An invitation to ‘wholeheartedness’ – this is the phrase that captured my imagination and gave me a lens with which to reflect from the opening keynote address of Dr Maureen O’Connell at the RE Conference, ‘Be Witnesses of God’s Mercy’. This idea of whole heartedness, of opening ourselves and our being in a deeply authentic way, of exposing and questioning our own vulnerabilities stayed with me throughout the conference as I listened to workshops and had conversations with participants.
During her keynote address, Maureen invited us into an exploration of mercy from three perspectives; mercy as being, mercy as knowing and mercy as transforming. She spoke of mercy as a way of being that orients us to our own freedom, to uncovering the assumptions, worldviews and philosophies that determine how we respond and react to others and perhaps rethink some of these responses. This requires self knowledge, awareness and reflection as an intentional disposition in our lives. It also means we open ourselves up, exposing our vulnerabilities in order to deeply engage with the other and extend mercy to both self and other – “answering yes to God’s what if’s” as expressed by Emilie Townes.
Mercy as a way of knowing centres around a logic of the heart, rather than a logic driven by power, control or greed. This can easily disorient us as we often find ourselves operating out of places other than our hearts. Working from the logic of the heart has significant implications for us as educators in our relationships and interactions with our students, staff and families. Again, it means placing ourselves in a position of vulnerability where our own positions and thinking are challenged, enlightened, altered or even disrupted.
Mercy as a way of transformation reorients us towards healing and wholeheartedness. This means that we have to acknowledge our own role in the suffering and hurt of others, either directly or indirectly and actively seeking to change this in some positive way. Reaching out to others in mercy is a way of transforming both ourselves and others. It asks us to detach ourselves from what we idolise, from the way we interpret the world and make space for other ways of seeing and being in the world – a hermeneutical approach.
Maureen completed her keynote referring to Parker Palmer, an American author, educator and activist, speaking of the courage it takes to be in this world deeply steeped in the practice of mercy: “ The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that the teacher and student and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning and living require.” (Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach) It is as simple and complex as that!