New Mercies Every Morning

His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning
(Lamentations 3:22-23)

A burning lamp is a Biblical symbol of vigilance, fidelity. Waiting servants, no less than the ten virgins of the wedding party, are expected to keep their lamps supplied with oil for one purpose: keeping the lamp’s light aflame. And that flame means much more than light to see by. It means love, love that remains constant and strong no matter how long you have to wait for its consummation.

Love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame. (Song of Solomon 8:6)

But the Lord needs to exhort us to this vigilance. His parables make very clear that love tends to slacken in the prolonged absence of the beloved. Formerly diligent servants begin eating and drinking to excess, mistreating their fellow servants, and so are caught scrambling when the Master comes (cf. Mt 24:45-51). In the waiting is the trial of love and fidelity.

This is not an unforeseen and unfortunate test. This vigilance, as St. John Henry Newman observes, is distinctively Christian. He imaginatively compares Christian spiritual instincts to the natural instincts of animals who often sense what humans cannot readily perceive. Christians likewise, he says, have a hidden but real appreciation for the presence and activity of Christ in their lives—which those without an active faith, hope, are insensible to. Christians look out for him, hope for him, and love him whenever they encounter him.

They, then, watch and wait for their Lord, who are tender and sensitive in their devotion towards Him; who feed on the thought of Him, hang on His words; live in His smile, and thrive and grow under His hand. They are eager for His approval, quick in catching His meaning, jealous of His honour. They see Him in all things, expect Him in all events, and amid all the cares, the interests, and the pursuits of this life, still would feel an awful joy, not a disappointment, did they hear that He was on the point of coming. [1]

The good this watching brings out of us is a properly Christian love, tested and proven genuine, courageously loving God and neighbor unto the end, as Christ loved his own unto the end (cf. Jn 13:1). Combining the two images of light and love, St. Therese of Lisieux memorably applies the Lord’s words in the Sermon on the Mount to our need to love consistently on all fronts:

Charity must not remain hidden in the bottom of the heart. Jesus has said, “No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel basket, but upon the lampstand, so as to give light to ALL in the house.” It seems to me that this lamp represents charity which must enlighten and rejoice not only those who are dearest to us but “ALL who are in the house” without distinction. [2]

Beginning a relationship, or even an engaging project, sustaining enthusiasm takes no effort. But as time passes and tangible rewards diminish, love may lose its focus and fall to seeking distractions and entertainment where once it couldn’t take its eyes off of the beloved person or object. And not infrequently, when we feel fatigued or unrewarded by the routine of our lives, we fall back on statistics: how much time we’ve spent doing one thing or another, the miles we’ve gone, whether someone has told us thank you or not. Somehow, we think, all these things should be adding up. I should see and feel the difference that all of this is making.

Would things change if we were to know that God is pursuing us all the time? Would we live with greater intensity of purpose, with eyes and ears ever open to him, if we could appreciate that Christ ‘runs’ to us, “crying out by words, deeds, death, life, descent, ascension, crying aloud to us to return to Him”? [3] If we seem to be the ones doing all the work to make ourselves happy, to keep our lives livable and fulfilling, the gospels provide an alternative, inspired narrative to follow—indeed, all of salvation history tells an altogether different and true story:

At every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Saviour. [4]

As the Catechism beautifully notes, God’s closeness to us is more than an idea. It takes flesh in Christ. When he became man and began walking the earth, he did not go about aimlessly. He went in pursuit of sinners. The Son follows our tracks into whatever caves, dens, or pits we have retreated to protect the meagre happiness we’ve cobbled together for ourselves. When he finds us he questions our success, “Well, my friend, is it working? Have you found happiness all on your own? How long do you think it will last?”

Jesus takes our happiness very seriously. But the first thing we need to know about happiness is what it is not. It is not coterminous with having a good time, whatever having a good time might mean for us. Human happiness is something very specific, rooted not in the flesh but in the spirit. It is communion with God in the greatest possible intimacy forever—without fear of loss or corruption of the relationship. We were made for no less than the unveiled vision of him, in which vision we see as we are seen and know as we are known. In this we immediately recognize the language of love: total and mutual self-disclosure, trust, and acceptance. We are penetrated and filled completely with the infinite love for which God created us. That is heaven. Forever. Hell is the absence of all of that. Also forever.

What causes burn-out among servants of God is very often seeking something less than God as our happiness. In waiting for him, it is not so much that our flame goes out, but rather that it searches for other things to burn, to consume. The restless servants of the Lord’s parable begin to consume food and drink to excess, to get drunk and even abuse their fellow servants. When excess or worldly diversions fail to satisfy our longings, we stop refilling our lamp with the vital oil it needs to keep burning. And then the burning turns destructive, of self and of others. We consume whatever is at hand, however dangerous to our spiritual and physical wellbeing. This helps us better understand why the Lord is so proactive about our happiness, and so eager to orient us firmly in the right direction. This is also why God becomes man to meet us where we stray. God goes where we least expect him to show us the way out.

Jesus asks, as though it should be common sense for us, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it’” (Lk 15:4)? We search frantically for a lot of relatively unimportant things which we nevertheless take very seriously. Looking all over for car keys, cell phone, or something as small as a paperclip—each useful and even necessary in its own way—but possessing nothing like the importance of one human soul.

Well, whatever examples you wish to use: sheep, cell, car keys—the Lord implies, if I may say: You get the point. He’s always got his eyes on us. And when he steps into the trenches of human misery, he reaches out to those whom he generally identifies as “the sick” (Mt 9:12). The sick can neither heal themselves, move themselves to higher ground, nor sometimes even identify their own illness. This may be especially true when the symptoms are not patently the result of sin, but a general feeling of dissatisfaction or frustration. When the cause of our spiritual lethargy is not easily identifiable as this or that sin, rising up from one’s languor is not an obvious step up a ladder.

Healing for our sickness always comes from a deep encounter with the living God as we are, not as we would like to be. It is not: Once I’ve gotten my act together, gotten sober, become virtuous—then I’ll start being ‘religious.’ No, it’s in the sickness itself that the divine Physician seeks to join up with us, to share our food and our conversation, to heal us. God goes out to meet the prodigal son, rests at a well to meet a jaded woman, and sits at table with tax collectors and sinners in Matthew’s house. The bond created as the Lord descends into our worst states is the relationship that saves us: between Savior and sinner, between Physician and the sick.

Staying with these three persons from the gospels for a moment, we see combined both moral failure and a general sense of burn-out. The Samaritan woman who came out to draw water in the heat of the day (Jn 4:1-42), the Prodigal Son impatiently asking for his inheritance (Lk 15:11-31), St. Matthew sitting at his tax office (Lk 5:27-32)—all are sick of what they’ve got, even if they possess a lot: a series of paramours, an inheritance, a sizeable cut of tax money. Money, freedom, lovers, the things that so many people fall for as equaling happiness, each leads inevitably to boredom and regret.

Burn-out is inevitable, however great the accumulation of wealth and pleasure, as St. Josemaria implies:

That is why you find so many people who from a human point of view ought to be ever so happy, yet they go about uneasy and embittered. They appear to be overflowing with happiness, but just scratch beneath the surface of their souls and you will discover a bitterness more bitter than gall. [5]

Forcing this world’s goods to supply for the deep desires of the soul is demanding the impossible. As everything begins to stagnate, stale, corrupt, the protagonist in all the gaining is drained. The burned-out might pray out of sheer exhaustion: “Lord, make my life a little easier. Lord, make my life a little more ideal.” And why? So that I won’t have to come to this well to draw water, or have to hang around the homestead and take orders from my older brother, or spend another day sitting in this tax office…. We can fill in the blank.

And what is God’s answer to these prayers? For the Samaritan woman, it isn’t a miraculous jar of water that will never run dry. For the Prodigal Son starving over a pigsty, it isn’t a care-package. For Matthew, it isn’t more cash and early retirement. For each it is a new relationship with One who is living Bread, living water, and poorer than any ordinary man could ever be. Knowing him makes all the difference between hating and rebelling against our lives and finding a lamp to guide our steps in a new direction.

It is a mercy of God, albeit a painful one to receive, that he doesn’t cater to what we think is the answer to our dissatisfaction with life. Our solutions are often surface-level, meeting ego-centered needs: a craving for success and recognition, a sign that we matter in this world, results, etc. But God refuses to feed our illusions with things that vanish like smoke (cf. Ps 102:3). Not that he doesn’t encourage us periodically with success, but he won’t indulge us with an unbroken chain of satisfactions. Sooner or later, every chain runs out of links. The Lord does not want death, our death, to be the only occasion of loss for us, so he allows lesser “deaths,” even daily, to loosen our grip on the things of this world that we might lift up our hearts higher than the horizon.

Seek union with God and buoy yourself up with hope – that sure virtue – because Jesus will illumine the way for you with the gentle light of his mercy, even in the darkest night. [6]

Seek union with God…. Let that mean for you whatever it needs to mean: going to confession, making an hour of Eucharistic adoration, being more consistent in daily prayer, going to church when you aren’t ‘obliged’ to be there. Make yourself available for the Lord’s healing touch. The Shepherd who rejoices when he finds the lost lamb, rejoices even more when we want to be found by him—in whatever state that might be, no matter how lost or downhearted.

St. Josemaría minces no words:

Let’s not deceive ourselves: in our life we will find vigour and victory and depression and defeat. This has always been true of the earthly pilgrimage of Christians, even of those we venerate on the altars. Don’t you remember Peter, Augustine, Francis? I have never liked biographies of saints which naively — but also with a lack of sound doctrine — present their deeds as if they had been confirmed in grace from birth. No. The true life stories of Christian heroes resemble our own experience: they fought and won; they fought and lost. And then, repentant, they returned to the fray. [7]

And what did they learn upon returning to the fray? That God is faithful. That God can and does use those very side trips into failure as the material for deeper trust and hope. Otherwise, the saints would tap out and stay out. But no: they keep coming back. “Another fall,” exclaims St. Josemaría, “and what a fall! Must you give up hope? No.” What justifies this “No”? [8] Something far greater than will power, something more renewable than resilience, a strength more constant than a dogged determination to succeed. It is the Light that cannot be snuffed out or suppressed, even by my repeated falls, even by my negligence and stupidity. The darkness cannot master this light, cannot handle it, but must let it shine.

Our justification, our right, to hope comes from the Lord who does not make us wait for a sunny day before rushing to our need.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is thy faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:22-24)

“Every morning” does not mean that God’s mercies are available only after a twenty-four-hour waiting period! No, his mercies are never-ending, always new and renewable. Or in the simple and memorable words of a contemporary religious song, “However great the sin, Mercy rushes in.” [9] As soon as we’ve broken something, the Lord is there, ready to forgive and heal.

It hardly needs to be said that this Biblical spirit has always been the spirit of the saints. But never think that their need for mercy was only make-believe. Never imagine that the saints are made of different stuff than you. If we want to cultivate the same hope that buoyed them up, we must trust in the same mercy that sanctified and saved them. We need to insist on this or else risk viewing saints as quasi-superheroes, to be admired only but not imitated.

Hubert van Zeller highlights this common error, as we so easily assume that holy people don’t feel the force of temptation or have no need to struggle in their spiritual journey:

A mistake we make is to think of the saints as triumphing over temptation by the felt force of ardent love. Some of them, certainly, experienced this fire, but for most of them it has been a question of grinding out dry hard acts of faith and hope through clenched teeth. The saints have had to fight every inch of the way against discouragement, defeatism, and even despair. [10]

Coming directly from his own experience, St. John Henry Newman affirms “Therefore I will trust Him.” But listen to the circumstances in which this trust is actually forged and lived out:

3. Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—still He knows what He is about. [11]

That is not a comfortable meditation. It is the testimony of a faithful, trusting soul who knows the Lord so intimately that he can sustain all of the ways in which God acts contrary to his sense of security or stability. He knows the Lord is good, even if he himself doesn’t feel particularly good about being lonely, sad, or in darkness. A deeper conviction of faith declares from the depths that “All shall be well.” And that voice from the depths is not wishful thinking, but God’s own Spirit interceding for us “with sighs too deep for words” (Rm 8:26).

We know that even after Christ’s coming, after the prophecies have been fulfilled, feelings of hopelessness and abandonment, or weariness with life, can creep back into our lives—resurfacing after prolonged struggles, repeated failures, or serious disappointment. Like the sad disciples en route to Emmaus, “we had hoped” is the weary refrain of those let down on their journey.

Saint Josemaría’s encouragement not to give up not only points to this discrepancy between our Christian ideals and our lived experience of falling short, but also to the first casualty of the conflict: hope. He offers some realistic advice. After exclaiming “How low you have fallen this time!” he calms the fallen soul: “Begin the foundations from down there. Be humble.” [12] The solution to a fall is waiting for you at ground zero. Of course. If pride comes before a fall, humility always paves the way for a resurrection: He who humbles himself will be exalted. Don’t budge from the bottom, don’t even try to climb out, until you’ve asked the Son of God for a hand up.

Hitting bottom and finding hope waiting for us shows the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be tailor-made for fallen people in a fallen world. It speaks to the tempted and the fallen, the sorrowing and despairing. Jesus described His own mission as “glad tidings to the poor, freedom for captives, and sight to the blind,” and this is the hope enkindled in us each time we look up from our own depths and find it to be a divine rendezvous.

If this sounds fanciful or romantic, the true stories of saintly Christians confined for years in concentration camps or in prisons are proof positive that souls can find the Lord in ways they never had before in their freedom. From modern examples such as Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận (1928-2002), who endured imprisonment for thirteen years by the communist government of Vietnam, to Walter Ciszek, S.J. (1904-84), who suffered more than two decades of harsh, demoralizing imprisonment in Soviet Russia, all the way back to the 4th century founder of Armenian Christianity, St. Gregory the Illuminator, left for dead in a pit for nearly fifteen years, Christ’s most faithful ones learn an unquestioning trust in him by way of extreme desolation, by way of darkness.

Even the prisons that confine saints are still prisons. St. Gregory’s pit remained a pit. The Venerable Cardinal Văn Thuận’s solitary cell remained just that. Servant of God Walter Ciszek’s labor camps were still a part of the GULAG system. For that matter, the stable and the manger at Bethlehem are still a cattle shed and a trough and nothing more. What makes all the difference is our receptivity to the mystery of God’s will, of his inscrutable action in our lives—especially in those dark and problematic places. Without demanding to understand, we trustingly walk in the darkness of this world with only one light to guide us: “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).

We know how challenging it can be for us to serve such a God. We like to be in control—to kindle the fire, turn lights on or off or slide the dimmer to fit our mood. Saints discover by enduring the dark with God that, after all, control might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Independence and mobility might not serve our growth as much as we credit them for. In the end, those who sit in darkness vigilantly waiting on the Lord will behold his salvation: “He lifts up the soul and gives light to the eyes; he grants healing, life, and blessing” (Sir 34:17).

1. John Henry Newman, p. 35, Sermon 3. Waiting for Christ
2. Story of a Soul, john clark, p. 220.
3. Augustine, Confessions, Book IV, ch. 12.
4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1.
5. Friends of God, no. 12.
6. Josemaría Escrivá, The Forge, no. 293.
7. Josemaría Escrivá, Christ is Passing By, no. 76.
8. The Way, no. 711.
9. “Mercy Rushes In,” CD, Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles.
10. Hubert van Zeller, Approach to Calvary, p. 60.
11. John Henry Newman, Part III Meditations on Christian Doctrine with A Visit to the Blessed Sacrament Before Meditation
12. The Way, no. 712.

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem. Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.

Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community's seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms , Home Again: A Prayerful Rediscovery of Your Catholic Faith and Scatter My Darkness: Turning Night to Day with the Gospel. Father's latest book is Coached by Josemaría Escrivá (Scepter Publishers 2023). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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