What if it was named Karma Hospital?

This past week I was teaching in St. Louis at Covenant Theological Seminary, and each morning I drove by Mercy Hospital, a large medical center a quarter-mile from the seminary campus. It is several buildings over a large area, with thousands of people coming in and out day-by-day. And I kept wondering, “What if it was named Karma Hospital instead?”

I do believe that ideas have legs, that what we believe about the deepest things of life shapes the way we live life, and that the way we live life has consequence for life. That is true of human beings, wherever they are and whatever they believe. So whether we are evolutionary materialists or Maoists, whether we are Hindus or animists, whether we are Jews or Christians, faith shapes vocation which shapes culture—for the sake of human flourishing, or not.

Twice in the last couple of weeks I have offered to different groups “A Meditation on Mercy.” Prompted by my musings over “Les Miserables” over the last month, seeing and hearing again the great story it is of mercy incarnate in the lives of Bishop Bienvenu and Jean Valjean, of the despair over its possibility in Fantine, and of the tragic rejection of mercy in Javert, I have wondered again and again about the meaning of mercy.

So I began with “I Dreamed a Dream” with its soaring sounds of sorrow, and then played an almost 2000 year-old song from the Orthodox tradition, “Lord, Have Mercy,” followed by a 400 year-old song from Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion, “Have Mercy, Lord,” then into our own time with Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy,” Where Teardrops Fall” from Bob Dylan’s album, “O Mercy,” and a song simply called “Mercy” from Dave Matthews’ new album.

Is there a deeper longing, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are? In thousands of very different ways we hope against hope that we will find our way to mercy, yearning that someone somewhere knows us and still loves us.

Not every idea about the way the world is and ought to be can make sense of mercy. For example, Bach does better than Matthews, whose best effort falls short of any true mercy. Listening carefully, it is more “buck up,” and “try harder,” as soulful as he is in his song.

Karmas of every kind are different than mercy, which is necessarily personal because it is always a word made flesh, always an incarnation. Whether embodied in Hindu culture which poignantly has no tradition of hospitals, or in Lady Gaga’s whistling-in- the-metaphysical-and-moral darkness of evolutionary materialism, with her artfully strident “Made This Way,” karma leaves us stuck (in moments we can’t get out of). Simply said, not all beliefs are equal to the task of mercy.

And so I am glad that it is Mercy Hospital. In Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy,” we hear “They will bind you with love.” The impersonal, indifferent forces of the universe cannot get us to love, whether from the pantheistic East or the materialist West. Always and everywhere, it is mercy that binds us with love– and that is why the hospital cannot be named Karma.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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