service tonight," John said again, breaking through Ali's self-absorption. This time it was all fact. There was no question in his voice.

"I suppose so," Ali said. She sipped her drink. "But I haven't had enough energy to sin. What am I going to confess—being angry at the lady with 13 items in the under-10 line at the grocery store?"

John ignored the comment. "Well, I'm going to brush my teeth and get ready," he said as he carried dishes to the sink.

It was the way John communicated a not-so-subtle message. "Brush up. We don't want liquor breath in the pure air of St. Finbar's."

John and Ali Leverton and their two children lived on the 22nd floor of the Pierre, an upscale condominium in the heart of the city. In the elevator on the way down to the parking garage, all four of them watched in silence as the digital monitor counted backward—22, 21, 20. As soon as they stepped out of the elevator into the parking garage, they heard a sound coming from the storage area and turned to face it.

The clothes rack that people used to bring laundry and cleaning up to their apartments was coming toward them. It had wheels on the bottom, a vertical pole at the front and back, and a connecting horizontal pole across the top.

At the front of the rack was a girl of about 10, hanging onto the vertical pole, leaning forward. At the back of the rack, pushing hard, was her grandfather, Tom Waters. Tom was huffing but obviously enjoying himself. He had it going fast enough to create a wind in the still, dry air of the parking garage. The wind lifted the long, blondish-brown hair of his granddaughter ever so slightly off her shoulders.

The granddaughter laughed as the clothes rack sped over the smooth cement of the garage floor. She waved as she passed the Levertons.

"You're going to have a heart attack, Tom," John said.

Before she could stop herself, Ali waved back.

"I'd rather be on that coat rack than trudging off to Finbar's," Ali said to her family.

They said nothing.

St. Finbar's was a Gothic masterpiece built more than a century ago. At that time it was the tallest building in the neighborhood, its stone spires majestic against the sky, a symbol of somber transcendence. Now it was wedged between two expressways and overshadowed by office buildings a couple of blocks away. It gave the impression of a stubborn memory that would not give way to a new day.

Inside it had given way to a new day, a Vatican II day. The communion rails were gone; a new wooden altar was nestled down among the rearranged pews; different color banners announced changes in the liturgical year. It struggled to be a warm, even homey, space. The outside and the inside of St. Finbar's were at war with one another.

This night the lights were dimmed. The liturgists had determined that people would enter in darkness and leave in light. As soon as John, Ali, and the kids walked into the church, Peter Swanson came toward them out of the shadows. He was carrying a basket. Because Peter was the head usher, Ali was sure he was looking for money.

"Take a stone," Peter said, "it's part of the service."

In the basket were stones—smooth, oval, gray, and black stones.

"Got them from Garden Supply," Peter said. "You should have been there. 'Could I have 500 stones?' I say to the lady. 'How big?' she asks. 'Size of the human heart,' I say. Get it? Size of the human heart."

"They are a lot smaller than that," Ali pointed out, as she reached into the basket and took out a stone.

"Maybe. But just as hard. Get it?" Peter laughed, pulled John to the side, and began talking earnestly. Ali could hear it was something about the pastor.

Ali, Maggie, and Ellen picked up booklets from the table, found a pew near the middle, and sidled in. When John joined them, Ali leaned over to him. "The man's a fool."

"He gives a lot of time to the church," John countered.

No song, just simple organ music began the procession—two altar girls, two men and a woman carrying baskets, a permanent deacon holding high the Bible, eight priests, most of them from neighboring parishes, and finally Father Kalinowski. As he passed each pew, people turned to one another, whispering and nodding.

"He's back," John whispered to Ali.

Three months ago in the bulletin there had been a brief notice. "Father Kalinowski has gone away for alcoholic treatment. Please pray for him during this difficult time." The brevity of the notice got the real message across: "We have supplied the information so we are not hushing it up, but do not ask for details."

The processional music stopped abruptly. Father Kalinowski stood in front of the altar and smiled.

"I know there is an elephant in the church. It walked down the aisle with me. So we might as well name it. I just came back from a treatment center where I received help for my drinking problem. It was a time of great grace for me. I want to thank everyone for their prayers. I'm happy to be back. Enough said, so now . . ." he bowed his head, paused, raised it up and said, "Let us pray . . .

Lord of mercies,
You know us even when we do not know ourselves.
We gather for forgiveness, not just for what we have done, but for the way we have lost touch with your life.
Take away our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

The rehabilitated priest sat down. His brother priests flanked him on both sides. They gave the impression of bodyguards protecting him in the new and vulnerable life he was now leading.

Ali looked at the stone in her hand and followed the lead of the prayer. She closed her eyes and felt for her heart. She remembered it as a warm center that radiated outward, but she could not find it. Puzzled, she rummaged inside herself like a woman searching her purse. But there was only darkness. She opened her eyes and looked at the dimly lit church. She closed her eyes again, reached inside, searched, but could not find what she was looking for.

Suddenly the words coming from the side of the altar broke into her thoughts. The whole church was standing and the deacon was reading the gospel. Ali quickly stood. John looked at her and smiled.

"But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins," he said to the paralytic. "I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go to your house."

And he rose and immediately took up his pallet and went out before them all.

They were all amazed and glorified God saying, "We never saw anything like this."

"This is the gospel of the Lord," the deacon reminded the people of the congregation.

"Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ," they responded.

"Please be seated," Father Kalinowski gestured with his hands. But before the people could sit and shift for comfort, he began.

"How does it happen? One day we're fine, and the next day we can't walk. One day we're filled with life, and the next day we're numb in the middle. One day everything is fitting together in a nice balance, and the next day we are out of control. We don't see it coming. But one day we discover we are in a waterless, deserted place, and we do not know how we got there.

"When we are there and we don't know how to get out, we give in to our worst instincts. We run with our angers or our lusts or our hatreds or our envies. We become addicted to false gods who promise us life, a life we have somehow lost.

"We take no pleasure in the small things of life—the people we are with, the food we eat, the work we do. Our children become chores to us. Our spouses become just one more person to please. We are paralyzed in our life. Who will give us the power to walk?"

Ali closed her eyes. In her mind she saw Tom Waters, not walking but running, grinning, and pushing the coat rack, his granddaughter thrilled and hanging on.

She opened her eyes and looked down at Ellen. A chore? Maybe not a chore, but also not a pleasure, not a pleasure for a long time. Now Maggie—there's a chore. She did not dare to look at John. It had been a long time since she tried to please him. She had trouble even tolerating his wholesomeness.

Suddenly, there was a twinge inside her, a sense that she had forgotten something about John, something that was very important. She went inside again to find her heart, but there was only darkness.

"We have to ask for life," the priest said passionately.

"When life returns to us, the destructive habits we get ourselves into will not entice us. We will not carp, we will not go silent and sulk, we will not cheat on our generous spirit, we will not nurse our hurts."

The priest paused, pulled his eyes away from the congregation, and looked at the floor. "We will not drink to medicate the pain. We will be greater than our paralysis. We will carry our mat into a new life. Mercy is available. But we must ask. That is what this sacrament is about."

Father Kalinowski sat down. He looked drained. Ali wondered if that bit of self-disclosure was a slip. Something that just came out, and now it was too late to take it back. Did he say something in public that he could not bear to say to himself in private?

The deacon was at the lectern. "Let us examine our consciences together and ask for mercy before we receive the sacrament individually. Please respond, 'Have mercy on us.'

"Lord Jesus Christ, you said, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.' Yet we are preoccupied with money and worldly goods and even try to increase them at the expense of justice. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world."

The booklets in the hands of the people instructed them to respond at this point. They came in on cue, "Have mercy on us."

"Lord Jesus Christ, you said, 'Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.' Yet we are ruthless with each other and our world is full of discord and violence. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world."

"Have mercy on us."

"Lord Jesus Christ, you told the Samaritan woman to open to the fountain of eternal life welling up inside her. Yet we allow our spirits to be dead and fill our days and nights with trivial things. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world."

When Ali said, "Have mercy on us," she felt something move in the center of her. Her voice was pleading. She wanted mercy, and she was not sure why. She looked around to see if anyone noticed she had put too much feeling into the words. John was following the booklet dutifully. The girls were listless.

Ali noticed the church lights were brighter, not yet full glow but definitely beyond dim. They were bringing them up gradually.

The deacon finished the examination of conscience and explained that the service would end individually. The eight priests would be at various stations throughout the church. People could line up and go to Confession. Music would play the entire time, and the church lights would grow brighter and brighter.

After Confession people could drop their stone into one of the three baskets in front of the altar and leave.

Maggie turned to her father and said, "I don't think I'll go."

"Just ask for the grace of the sacrament," John said.

Ali leaned across her husband and said, "It might be good for us,


The priests were not in confessionals. They were standing sideways. The people would come up and talk into their ears. Ali knew which priest she wanted—the one who had medicated the pain. She waited in line, squeezing the stone and watching the light grow.

When it was her turn, she said to Father Kalinowski, "Look at me." The priest turned to face her.

"I want life," Ali said defiantly.

"What do you mean?"

"I want to push my daughter on a coat rack and laugh."

The priest was silent. Finally, he said, "Believe it or not, I think I understand."

"I'm drinking to medicate my pain, my lack of life." Ali saw it with great clarity. Only with the return of life would there be no need for medicine.

"It won't work." The priest was certain.

"What will?" Ali had locked in on Bob Kalinowski's eyes.

"Have mercy on yourself. God's mercy is just permission for us to stop punishing ourselves. Your heart has become hard. Let go of the rock."

"Just how do I do that?" Ali was becoming belligerent.


"For what?"

"For mercy to flow from your heart."

"I can't find my heart."

"Then ask the darkness."

Ali looked at the priest. She knew he had been there. He was waiting, poised on the edge of a precipice.

She tried to say, "Mercy," but it came at the same time as the tears. There was no stopping them. Something inside her had moved. It was like when she was pregnant and the child suddenly kicked. She was sure it was her heart.

The priest seized the opening, leaned down, and said into Ali's right ear:

"God, the Father of mercies, through the death and Resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

Ali heard every word, but she had no word of her own.

The priest waited, then finally said, "Say 'Amen.' "

"Amen," Ali managed.

"And don't forget to drop that stone in the basket. It no longer becomes you. Peace." The priest smiled.

Ali joined Maggie and Ellen outside. The night seemed different after the brightness of the church, mild, even faintly scented with the spring to come.

"Mom, what took you so long? Lots of sins?" Maggie laughed.

"Only one," said Ali. "Where's your father?"

"Talking with Mr. Swanson," Ellen said.

Just then John joined them, moving fast.

"Let's go," he said. The girls went ahead. Ali and John walked side by side behind them.

Ali was aching to tell him. John spoke first.

"You're right. Swanson is a fool. He's pressuring the pastor to get rid of Kalinowski."

"Don't let him do it, John."

"I won't," he said.

Ali looked at him and saw his face was set. He was determined not to let wrong happen.

"What does Swanson think our religion is about, anyway?"

"I just found out," Ali said.

John slowed down. He turned and looked at her. "You don't have to tell me."

"I want to," she said. "I forgot something about you, John. Something I always loved. And I forgot something about myself. How could I have forgotten?"

With his children only a few steps ahead and St. Finbar's only a few steps behind, John Leverton goosed his wife. "There," he said, "consider it a prod to memory."

John and Ali laughed. Their children heard them and turned, then waited for their parents to catch up.

As the Levertons got out of the car in the parking garage, Ali noticed the coat rack was lingering unused near the elevator. She grabbed it by the vertical bar, spun it around, and asked Ellen in a passable wicked witch voice, "You wanna to go for a ride, little girl?"

"No," Ellen giggled, "I want to watch television."

"OK," said Ali, "but it's a standing offer. Anytime."

"Maybe tomorrow, Mom," Ellen said.

The elevator moved up slowly from floor to floor, people getting on and off. John and Ali were against the back wall; Maggie and Ellen were in front of them. Ali leaned down and smelled Maggie's hair.

"Mom, what are you doing?"

"Smelling your hair."


"I used to do it when you were a little girl," Ali said.

"I'm not a little girl anymore." Maggie was adamant.

"I know that," Ali said.

"Then why are you smelling my hair?"

"It gives me pleasure," Ali said and laughed.

She reached for John's hand. It was open and waiting.

Maggie thought about what her mother had said.

"Cool," she finally admitted.

The elevator opened on 22. John, Ali, Maggie, and Ellen were only a few steps from home.

John Shea is the author of numerous books, including Elijah at the Wedding Feast and Other Tales (ACTA, 1999), Gospel Light (Crossroad, 1998), The Legend of the Bells and Other Tales (ACTA, 1996), and Stories of God (Thomas More Press, 1978). This article appeared in the May 2000 issue of U.S. Catholic.

All active news articles