“Okay, kids,” I breathed. “Mommy’s getting pulled over by a police officer.”
I tried to keep my cool, but not only was I in an unfamiliar area, I had never been pulled over before. I had, admittedly, been speeding as I focused more on how to get me and my vanful of kids back home and less on the speed I was going. I deserved a ticket, but I still found myself overcome with emotion.
“For what?” came an unfazed voice from the backseat.
“Mommy was driving too fast.” My heart was racing, but my voice was calm. “A ticket is very fair. The officer is just doing his job.”
But when I pulled over and fumbled through my glove box to realize my recently acquired Wisconsin registration was sitting on my dresser at home, I lost it. I was certain my children were going to watch their mother taken away in handcuffs; all of the emotion rising in my chest spilled out through my eyes.
That poor officer. I’m sure he’s seen it before, but I was . . . let’s just say I was “something else.”
He asked me questions, and I answered them, trying my best to, you know, not look like a maniac. He went back to his car and ran my plate; I Googled how high my insurance rates would go up. After a few minutes, he returned.
He handed me back my ID. “I’ll let you off with a warning this time. Just try to be more careful.”
Whatever semblance of dignity I still had melted. I was profusely apologetic, but I couldn’t stop thanking him. It had been a challenging day for me. A brush with the law would have sent me spiraling. I didn’t have words to explain how grateful I was, what this act of mercy meant to me. Every time I thought of it for the rest of the day, I was brought to tears.
Okay, getting a ticket wouldn’t have been that bad. I was probably—no, definitely— too much. But truthfully I was scared, embarrassed, and disappointed. And the officer’s gesture of belief in me, the second chance he offered . . . It meant so much to me.
A few months have passed since that incident, and I have definitely been a more speed-conscious driver. I remember how scared and overwhelmed I was when I was pulled over, and I never want to feel that way again. Whenever I think about the officer who gave me only a warning, I am still grateful and say a prayer for him.
That interaction has left me deep in reflections about the nature of God’s mercy. Before Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, we sinners would have received exactly what we deserved, an eternity of suffering apart from God’s love. If I reflect on that long enough, much more frightening than any ticket—or even jail time—my heart feels the pain of what that deserved punishment would have been.
God continues to offer us His mercy through the gift of Reconciliation. We are blessed that not only did He offer His saving Love for us once, we can experience this sacrament as frequently as we want. We earthly beings crave that physical sign of forgiveness and can routinely, if we choose to, experience the feeling of a clean slate.
Then what do we do with this great mercy? How do we behave when we acknowledge our weaknesses before God, when He gives us love instead of condemnation? Do we just accept our “warning,” pull off with a sigh of relief, and continue to drive recklessly? Or do we say to ourselves, “I remember how close I came to punishment, and I want to do everything in my power to never end up anywhere near that place again”?
In the case of my near-speeding ticket, if I ignored this gift of mercy and continued to NASCAR my way through the backroads of Wisconsin, I wouldn’t get warnings every time. Eventually, my due would come. God’s mercy, on the other hand, is endless. For that reason, we can fall into the trap of presumption, that we know we can miss Mass, gossip, or overindulge and He will still forgive us. But are we really exhibiting true contrition, a deep sorrow at our sins, not just because they hurt God (and ourselves!) but because He has been so generous to us when we did not deserve such love?
We don’t have to receive just a speeding warning—or a friend who looks past the embarrassing story we repeated, a child who hugs us after our impatient outburst, a spouse who lets us melt into his or her arms even when we have been nothing but sarcastic—to reflect on the mercy offered us, by God or those around us. But those moments when we experience this gift should inspire us to ponder how close we came to the fracture of a relationship, how grateful we are for a love that looks past our mistakes, how resolved we are to not let our vices overtake us again.
Of course, we are imperfect, and asking for forgiveness from both God and neighbor is essential for us to not fall into despair and to keep our relationships alive. We will never be perfect on this side of Heaven, and we are called to remember that when others hurt us, too. (When I forget this, I read the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor [Matthew 18:21–35].)
But, and I think I am morally obligated to continue the metaphor here, so often we put the pedal to the metal and race through our lives without any regard for the speed traps ahead, the warnings we received, the accidents we just missed. We can forget to pump the brakes and reflect on how God has driven beside us and cleared the path, so we can make it safely Home.