The Merciful Knight
I have long been a Pre-Raphaelite fan, and that definitely includes the magnificent painting featured above, Edward Burne-Jones’ “The Merciful Knight”. I had no idea until today that this image–which always reminds me of Marcelino Pan y Vino–is based on a true story about today’s saint in the calendar for the Old Rite.
You’ll see him called St John Gualbert, but his actual name was Giovanni Gualberto. As his name indicates, he was Italian, born into a noble family in the year 985.
Although he was raised Catholic, young Giovanni preferred worldly things–fun, girls, anything but God. Many of us are familiar with this story, and many of us have lived it.
One day, Giovanni’s only brother, Ugo was murdered, and Giovanni set out to avenge his murder.
Like Iñigo Montoya, Giovanni sought his brother’s murderer throughout Italy, and one Good Friday in Florence, as he walked through a narrow lane, he came face-to-face with the man.
Unlike the proud Six-Fingered Man, Ugo’s murderer was repentant, and he immediately fell to his knees and begged Giovanni for mercy. Mercy, in the name of Jesus, Who had died that day.
Can you imagine what went through Giovanni’s mind and heart at that moment?
How long had he been searching for this man? Had he made it his life’s mission to avenge the murder, just like Iñigo? How it must have hurt him to let it go, after all that time.
And yet… the grace of God must have also flowed through his heart and healed him in this moment. Healed him of the anger, the pain, the resentment. The desire for revenge.
Justice is MINE, says the Lord.
Giovanni forgave the man, and renounced his promise to avenge his brother.
He must’ve been tired at this point. This kind of forgiving, this kind of healing takes a lot out of you. He must’ve been exhausted. So he went to the church of San Miniato al Monte and prayed before a crucifix.
As he prayed, he looked up at the crucifix and saw that the head of Jesus moved! It was bowing at him! Could it have been in recognition of Giovanni’s merciful act?
He had only done what he knew that God had asked of him: forgive. And yet, here was Jesus on the Cross, thanking him for forgiving another.
At that moment, Giovanni realized that it was he who needed to be forgiven, and he begged God for mercy and pardon of his many sins. He cut off his hair and replaced his knightly attire with a borrowed habit. He joined the Benedictines at San Miniato al Monte, and later founded the Vallombrosians, named after the forest where he founded his first convent.
You can read Dom Prosper Gueranger’s biography of the saint here to find out how he spent the rest of his life.
This saint brings to mind another saint, whose feast day we celebrated recently, Saint Maria Goretti.
I was blessed to be able to visit her shrine recently while in Italy (I still have to post about my adventures there, but life keeps getting in the way!). Here are some photos of the shrine:
Her remains are kept downstairs. She is NOT incorrupt.
Her bones are housed inside of this wax statue.
The story of St Maria Goretti has always fascinated me. She was one of the first saints I loved, and I am so blessed to have been able to visit her shrine.
I was also blessed, back in 2015, to venerate her relics when they cane to Philadelphia during the World Meeting of Families. During that time, Father Carlos Martins (of the super awesome The Exorcist Files podcast, which I totally recommend) was in charge of bringing her relics to the United States because of his connection with his other awesome ministry, Treasures of the Church.
At the time, I had a podcast, and I was blessed to interview Father Martins, who has a special love for St. Maria Goretti, and who told me the story of her martyrdom, including many detail I’d never heard before.
I love hearing Father Martins tell her story, because he really brings out the important and overarching theme of forgiveness. As an exorcist, Father Martins sees firsthand how a lack of forgiveness is a stronghold of the devil, and how it can block God’s graces.
Imagining Maria handing her murderer and would-be rapist fourteen lilies, one for every time he stabbed her… that’s an image that sticks in your heart, and reminds you to forgive.
The Heart of the Matter
I’ve been tryin’ to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about
Even if, even if
You don’t love me anymore.
–Don Henley, The Heart of the Matter
In an earlier post, I explained some of the reasons behind my belief that God led me on a pilgrimage for one through Italy. I left one main reason out, mostly because I don’t want to commit the sin of detraction. But since it deals with an issue that many of us face and are not often sure of how to handle, and it deals with more of my inner healing, I will discuss what I learned from the experience in the hopes that it helps others.
This past Good Friday (just as with St Giovanni Gualberto, not coincidentally), I was let down by some people who I considered to be very dear and trusted friends and mentors. I can’t make sense of their actions, and the more I think and pray about it, I don’t think I ever will be able to do so. I know that I should just leave that judgment up to God. Suffice it to say their behavior was hurtful to me because they did not live up to my expectations.
This is not the first time a close Catholic friend has hurt me in this manner, and it won’t be the last. It’s not the first time that someone didn’t live up to my expectations, and it won’t be the last. What I am hoping is that–this time–I’ll learn what God wants me to learn so that next time, I can put the experience in its proper place and give thanks to God for whatever He wants me to take from the experience.
So, someone you love, someone you trust, someone you admire, or even rely on for spiritual advice or direction lets you down. Does it matter how they do it? I don’t think so.
God allows it to happen so that we might ask ourselves:
- Why am I trusting or relying on other people?
- Why am I expecting other people to live up to my expectations?
The answer to the first question is easy: I need to put ALL my trust in God. He alone merits my trust. He alone will never let me down.
Sure, we can trust others, but we have to accept their limitations. They are human. They will let us down. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but when I think about how many times I have let myself down, I realize I have no right to expect more from any other human being.
As for the expectations… this is a new consideration. I recently began reading Expectation Hangover: Free Yourself from Your Past, Change Your Present and Get What You Really Want. It’s opened my eyes to the fact that what I might see as a betrayal is really just someone’s inability to live up to my expectations of them. That, in and of itself, doesn’t make them bad. My expectations need to be addressed.
Do I have a right to expect anything from anyone?
The more I think and pray about it, the more I see the answer as a hard NO.
This realization really resets the whole narrative for what happened between on Good Friday.
I realize that–at the end of the day–people usually think that what they were doing is right. Whether or not what they did was right or loving, is not necessarily something I can figure out. But that’s not my job. It’s God’s.
What is my job, and God has given me marching orders, is to forgive.
Not to run around telling everyone how I’ve been hurt.
Not to bear a grudge.
Not to seek vengeance.
Not to hate everyone and never allow myself to be vulnerable with people and never have any friends so no one will ever hurt me…
To give to God what is His: the right to judge.
My job is to love.
In the meantime, knowing and remembering that God will never leave me or let me down goes a long way to help me do what He asks of me.
It was this heartache that I brought with me to Italy–this baggage, you could rightly say!–and it was this heartache that God healed.
Sitting in my room at the Hotel Orazia on the morning of my first day staying in the city, I began my morning prayers with a book that brought me great solace, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom by Father Henri Nouwen.* The Inner Voice of Love was Father Nouwen’s personal journal, written while he healed from a broken relationship with a good friend, the most difficult period of his life, he later said. As the book cover states, “he suddenly lost his self-esteem, his energy to live and work, his sense of being loved, even his hope in God.” The book is a series of short spiritual imperatives that he gave to himself as he worked through the pain and healing. I can honestly say that I found all of them to be tremendously helpful, and good solid advice, especially during this time.
I opened the book to this:
This resonated with me. It still does.
I have always had issues with abandonment. The only recurring dream I ever remember having was one I had countless times as a child. I would wake up sobbing. In my dream, I was in a hospital. I think I was there because a sibling was being born. I was alone in a hallway, when suddenly, I saw my family–all happy and gay–climbing into the car and leaving. Without me. Wow, what pain. Abandonment.
The enemy loves to make us feel abandoned. But God will never, and has never, abandoned any of us. Even when we don’t feel Him there, He is always with us. Always watching. Always loving.
He is very close to us, and will put our souls to rest.
Even when others hurt us, let us down, let us run to Him. He will give us the grace to forgive, and the love to give in return for pain.
It was with this thought that I began my third day in Rome–my second in the city, my first in the Hotel Orazia. After my prayer time, I got dressed and ran to the nearby Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore where God continued to feed my soul.
More on that in my next post.
*I know that Father Nouwen can be a controversial figure, but what I’ve read of and from him (so far) has not led me to believe that he should be avoided (I also asked my priest and a trustworthy friend who knows way more than I do about theology–both gave me the green light).
Images: The Merciful Knight, Edward Burne-Jones (public domain), all photos by The Faithful Traveler LLC.