A few weeks ago, our family did what so many others have done at Christmas time for nearly 70 years: We watched It’s a Wonderful Life. Our children met George Bailey and the angel Clarence for the first time, while my husband and I saw these old friends again for the first time in years.
Many of you know the story: George, fearing financial ruin for his family, decides he’s “worth more dead than alive.” He goes to a nearby bridge intending to jump, but not before crying: “Dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way… show me the way.”
That night, many faithful friends, relatives, and children send up fervent prayers for George, so Saint Joseph sends the angel Clarence down to help. Moments before George’s intended suicide, Clarence shows up and stops him in the nick of time, giving him a new appreciation for the gift of being alive.
This old movie continues to be loved through generations because its message resonates in the depths of the human heart: In his darkest hour, a person can be rescued through the power of prayer and the intercession of faithful souls.
This message has a shorter name: Mercy. In her diary, Saint Faustina wrote that mercy is God’s greatest attribute. We hear in the sacramental prayer of absolution that God is the “Father of mercies.” And Pope Francis has given us a whole year to celebrate exactly how merciful God is to every one of His children.
The Woman the Side of the Road
One recent morning, Sister Maria, Servant of Abba Father, of the Order of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts of Jesus and Mary, was driving when, in the mist, she saw the form of a woman walking on the side of the road. Drawing closer, Sister Maria saw that the well-dressed woman kept glancing behind her at oncoming cars, looking distressed, yet was not asking for rides. Sister Maria pulled over.
Here is the rest of the story, in Sister Maria’s own words:
As I rolled down the window, she looked at me with an expression of utter astonishment and disbelief. Before I could ask if she needed anything, she asked me, “Why did you stop for me?”
Her eyes were red from crying. I fumbled a response about wanting to make sure she was all right. New tears welled up in her eyes as she repeated the question with a different emphasis, “But why would you stop for me?”
Moved by the tremor and anguish in her voice, I responded as gently as I could, “Because you are my sister, and I want to help you if I can . . .”
Her head dropped and she started sobbing. She jerked the car door open and sat down heavily, slamming it shut behind her. I noticed again that she was attractive, with a face that was uneven in some places but still beautiful; about forty years old and with long, dark hair. As soon as I pulled back onto the road, she started trying to speak through her sobs.
“Sister, I would . . . be better off . . . dead. I just . . . want to die!” She struggled to compose herself. “I’ve been walking for miles. I was at the casino most of the night, and as I was driving home I got a D.U.I. The police took all the money I had left. I won’t be able to keep my job now that my license is gone . . . But I don’t want to live anymore.
“Five years ago, the man who was the love of my life, who I’d been married to for ten years, came home drunk. All the years we had been married, he had never had a drink, and he had never hurt me. He was the leader of our AA group. That’s how I met him. But he came home drunk, and he tried to kill me. He kicked me in the head thirty times. He broke my face in nine places. He went to prison, and since then I have never been the same.
“It’s been one downward spiral. I went back to drinking, and I started gambling. No one will ever love me. I’m too crazy to love. As soon as someone shows an interest in me and wants to have a relationship with me, I call all the time and if they don’t call me, I start to yell at them that it’s not enough. Then they don’t want to have anything to do with me. I know God has given up on me. I was just telling myself that He has given up on me, so I might as well give up on Him . . . but actually . . .”
There was a long pause. I looked over at her and saw that she was staring ahead at the road.
“Actually . . . that was just when you pulled over.”
We drove on in silence, as she absorbed the implications of her realization. Then I told her that God still loved her, that He never gives up on anyone, that this is proof that He still has a plan for her life. She became calm and gently wiped stray tears throughout the rest of the trip. By the time we reached her place and said good-bye, there was peace in her smile.
After I dropped her off, I thought of the faithfulness of God the Father. His Heart is the same as it was in the Old Testament, when He would reach out and make a covenant with His children, and they would break it, and He would make another, and they would break it again, and then He would reach out with another. He faithfully does that through the entirety of our lives, and no matter how often we break our covenant, He offers another.
A few days later, I called the woman to make sure she was doing all right. She told me, “Sister, when you pulled over, I had been looking over my shoulder because I was waiting for a semi-truck, and was planning to run in front of the next one I saw. But when I got back home, I looked at my journal, and I saw that I actually have made some progress in the last years. God has been doing things in my life, and I’m glad I didn’t waste all that by throwing it away.”
Others on the Roadside
That woman was not the first person to experience God’s mercy on the side of the road. In Luke 18:35-43, “a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging,” when Jesus passed by. Though the crowd tried to silence him, the blind man cried out loudly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
And Jesus, the Son of David, stopped for this person on the side of the road, called him to Himself, and had mercy on him, healing his sight. Two thousand years later, when Sister Maria stopped for the woman she saw on the side of the road, and called her to come to the Lord, she echoed the same mercy, ever ancient, ever new.
All around us, people are standing on the side of the spiritual road, suffering, desperate, crying for mercy. They are not strangers to us; they are our siblings. Sister Maria called the woman “sister,” because she knew that they shared the same Father. The same God had given both women His precious gift of life, and the Father who loves them both had a plan for them that morning. One sister was lost and desperate for her Father’s love; the other sister found her, and revealed to her that love.
In this Year of Mercy, may God the Father of mercies grant us the grace to see those desolate figures in the mist, whether they’re walking on a highway, waiting in a restaurant, or sitting in our living room—and help us to show our brothers and sisters the healing love that awaits them in His arms.
The author is grateful to Sister Maria, Servant of Abba Father, for her indispensable contribution to this story.