Mercy, revisited by useless servants
I’ve written about mercy several times over the years, but perhaps most notably in “How is this possible? Mercy and Justice are the same in God.”, back in early 2016. In 2020, however, I’ve had more questions and comments from our readers about mercy than at any time in the past. And by one of those Providential “coincidences”, there is a new book by Fr. Daniel Moloney, entitled simply Mercy, jointly published by the Augustine Institute and Ignatius Press.
But guess what? While we can definitely understand mercy more fully, its operations remain profoundly mysterious.
As Fr. Maloney points out, mercy attempts to supply a deficiency in another person, out of God’s (or our own) store of goodness, in a way which will bring that person to greater wholeness. To show mercy is, therefore, an act of love that is particularly directed to compensate for a quality, characteristic, disposition or ability which another person lacks, so that this person might be able to participate more fully in the good.
In this light, we can see how justice can be an act of mercy. On the one hand, of course, justice is a mercy toward those plagued by injustice, who benefit in many ways from the restoration of an order that they cannot enjoy without assistance. On the other, just punishment can often awaken a desire and determination in the one punished to set himself on a path which offers better consequences or, more deeply, to bring him to his senses. Thus, the one punished might deliberately cultivate attitudes and behaviors, to some extent already within his own power, because the punishment supplies a motivation he previously lacked.
God’s mercy, Christian mercy, mercy from the heart
It is perplexing that some passages in Scripture reveal instances of God’s justice which result in death for those who appear to be punished—whether by an express command to the Israelites to slaughter their enemies or through disease or other natural disasters. Humanly speaking, it is difficult to see God’s mercy in such instances. Fr. Moloney ably discusses this issue, but it is beyond my scope here to present all of his insights. In any case, as Christians we must essentially learn mercy through Faith in Christ, and so we must trust that God shows mercy to all in ways that we cannot fathom. For we can never—as He can—see the whole picture.
But from the perspective of eternity, we must also allow for the possibility that free creatures will ultimately refuse God’s mercy, since they refuse His love. God will not force Himself on those of His creatures whom He has endowed with free will. There are mysteries here that are too deep for us, but we must imitate Our Lord and Savior in giving ourselves for the good of others, even if we cannot see how they “deserve it”, and even if in some cases we cannot see that it bears any fruit. Our own mercy definitely hopes for good results, but mercy would not have the nature of a self-donation if, in offering it, we insisted on knowing the results in advance.
There is, then, a deep self-effacement in mercy, and I think we can notice its importance in two respects. First, it may be helpful to recognize this remarkable self-effacement even in God Himself—His astonishing humility. We must understand that God, even when He punishes, never punishes vindictively, or for any other personal satisfaction such as we ourselves might enjoy in inflicting punishment or pain. There is no “So there!” in God. His punishments are always essentially merciful even up to the very end, because they are inescapably and profoundly ordered to awaken at the very least a sense of dependence which can lead any of his children, even in the throes of death, to cry out to Him for help.
Second, we need to recognize in ourselves that every act of mercy we perform must be self-effacing. If we glory in our good works—if we act mercifully in order to demonstrate or call attention to our own superiority to others or even to relish inwardly our own charity—then we lack the self-effacement that is essential to mercy. Let onlookers assume the worst of our motives—and, indeed, sometimes the recipients of our mercy may do the same—but this does not concern us, unless we can see ways to act mercifully that will mitigate the harm to them arising from such misunderstanding. Sometimes the recipients of mercy, or those who observe it, may condemn even God for “lording it over them”. For our part, we must take care to offer no such grounds for complaint in our own acts of mercy. If we lack the right spirit—if we fail to recognize that, first and foremost, we have received mercy ourselves—our own attempts at mercy will far more frequently be transformed into bitterness, useless to ourselves and to those who receive or witness it.
All things considered, it is doubtless just this danger which has led God to impress mercy upon us primarily by way of our hearts rather than our heads. Out of Christ’s pierced heart flowed blood and water (Jn 19:34), a material sign that it had been ruptured by the lance as it throbbed with love unto death. We also know that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:19), and even had her soul pierced by a sword so that “thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:35)—surely our own included. Thus have we, by God’s own design, received the devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Looking back through Divine Revelation, this comes as no surprise. The word “heart” is used eighteen times in the incredibly moving Book of Job alone, always meaning the repository of the essential commitments of the human person. But though Job flinches, he never fails: “I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days” (Job 27:6). How much more should each of us take great care that our acts of mercy flow from the purity of our hearts, joined to those of Mary and Jesus!
Mystery of mercy
Mercy and justice are in some sense opposite sides of the same coin—justice to restore the properly ordered character of the good, and mercy to supply what is lacking in our own ability to participate in the good. In this light, it may be no surprise that Fr. Moloney treats of a great many things in exploring the meaning of mercy, including: Mercy as a political virtue, justice-only politics, solidarity and mercy, the role of mercy in both civil and ecclesiastical punishment, the workings of Divine mercy in the sacraments of the Church, mercy and the nature of God, God’s merciful discipline, mercy and the Fall of man, Our Lord’s covenant of mercy, our own devotion to mercy, works of mercy, and a last chapter on Mary which is brilliantly entitled “Mother of Mercy, Mirror of Justice”.
The book is part of the Augustine Institute’s “What every Catholic should know” series. In calling well-deserved attention to it, I have not so much reviewed it as I have simply once again pondered the meaning of mercy. This pondering has doubtless raised more questions. In fact, I warn everyone that any discussion of mercy raises as many deep questions as it answers. In its hidden recesses, mercy remains a mystery.
Perhaps, then, it is best for each of us to start again by rereading verses 27 to 38 of chapter 6 of St. Luke’s Gospel, at the end of which Our Lord cautions us with these words: “Be merciful, even as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Lk 6:35). Moreover, I deeply hope we will strive for our lifetime on earth to fulfill what Our Lord intended when he allowed each of us to overhear: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:13).
Surely, however, even when we have done all that, we will still rightly consider ourselves useless servants. Therefore, it is fitting that our reward will be nothing else than to begin again to contemplate Mercy—but this time eternally, without mistakes, enraptured by Love.
Fr. Daniel Moloney, Mercy: What every Catholic should know, Augustine Institute / Ignatius Press 2020, 195pp paper, $14.41
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