Mercy, mercy, mercy.
She sat there alone in the hallway of the studio, waiting to be called to audition for my film, her fingers doodling in the sand. The ad for the audition said: mature woman 60-70 years old needed. I could see her through the window of the rehearsal room, and I thought of my Aunt Anna. There was something about her--the dyed blonde hair, the way she smoked a cigarette, the lines in her face—something reminded me of Aunt Anna.
A moment later Elizabeth stood before me, to audition, and Aunt Anna was gone.
It can be a strange experience to audition someone, to sit in judgment of their ability to perform at your request. They come to you, these strangers, responding to a casting notice in a newspaper. You make your brief introductions, a smile, a handshake, and then it's business—here are the lines, we'll give you a minute to read the script, anytime you're ready. And then, they perform for you. You sit there, watching, listening, judging—sometimes being entertained, sometimes very moved, sometimes very bored--and then, when you've seen enough, can take no more, you thank them for coming. A smile, a word of encouragement, we'll call you in a few days, thank you for coming.
A brief second of intense vulnerability on their faces—was I alright, did you like me?—unanswered by the judge.
They thank you, wish you luck on your project, and then, out the door. Most of the time, you never see them ever again, an encounter so brief, in some respects, so cold, that sometimes I feel very sad and empty in the departure, even if the performance left something to be desired. It's the awful part of the business, and these actors go from audition to audition often rejected, and you wonder how they do it.
Elizabeth stood there, all 70 plus years of her, and like a trouper, acted out the scene I gave her. I watched her, full of life, as she gave her spin to the lines I wrote. Her face, cracked and crevassed like an old desert floor under the hot sun, came alive with emotion, her small voice grew strong and powerful from some unknown internal source, her body sprung to action against the years of wear and tear. As she got into it, the intensity grew, and suddenly her voice betrayed her, an accent reappearing, and arms flailing dramatically, I saw a tattoo--of all things--on this old lady, a tattoo of blue numbers on her arm, forever etched into her aging skin.
She finished her performance with a flourish, and a smile, and that brief second of vulnerability on her face--was I alright, did you like me?--unanswered, as with everyone, by the judge. In all truth, she was awful, certainly unfit for my character.
But I was profoundly moved by her, by her courage and her spirit, by the life she continued to embrace, and the hope she virtually embodied. I did not ask her about her past, the horror of which I could only imagine. How do you speak of such things to someone who doesn't know you? And anyway it was her present that so moved me, and inspired me. An old lady, putting herself out for judgment, trying to express whatever truth she knows through the craft of acting.
I thanked her, and then did something I never do, did it just instinctively. I embraced her goodbye. She received the hug, and hugged me back, and then she kissed me. Perhaps she was aware what it meant, and then she was gone, out the door, like the rest.
For many years I spent my days and nights at the University with people much younger than Elizabeth. They were struggling, all of them, one way or another, to discover who they were and what they were meant to do. And in that personal uncertainty, in their insecurity and lack of self-esteem, they sometimes looked upon one another as if in an audition, pronouncing judgment and often condemning the peers who lived and learned among them. Not a lot of mercy in their judgment.
It is easier to feel good about yourself if you can demonize someone else… isn’t it? I’m OK—she’s got the problem. He’s the jerk, not me. I regularly observed my young students in these acts of condemnation, usually behind one another’s back. And of course, there were many moments when, truth be told, I found myself doing the very same thing. Like I said, it is easier to feel good about yourself if you can demonize someone else.
But it is possible to change all that, to let go of your own fears and self-doubts, to start anew and see the world through the loving eyes that God casts upon it?
Isaiah's words from the Lord: "Remember not the events of the past... See I am doing something new!", St. Paul: "Forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead...the finish line as I run toward the prize to which God calls me--life on high in Christ Jesus", and Jesus, in the story of the adulteress, brings a whole crowd to look beyond the past in forgiveness: "Let the man among you who has no sin be the first to cast a stone at her".
Five years ago the Pope who watches over our church today was elected. When Pope Francis visited the church of St. Mary Major the morning after his election, he spoke with priests who were working as confessors. “Be merciful to souls who come to you, they need you,” he told them. “Mercy, mercy, mercy.” In his first Sunday homily as pope, he said “Mercy is the Lord’s most powerful message. And that theme of mercy has marked his entire papacy, long these five years, hasn’t it?
Mercy, mercy, mercy.
They are welcome words for the world, and for all of us, in these final days of Lent – an encouragement to all of us who walk and stumble and fall, all of us who feel we have squandered our lives and want to return home, all of us trapped by sin and awaiting judgment and begging, praying, for one more chance.
If we ever doubted it, we need to remember: God’s mercy never fails. He does not throw stones. He does not turn away from the child He loves, even one who abandons Him. He offers, instead, forgiveness. Grace. Reconciliation. A chance to come back. You know what? There is no better time than now to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation, to restore what was broken, to heal what was hurt.
I've often wondered what that young adulteress was like when she grew old, when her hair was gray and thinning, her face etched with lines, her bones weary and shrunken and arthritic. Did she remember that moment when Jesus stooped there, silent, doodling in the sand, perhaps contemplating the bloody glory that lay just before him on crucifixion hill? The young adulteress grown old, silent now. In the years after his death, did she remember him looking up from the sand doodles, pronouncing the judgment of forgiveness? Did she live into old age in his forgiving love?
I couldn't help but think of Elizabeth, my actress, when I read this Gospel. Her spirit clearly embodied some belief in God's enduring love, regardless the sin endured or the sin committed. My prayer for all of us, in this the fifth week of Lent, is that we keep our entire attention on the finish line, running, skipping, hobbling— if our bones are too fragile and our heart too delicate, forward—joyfully, gloriously alive toward the prize to which God calls all of us—life on high in Jesus Christ!
Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.