Spend a day in a surgery waiting room and you’ll witness a hundred quiet acts of mercy.
Strangers gather for a host of reasons with a common cause: to sit beneath the slowest clock and wait it out. They make calls, utter prayers and flip through magazines, and in their anxiety, they extend morsels of compassion: smiles and small talk, directions to the cafeteria and tips on its offerings. One person shown the way by someone slightly less new, flashes of humanity while loved ones down the hall are put under.
The mercy at one Minneapolis hospital, where I spent a recent Thursday as my husband’s elbow was reassembled, began with this text: “Surgery started. Everything going well.” Five words to make you feel oriented and relieved, the optional last three abounding in kindness.
A 60-something couple across from me hunkered down for their daughter’s four-hour surgery, a double mastectomy. A toddler behind them sprawled across her grandpa, staring at the fish tank. A camouflage-clad college student wanted to know where his dad would be recovering overnight. A collared 40-something paced and repeatedly checked on his wife’s status.
We were told we would be notified as soon as any information became available, but people could not wait. The women behind the front desk responded with grace, promising to look into each query and let them know as soon as they learned more. Surgeons periodically popped in, shaking hands and sitting down to explain an outcome in the the most simple and encouraging language they could.
As we settle into a new year already shadowed by political tensions, I’m focusing on the acts of kindness playing out in my midst. A neighbor shoveling for us late at night. Casseroles and cards. A well-oiled prayer chain.
I’m reveling in gratitude and trying to seize entry points for compassion. A trip to the grocery store brings opportunities at every aisle: carts stuck together in the entrance, crowded corners, broken bags in parking lots. It feels so good to help in the smallest of ways or pay a sincere compliment to a weary cashier.
I learned about mercy from an 85-year-old priest – a retired English professor who quotes Samuel Taylor Coleridge and hears confessions twice a week. He donates every month to a free-of-cost hospice founded by Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne and explained to me his reasoning: “Spiritual and corporal works of mercy happen there. We can’t personally do much of that work, and so we have proxies.”
The same organization sends two nurses every month to his retirement home for priests to trim their toenails. “As I get older, my feet get farther and farther away from me,” he said. “That’s the trouble.”
What a beautiful way to serve the church’s servants, the kind of assistance most would never think to provide. “Old folks appreciate the power of touch,” he said.
One of this month’s Scripture readings brings it all home with words from Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord: Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless…and do not turn your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed.”
Acts of mercy aren’t just to be performed when you’re in perfect condition and your to-do list is complete. They’re done when you are wounded – that’s how you arrive at healing.
“Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help, and He will say: Here I am!”