To write about how I spent my summer vacation, I first I have to explain why I packed up food, clothing, medical supplies, a daughter with disabilities and her service dog, and embarked on a one-month, cross-country pilgrimage visiting churches and praying for God’s mercy to cover the United States.
My answer is “because Pope Francis and God told me to do it.”
Pope Francis didn’t personally call me to make this cross-country journey (though I heard he makes those calls). But he did invite the world to spend this year reflecting on the mercy of God.
In April 2015, Pope Francis declared December 8, 2015-November 20th, 2016, a Jubilee Year of Mercy. The Holy Father set aside this year as a special time for prayer and action to reflect on what it means to be merciful and to receive the mercy of God.
In a homily given on the feast of Divine Mercy in 2015, Pope Francis explained, “Here, then, is the reason for the Jubilee: because this is the time for mercy. It is the favorable time to heal wounds, a time not to be weary of meeting all those who are waiting to see and to touch with their hands the signs of the closeness of God, a time to offer everyone, the way of forgiveness and reconciliation.”
My personal encounter with God’s mercy began with a recurring nightmare which started after the birth of my fourth child. In the nightmare, I was out in the middle of a cold dark ocean, treading water with my newborn daughter in my arms.
God spoke to me and said, “You are in the ocean of My Mercy. You can let go. You will feel as if you are drowning as the ocean waters rise over your heads. But I will teach you a new way of breathing: how to breathe underwater.”
Last year, I published “Breathing Underwater” as a memoir to share my personal story of immersion in the mercy of God. Part of this pilgrimage included sharing this story with others and giving a retreat in California for 60 women who longed to experience the mercy of God.
Only months after Pope Francis’ proclamation, my sister died from a debilitating disease. My mother’s death followed nine months later. As I spent time with each of them in their last days, I prayed the chaplet often. Through our sorrows, I witnessed our families being enveloped in the mercy of God. The pain and grief were difficult, but the grace was greater still.
In the midst of these grave personal losses, I watched the presidential election cycle unfold like a circus, while terrorist attacks around the globe took the lives of innocent people. It causes one to wonder if we aren’t living through the end times spoken of in the scriptures.
But just when I was feeling like gloom and doom would mow me over, the familiar melody of the Divine Mercy Chaplet and the Pope’s call to mercy beckoned me to prayer. I knew I had to travel the United States, praying the chaplet and the rosary and inviting God’s mercy into our hearts, our nation and the whole world.
When we left New York, the back of my mini-van looked like a combination of a hospital and a restaurant on wheels, as we traveled with IV supplies, food and water. I knew it was crazy — and I knew it was God.
On the second day of our pilgrimage, at Sunday Mass, we learned of the terrorist attack on the nightclub in Orlando. We prayed for the victims and their families at a shrine dedicated to the mercy of God. Then we continued our journey west, keeping the victims in our prayers, as we visited family and beautiful churches along the way.
One night, we stayed in a cheap hotel in Des Moines, Iowa. The next morning, I hurried out to the car to get IV supplies for my daughter. God spoke to me as I walked, directing my attention to a man sitting on a bench.
“I want you to go and tell this man that I love him. Tell him about my mercy – now,” said the familiar voice that I’ve grown to know is God.
“Lord, I don’t have time now,” I retorted. “I’ll come back out later and talk to him before we go”.
“He’s not going to be there and he needs to know my love now,” was God’s reply.
This banter went around in my head as I awkwardly rushed past the man into the hotel, trying to ignore the voice of God. Then, I realized I had forgotten something in the car. When I returned outside, the man was still sitting on the bench.
“Now,” said the Lord, and I finally agreed.
I walked over to this stranger, reminding the Lord this was a cheap hotel and I was approaching a man I didn’t know in a parking lot.
I introduced myself and told this man, whose name was Bruce, that I was traveling the country praying for each person and our nation to know the mercy of God. I told Bruce that the Lord loved him very much and has a plan for his life. Then I handed him a pamphlet with the image of Divine Mercy and some inspirational scriptures on God’s love.
The man looked up to me with tears in his eyes as he said, “ I needed to hear this right now. I need to know God loves me. Life has been so hard.”
I sat down on the bench next to Bruce, as he recounted his last year of pain, the losses he’d experienced in his family through death, separation and economic struggles. It was all so hard to bear and he doubted God loved him, until now.
I prayed with Bruce on that bench, asking Jesus to show Bruce how much the Lord loved him. Tears fell from his eyes, as he gripped the image of Divine Mercy, clinging to every word of prayer.
Within moments of our encounter with grace, a pick-up truck pulled into the parking lot to take my new friend to a job site. He thanked me profusely as he ran to the truck, stuffing the pamphlets in his bag.
If I had continued to ignore the promptings of the Holy Spirit, I wouldn’t have met Bruce on that bench and he might not have learned God loved him, at least not in that grace-filled moment.
As we crossed the country, the beauty and majesty of nature overwhelmed me with the omnipotence of our Creator. The natural beauty was only outdone by the people we met along the way. The man-made edifices to God adorned hillsides and deserts and stood as beacons in the centers of towns throughout the country. In all these people and places, I witnessed signs of God’s mercy.
One of the highlights of my journey was visiting the Lord’s Ranch in Vado, New Mexico. A friend of mine helps run this ministry which offers assistance to the poor in Juarez, Mexico. The ranch is 30 minutes outside El Paso, Texas, a gateway from Mexico for legal and illegal immigration, drugs and human trafficking. Their outreaches in El Paso have saved many lives, offering food, housing, healthcare and support to the most vulnerable people at the border.
I asked my friend what she thought about immigration reform and the needs of refugees. My friend’s answer was simply profound; “We are called to love the person before us and live by the golden rule: “Do unto to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31)
In the final week of our journey, we headed to Florida. The last time I’d been in Florida, we buried my sister. I needed closure to this year of profound grief, to see my sister’s name on the beautiful new gravestone written above her life’s motto: “We believe.”
On July 4, we visited the Orlando memorial dedicated to the terrorist attack victims, marked by forty-nine white crosses. Sweat poured down my face and mixed with tears as I repeated the prayers I had prayed for the victims the past 30 days. But this time, I had pictures of their faces, placed on their individual crosses, as I prayed for each victim by name.
At each memorial, I placed a picture of Divine Mercy, reflecting on each person’s hopes and dreams as evidenced in the messages attached to the cross. I prayed for family members who lost their loved ones, whose faces now stared at me from beyond the grave.
I prayed for an end to terrorism and judgmental condemnation. I thought of Pope Francis’ call to apologize to and ask forgiveness from all those who have been discriminated against by the church: gay people, exploited women, children and the poor.
In mercy, I asked forgiveness from each of the victims by name. I had 49 images of Divine Mercy in my purse. I didn’t plan it that way, but God knew exactly what I needed, because He knows each person by name and now I do too.
Pope Francis reminds us, “Now is the time for mercy.” and “The Name of God is Mercy.”
Imagine what would happen in the world if each one of us practiced mercy in our hearts, if we learned each other’s name and listened to each other’s stories. Imagine if we took the time to know the immigrant, the poor, the child, the gay person by name, rather than by a group identity.
If those of us who are Christians share the “reason for our hope with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15), and learn each other’s name, maybe then the world could know the “Name of God is Mercy.” Then God’s Name of Mercy might be found on each person’s lips and echoed in every heart.
Eileen Benthal is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a B.A. in Theology from Franciscan University. She is the author of Breathing Underwater: A Caregiver’s Journey of Hope.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, Johanna, is a teenager with special needs.
Eileen can be reached at CareforaCaregiver.com.