September 24th is the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy, celebrated worldwide in a special way by the Sisters of Mercy. Noted for their work among the poor, the Sisters of Mercy were founded by Catherine McAuley in 1831 in Dublin, Ireland. Known as the “walking nuns,” Catherine and her sisters literally picked up the poor off the streets of Dublin at a time of tremendous poverty and abject human misery, especially for women and children. They sheltered, clothed, educated and fed whoever needed care.
Among the many stories which make up Catherine McAuley’s legacy is one which is particularly relevant today, in our time of road rage, mask wars and vaccination squabbles. It is one from Catherine’s death bed on November 11, 1841.
While she was dying, Catherine reminded one of the sisters sitting by her bedside to care for those sisters who had come to be with her in her last hours. Catherine said, “Get a good cup of tea…when I am gone, comfort one another.”
This was tremendous wisdom in Catherine McAuley’s final words. She knew the value of stopping to reflect on life and death and all that encompasses those realities. If you know the Irish at all, you know that a cup of tea involves a great deal more than pouring boiling water over a tea bag, or ordering it at a drive through coffee shop.
First the water is boiled until the steam touches the ceiling. Then the pot and the cups are rinsed in the water, the loose tea is added to the pot and boiling water is finally poured. After a good few minutes of steeping the tea makes it to the individual cups, preferably china. Now the group can sit and savor their tea with some biscuits and chat. At least an hour, often more, is required for a decent cup of tea.
The experience is more about the slowing down and the spending time with another than the actual drink. It’s not always possible in the midst of life’s demands to stop and make the tea, but it is always possible to simply stop. To take that moment to let the moment come slowly into your consciousness. Whether it be a good moment or a challenging one, a push of the pause button helps.
Knee jerk reactions on our streets, in our homes, or at school board meetings are creating a culture of total impatience, of vulgar and rude accusations, of rush to judgement. It seems impossible to agree to disagree. The art of listening is a lost one. Those with opposing opinions from us have become the untrustworthy “others.” They are threatened and vilified. We seem to be creating a world of “us” and “them.” The only world which will be worth living in is a world of “we.”
Sitting and having a cup of Irish tea with someone who is lonely or sad or stressed is an act of mercy. It is a Christian witness. Having a conversation with someone with whom you disagree is a powerful statement about the ability of human beings to live with differences with graciousness. That also can witness to a life lived in charity and grace.
We can bemoan the lack of civility in daily life or we can do something about it. The start of another way of being with each other is an interior journey. In that pause before speaking or acting, let the Holy Spirit rest in our spirit and then act out of that spirit. Our God has promised to be near us always. Let us allow the nearness of God to be seen in the midst of our daily lives in the give and take of human relationships, in the midst of heated discussions. A nanosecond of turning to God can make an eternal difference.
Sister Patricia McCarthy currently teaches Math at a Catholic School. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.