An Icon as an Appearance
The German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt said in her book based from her 1973 Gifford Lecture that “Being and Appearing coincide” – an elusive entry into explaining the experience of being spectated as central and inseparable of existence, when even the most optimistic act of kindness ends up with a skeptic dint of endless criticisms notwithstanding. Mother Teresa, albeit having devoted her life into acting as an icon of mercy in serving the needs of the poorest of the poor, still met with ridicule when critics label her as only making herself appear charitable by using the poor. That and the tasteless accusation of her rubbing shoulders with politicians and businessmen seem to render discouragement to the real intents of charity, reimagining the charitable act as a feigning show. Such is our predicament to the field where we practice mercy today.
Penetrating into this field, the UST Theological Society is persistent in heeding the timely vocation of being icons of mercy by serving, among other dates, on a Sunday, March 6, 2016, three simultaneous community development activities. One in Malasa, Tarlac. Another in Nagcarlan. And another in Quezon City with the Sisters of the Poor. The flight after the launch pad of the Year of the Poor maintains its airtime balance in the challenging yet compassionate atmosphere of the Jubilee of Mercy. The activities of this year prove more than ever that serving the poor, after its celebration, is not passé. Gaining more connections, and therefore entering into new opportunities for service, the Society’s Apostolate Committee stands ground in making the Church, the Home, and the Nation develop and improve by involving a deep desire to change, transmit values, and thereby leave this earth “somehow better than we found it” (EG, 183).
Following then in the footsteps of an exemplary icon, Mother Teresa, the same calling draws us. She might have appeared other than what she intended it to be in the cynic eyes of iconoclasts, but what we believe and see is a woman who has received and has transmitted mercy. She appeared in the world as what she made it to be, as an icon. Her appearance was in itself an Icon of Mercy, an existence whose appearance and disappearance, left the world better than she found it. Appearing then is a proof of being – it is an icon that attests to life. Mother Teresa attests to be an icon who has given us the courage to trudge the path of charity, which happens to be in its other face, mercy. Arendt elucidates this courage: “We, too, are appearances by virtue of arriving and departing, of appearing and disappearing; and while we come from a nowhere, we arrive well equipped to deal with whatever appears to us and to take part in the play of the world (1978).” We too have to play this part in being icons of mercy to others, to constitute an iconic life by which we not only exist but appear to their lives.
My Experience of Mercy
I arrived in the Savina Homes that Sunday, March 6, 2016, bringing only the instruction to share our experience to the children who gathers there every 1st, 2nd, and 4th Sunday; the 3rd Sunday is allotted for the recollection of the Sisters of the Poor and their aspirants. We first had our mass at the Santo Domingo Church with the children, and accompanying them to the Sisters’ residence, distributed food and drinks to them. After the spiritual nourishment they received from the Eucharist, they are fed with physical nourishment. Then we started to facilitate them in their different groups. To my surprise, the group I handled was not that, strictly speaking, fit to be classified as “children” in the roaming around, playful, and perky sense of the term. I had the eldest group composing of girls with the age bracket of 15 up to 22, two of which are special-abled. I then abandoned the pencils and color materials for the children, thinking that a different kind of conversation is in order.
The topic was timely: Charity begins at Home. I began with telling the story of a merchant who has gone rich and was consumed by greed. He became extremely frugal that the rest of the family could not buy anything new for the house. Until there came a point when he no longer gives anything even to his relatives in dire need that the town labeled him as “money bag” or “king miser”. In knowing this he approached a wise man and asked good and valid questions: must I order a construction of a school for the children, establish a public hospital for the sick, or build homes for those in abject poverty? Then the wise man replied: “No, you should first have charity with your wife and children” – Charity begins at Home.
In the home where the Sisters of the Poor take care of the children, they were not just doing acts of charity, but on a deeper level, they were exercising mercy in the concrete. Pope Francis expressed his desire for us to reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy (MV, 15). They too have become Icons of Mercy to the children. But there was another dimension to perceive during the experience. I too was at the mercy of the girls I was assigned. Whenever I share something about teenage experience, they are attentive, but when I theologize these experiences and make it a point to mention God, I noticed that the focus seem to fade and divert elsewhere. Therein lies the reflecting irony of mercy: we often sidetrack the focus of allowing mercy to transcend as a divine attribute, leaving us with the longing for its immanent and humane side instead. I struggled to elucidate this name of God to them but along the way, I realized that they too were reflecting these things in their heart. The diversion of focus was not simply to look away, but as I saw, they looked away to reflect on the words more. Dismissing the pencils and color pens, I made them share instead their experiences of love in the family and the tears of two of them were enough testaments that God has touched their lives, and I was just a blessed recipient of mercy to see and share the moment with them.
Presencing Love as Mercying
Every moment in life is, as it were, an appearance of mercy. If we are not under the mercy of God, the psalmist is right to ask: if you mark our iniquities Lord, who can stand (Ps. 130)? For our existence as persons denote a responsibility that we are much liable: the inner logic of being a person stems from one’s intentions and choices – the choice to act on things that required a better version. Amélie Rorty writes that “the idea of a person is the idea of a unified center of choice and action, the unit of legal and theological responsibility. Having chosen, a person acts, and so is actionable, liable. It is in the idea of action that the legal and the theatrical sources of the concept of person come together (1976).” And the highest level of being a person is something which heeds a higher calling for our lives: “the level of presence: Presences [are] the return of the unchartable soul… They are a mode of attending, being present to [one’s] experiences, without dominating or controlling them (Ibid).”
This higher calling is no other than the choice to make love appear, to attain that mode of attending – of presencing – the person of love who is God. Pope Benedict XVI charts: “God is love! It thus transforms our impatience and our doubts into the sure hope that God holds the world in his hands and that, as the dramatic imagery of the end of the Book of Revelation points out, in spite of all darkness he ultimately triumphs in glory (Deus Caritas Est, 39).” Pertinent to presencing this love is to manifest it, to make it appear, to others as Mercy. As Pope Saint John Paul II avers: “This love makes itself particularly noticed in contact with suffering, injustice and poverty – in contact with the whole historical ‘human condition,’ which in various ways manifests man’s limitation and frailty, both physical and moral. It is precisely the mode and sphere in which love manifests itself that in biblical language is called ‘mercy’ (Dives in Misericordia, 3).”
In this choice of presencing love and therefore of mercy, Pope Francis in his book “The Name of God is Mercy” translates miserando into a non-existent gerund: misericordando or mercying. The element of choice in presencing love and giving the self to others is mercying in the manner that Jesus called and chose Matthew, the tax collector.
Trudging deeper into the trail of appearance, one can well imagine that such coinciding of Being and Appearing as Arendt portrays is not purely a coincidental event. It marks a choice in our lives when we translate our presence into presencing love, a presence which emits and characterizes oneself in the name of God who is mercy. Appearing merciful is not just to feign a show of mercy, but in its coinciding – in its choosing to present love or mercying – with life, it is being merciful in itself.
Amélie Rorty. The Identities of Persons. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.
Hannah Arendt. The Life of the Mind, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1978.
Pope Benedict XVI. Encyclical Letter on Christian Love, Deus Caritas Est, 2005.
Pope Francis. Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, 2012.
Pope Francis. Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus, 2015.
Pope Francis. The Name of God is Mercy, 2016.
Pope John Paul II. Encyclical Letter on the Mercy of God, Dives in Misericordia, 1980.