Healing the Jonah syndrome this Lent

By Br Mark O'Connor FMS, 9 March 2022
The Prophet Jonah and glorious Jesus, as depicted as part of The Last Judgement by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican. Image: Wikimedia Commons


The unfolding shocking tragedy of Ukraine and our own local tragedies like the ongoing destructive floods, grimly confront us daily.

The temptation is to turn away, switch off and just refuse to face the overwhelming pain that seems to be all around us.

But do we have another choice?

This holy season of Lent is an especially good time to deepen the relationship with our only hope, Jesus of Nazareth. Let’s use this season of repentance to seriously reflect on how we can each transform our ‘hearts of stone’ to merciful ‘hearts of flesh’.

However, as we all know, it’s not that easy to maintain our compassionate stance. We can all suffer from ‘compassion fatigue’ and become cold and indifferent people. Jesus, however,  is always calling us to greater mercy and compassion.

Of course, the battleground of mercy and compassion for those suffering involves an ancient and permanent fight between the God of mercy and a humanity forgetful of mercy received or mercy lived.

That spiritual tussle goes on in every soul.

Today’s first reading is about one such troubled and conflicted soul.

This inner dama we all face is captured beautifully in the Book of Jonah, the story of a fugitive who eventually decides to obey his call and preach repentance or destruction. But his God is made in Jonah’s image, and so he gets angry with the intolerable mercy of God, even though in his rage he admits, “I knew you were a God of tenderness and compassion”.

God responds to this infantile rage with a sense of humour. Jonah is soothed and delighted with the shade of a plant, but when it withers he enters another suicidal sulk. And the final words of this shortest of texts are an ironical and unanswered question challenging all our pettiness with the hugeness of God’s mercy: “Am I not right to have mercy on this city where people cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of the animals?”

If our picture of God is too small, our own mercy will be too mean. So we are all on a long and permanent journey out of smallness and towards enlargement of heart.

How then can we help heal the ‘Jonah syndrome’ within ourselves this Lent 2022?

The only really effective way is not more words but the witness of real mercy in action.

We can never dare forget that Christ has told us plainly about the Last Judgement (see Matthew 25), and it has nothing to do with belonging to the right party, church or even being ‘theologically’ correct. We will be judged not on membership cards but according to our readiness to let the mercy of God pass through us to others.

Let’s make our own the prayer of the great Anglican divine and poet John Donne:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

This Lent, may we all allow our hearts to be ‘battered’ and made vulnerable to hear the Gospel afresh

Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications in the Diocese of Parramatta.


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