I went to the courthouse not knowing what to expect.
I just knew it was for sentencing the drunk driver who had killed a good friend, the wife of a former student (I’ll call her “Margaret”) who’d been our friend for many years, and the father of their children (a high school boy and a middle school girl).
During the days after his death and at the lengthy celebration following the funeral mass, I’d heard not one word about the driver who’d killed my friend. Not one word. Clearly it was a decision by the families (hers and his) to focus on mourning their loss and celebrating the life of a very good man. Nor had I heard anything about the perpetrator in the many months since.
When I joined the crowd of twenty-some family and friends outside the courtroom, that’s when I first learned something about the man to be sentenced — a late-twenties unmarried worker with one prior DUI, clearly an alcoholic (something widely understood these days as a disease), and an Anglo (something I need to add since our minds easily jump to ethnic stereotypes). And there I also first learned the far more important fact that Margaret did not want him sentenced to prison.
To my surprise, the prosecuting attorney came out to us to explain what might happen and ask if there were others, besides Margaret, who would like to speak before sentence was imposed. Several did.
He told us that he had agreed to Margaret’s wishes but that the judge (earlier that morning) had expressed opposition to the prosecutor’s recommendations – worked out with Margaret, I assume, over a long period of discussion and discernment. He would still recommend a six year prison sentence to be suspended, a very strict and carefully monitored four-year probation (with any infraction leading immediately to the full prison sentence), and an immediate 90-days in jail with work-release for the man to continue his job. But he again reminded us that the judge might not accept that recommendation.
As it turned out, the judge did accept it.
That’s the background, but not the reason I write. It is, rather, my experience during the late afternoon hour in the courtroom that leads me to write. And not just my experience, but “ours” – Margaret’s family and friends, the man’s family and friends, and (I believe this) most of the “hardened” courtroom staff, from the judge himself to the bailiff. As one of Margaret’s friends wrote in an email the next day, that late afternoon hour was an experience of “Redemption. Humbling. Love. Grace. God. And to them, I would add Restoration.”
As a young woman, Margaret had tested the idea of becoming a Franciscan Sister. She became, instead, a school teacher whose career has been spent in middle and high schools serving minorities, immigrants, and the poor, an equally Franciscan vocation. Yet I said to her after we left the courtroom that she had never been more “Franciscan” than at that hour.
In the court, where all knew that it was her decision not to seek prison punishment, she spoke with eloquent words and occasional sobs about her experience seeing her husband dead in the street, and about the darkness in the months since and still. She spoke of her husband, their life together, and all the good he had done for their family and for the larger community. About their family joy in camping and skiing. About his skills in home renovation, his work as an electrical engineer, his service to his neighborhood and the larger community, and to a non-profit dedicated to helping needy women and children in Asia.
Finally she urged the man being sentenced to use this opportunity not only to clean up his life, but to do more – to do something better for the larger community and world as a small measure of making up for what he had taken from the world.
I have entitled this writing “Mater Misericordiae.” It’s the second phrase from a medieval Latin chant which we sang in the seminary as a final prayer before retiring at night. Some readers may know the translated English prayer I remember from my youth: “Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy….” I urge readers both to listen to the beautiful chant and to read the prayer’s pious words .
At one point in my life I resisted some of that piety about us being “exiled children of Eve” in this “vale of tears.” I wanted to affirm the goodness of the world that God has created and the beautiful Kingdom that Jesus preached. Yet the older I become — the more violence and injustice I see, the more friends and relatives who die, at times so diminished by disease – the more I recognize that our world is both terribly good – a goodness lived by Margaret and her husband and family – and also a place of real exile and tears.
In the chant and prayer, the “mother of mercy” is, of course, Mary the mother of Jesus. She is now the Queen of Heaven who embodies (in her life and through her Son) God’s tender if at times also harsh mercy for our world.
Yet I also intend that title here for Margaret (though I suspect she will reject it). And for all the mothers (and fathers, sisters and brothers) who continue to bring the reality of mercy – of Mercy – into this world. In great acts of hope and loving kindness like the one we experienced in that courtroom. And in ordinary, everyday acts – in classrooms as well as courtrooms, at our tables and on our streets, in churches and workplaces.
The song ends with a plaintive cry to Mary – “O clemens, O pia, O dulchis virgo Maria” (Oh merciful, oh holy, oh sweet Virgin Mary). We don’t often, I suspect, think of the sweet savor of God’s grace, though the rightly famous song does say “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” And we may well think more of such sweetness were we more in touch with God’s feminine and maternal reality – manifest for Catholics and Orthodox above all through Mary.
Mercy is indeed sweet. So I pray that this young man may be led by that taste to a better life. And I thank Margaret for enabling us to taste again, in dark times, that sweet Mercy.