Posted On October 3, 2016

An Unexpected Mantle of Mercy

Any time I meditate on a Scripture passage involving the apostle Peter, I can really relate to Peter’s humanity. The Bible does not hide his doubts, struggles, audacity, or defects. We see all these things emerging in a surprising encounter with God’s grace and mercy that is described in Acts Chapter 10. Let us open our hearts to receive this Word of God:
Peter went up to the roof terrace to pray at about noontime. He was hungry and wished to eat, and while they were making preparations he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something resembling a large sheet coming down, lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all the earth’s four-legged animals and reptiles and the birds of the sky. A voice said to him, “Get up, Peter. Slaughter, and eat.” But Peter said, “Certainly not, sir. For never have I eaten anything profane and unclean.” The voice spoke to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.” This happened three times, and then the object was taken up into the sky. While Peter was in doubt about the meaning of the vision he had seen, the men sent by Cornelius asked for Simon’s house and arrived at the entrance.  (Acts 10:9-17)

When we first encounter Peter in this passage, we know two things about him: he goes up to the roof to pray, and he is hungry. It’s tempting to just think that Peter had a hallucination because his belly was empty. But the first thing we learn is that he went up to pray: he went off by himself, willing to encounter the Lord, desiring to listen to God’s Word. Does that mean his hunger disappeared? No! Having a full stomach is not the prerequisite for encountering God. We enter into prayer with all of our humanity, with our body, with our thoughts, our emotions, our intuitions, even our rumbling stomachs and our backaches. Just as with Peter, God can encounter us and wants to encounter us precisely where we are weak, or empty; when we recognize our poverty, His grace can enter and work.

In this moment Peter encounters something completely unexpected: a sheet full of animals being lowered from heaven. I can imagine him having very mixed feelings about this cloth descending from heaven with the creatures to be slaughtered. Maybe a part of him was almost hopeful, seeing potential food, but also irritated because he know he could not eat. He was probably intrigued, but possibly angry and frightened. Are not these often the same reactions we have when the Lord speaks to us through uncomfortable circumstances? Maybe we are scared or irritated, and likely confused, especially if this invitation contradicts our plans or what we had thought was the right course of action.
During this Jubilee year we have been meditating on various facets of God’s mercy, and an image that can help is that of a mantle or cloth. God’s mercy is like a mantle woven of the many experiences of life and the encounter between His grace and our humanity, the threads of our weakness, suffering, hopes, and desires being intertwined with His compassion, forgiveness and unconditional love. When the Son became flesh, God wove His divine life into the very sinews of our humanity, and He continues to clothe each of us with this free gift.

Today we encounter a beautiful and perhaps surprising manifestation of this mantle of mercy in the cloth lowered upon Peter. I’d like to invite you in this moment to close your eyes for just a moment, and imagine what type of cloth or mantle the Lord is placing in your life today, an encounter with His word and presence. What does it feel like? Is it rough, smooth, warm, heavy? Where does it land? Does it wrap you reassuringly like a mantle or crush you to the point of suffocation? What does it contain? And where is Jesus in all this? Can you recognize this cloth as a gift of His mercy?

Each of us may be reacting to our mantle in a particular way; how does Peter react? Not very well at first! In fact, the first thing out of his mouth is No! Certainly not! Why is Peter so quick to say no? He has two main objections: 1) I have never done this and 2) It is impure or profane. This second objection seems fairly reasonable. Peter’s Jewish heritage forbids him from eating food that is unclean.  The problem is what he is calling unclean. Peter is so closed in his conception of the law that he is unable to see beyond the letter of the law to the spirit. He is trapped by the rules, even to the point of initially rejecting God’s Word. He does not have a merciful view of reality.

Peter’s other objection is: I have never done this before. Depending on our personality we might be more or less willing to take dive into something that is foreign to us. But each one of us has our insecurities, those places where we are blocked by fear or a sense of inadequacy. It can be easy to use this as an excuse to the God’s inspirations. But Lord, I’ve never had to confront my friend about pornography before. God, you know I’m incapable of leading a Bible study. Lord, I’ve never had to ask forgiveness for something like this.

Why do we come up with all these objections? If we have never done something before, we are placed before the unknown, and the unknown is scary because we are not in control. At least, it is scary if we think we need to be in control. The need for control is so ingrained in us that it has even shaped our colloquialisms; we use the expression “Everything’s under control” to describe plans and projects, taking for granted that the goal is to be “in control.  But the beauty of being Christian is that we are not in control and we don’t have to be! If I am truly a child of God, son or daughter of a loving Father, than I can trust that He is in control, so I don’t have to be.

If we return to where we left Peter, we find that the story does not end with his objections, but with God’s insistence, and His trust in Peter despite Peter’s objections. We read that the voice spoke again, a second and then a third time. God repeats this invitation (“Get up and eat”) to Peter three times before taking away the sheet with the animals. Here we can see both God’s persistence and also how He leaves us free. At this point Peter realizes that he is not simply daydreaming, but he does not yet understand everything. It is precisely at this point that the sheet is taken away: the sign has been shown, but now it is time for Peter to choose how to respond. It reminds me of the Annunciation, when the angel leaves Mary. She has given her yes, but that does not mean that she is not left perplexed. Here Peter has not even given his yes, but at least he is not saying no automatically. And that is already a big start. If your heart is free, saying “yes” is not the hardest part; it is unlearning all the “no’s” that we have programmed into our system that is the hard part.

We do not see Peter explicitly say yes until several verses later, when he finally explains in a discourse how he has come to understand the meaning of this vision and freely welcomes the Gentiles into the Church just as he has welcomed the Jews. But already, I think we see his conversion of heart taking place, in two ways. First, we read that Peter is still in doubt, and he is pondering the vision he has just had. I think this is a turning point, because for the first time we see a true openness in Peter’s heart. Even though he is in doubt, it is not a futile doubt, but one that seeks meaning and life, like a womb that is empty not because it is sterile but because it is waiting to receive. We see yet another parallel with Mary, who “pondered all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51). I recently stopped to ask myself, what precisely does Mary ponder? Everything that she does not understand! This description of Mary comes right after she and Joseph find Jesus in the Temple with the doctors of the law. She certainly does not understand in that moment why on earth Jesus is there, and why he would make them worry so much! But yet she ponders precisely that reality which is different from her own expectations and desires. She ponders, meditates, welcomes into the deep recesses of her humanity that which is Other, which she did not choose and cannot control, but which she welcomes as a mysterious gift.
This receptivity brings us

to the second point, going back to Peter, the second sign of his conversion of heart: when the visitors arrive, the men sent by Cornelius to summon Peter, he comes down from the roof, and Acts says that “he invited them in and showed them hospitality”. This may seem like just a simple continuation of the narrative, but it is deeply significant, because it is here that Peter says “yes” to the invitation in the vision: Peter was asked to eat the animals that he had considered impure up to that point, to make space in himself for that which appeared unlawful, improper, scandalous, and impossible. By welcoming these messengers — who are Gentiles, let’s not forget — Peter is doing just that. He is following the example of Jesus himself, who shared meals with those considered impure, outcasts, and scandalous. Peter invites these Gentiles to break bread together; he opens his heart to others who are different from him. But in doing so, he discovers that in reality they share the one thing that really matters: a fragile humanity receptive to the Holy Spirit.
Is this not the very fabric of divine Mercy?

Concrete Resolution
Take this week (or as much time as needed) to read slowly and meditate on all of Acts Chapter 10, one paragraph at a time, asking the Holy Spirit for docility to God’s word; the following reflection questions may help:

  • Is there some aspect of my humanity that I see as an impediment to prayer? Can I see how God reaches me through that poverty or limit, as he spoke to Peter when he was hungry?
  • Do I share Peter’s objections? What are those unknown things that frighten me and make me tempted to say no? What do I call “impure” (or useless, or annoying) that the Lord instead wants to reveal to me in its goodness? Do I get stuck because I’m afraid of going against the “law” of expectations, brownie points, appearing perfect, seeming on top of things?
  • What or who do I most try to be in control of? My career? My schedule? My image? My state of consolation or desolation? My children? My talents? My friendships? How can I entrust myself to my loving Father and welcome His presence through the unexpected?

Sr. Ruth 

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