Last year my ten-year-old niece Lucy came to stay with us for a week. At the end, she announced to her mother: “Aunt Grace taught me two new bad words!”
“Oh?” queried her mother. “What are they?”
“‘Crap!’ and ‘Mercy!’” she replied.
“Mercy is not a bad word!” exclaimed her mother.
“Well,” retorted Lucy, “Have you heard how she uses it?”
In Lucy’s honor, I am writing today about other abuses of the term mercy.
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When my mother was diagnosed with a mystery illness and I had to walk away from my life as I knew it, I had to give up a lot in a very short time. By far the hardest were my ideas about my own virtue.
I had always fantasized that I would respond to any call to sacrifice with heroism and grace. But the reality was less pretty. The first few weeks showed that, far from being the poster person for patience and trust, I was lucky to not find myself on a Wanted poster. Let’s just say that word that sprang most easily to my mind and lips most mornings was not “Fiat!”
There is a starter mercy in being stripped of our illusions, and in seeing our sins and shortcomings for what they really are. In today’s First Reading, the Israelites are healed when they look on the image of the bronze serpent, the symbol of their sin. They have to look at it, but also beyond it, to God’s healing power and mercy.
It would be false mercy to downplay or deny sin, to pretend that these venomous serpents are harmless or cute or that they can be kept around safely as pets. If we keep and feed even the little sin-serpents, they will become bigger. There is another (extended) family story about a pet boa constrictor that escaped his bedroom cage. Neighborhood pets started disappearing, and when they finally found him he was over six feet long…
Like the bronze serpent, the Cross shows us that sin is real and has real effects. But it also shows us that Love is more real, and its power is greater than sin. It is Jesus that saves, love that perfects—not self-mastery or heroic effort on our part. We are not to make an idol of our sins, but nor are we to make idols of our virtue.
The Son of Man will be “lifted up” to reveal a Love that would literally rather die than live without us. Love is not an abstraction, nor is it an action item. Love is a Person. Jesus did not come to give us techniques to better either ourselves or even the world around us, He came to give us Himself. “I AM the way, the truth, the life”: “Come to ME—I will give you rest”; “I AM the gate/the Good Shepherd/the door/the Bread of Life.” It is intimacy with Jesus that is the center of the Christian life.
Mercy is not merely the cancelling of a debt, the adjustment of the scales of justice or a “reward” ticket into an eternal amusement park. Rather, mercy is receiving the gift of God Himself, who pours His life and His love into us, restoring our capacity to become like Him.
Naturally, when we receive the love of Christ it will flow from us to love of others. Works that are divorced from this love, however, have no value whatsoever. Imagine a man who set about to be the perfect husband—who fulfilled all of his duties meticulously, but who had no actual love or tenderness for his wife. We would find this off-putting, not inspiring. If I serve others (or ostensibly Christ) only to perfect virtue, to be some sort of moral hero, it is only my ego that is being served.
Madeleine Debrel writes that the Christian must not only “accept the fact that he will not seem like a hero but that he will not be one.”
All of the saints, without exception, reach a moment—a turning point perhaps—in which they must accept and embrace their own nakedness, their spiritual poverty, the realization that without Christ they can do nothing and in fact would be nothing. We can have a hard time appreciating the centrality of this poverty and the awareness thereof, since we usually see the saints doing quite a bit—more than us in fact!
Saint Therese of Lisieux, whose central message was a radical trust in the mercy of God, addressed this question. She had been writing to her sister about trust in God’s mercy, her confidence in God’s love despite her littleness. Her sister questioned her on this, knowing well that Therese in fact was a “big” saint. But Therese insisted adamantly that it was not her virtues but only her trust that made her so. Virtues can in fact “render one unjust” if we rely on them to reach God. “Even if I had on my conscience every imaginable crime, I should lose nothing of my confidence; rather I would hurry, with a heart broken with sorrow, to throw myself into the Arms of my Jesus.”
Suggested action: Look at a crucifix, and see in it what sin does, and what His love does.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “When we look at ourselves, we are saddened by our failings; when we look at God, we rejoice in His love.”
“One of the capital truths of Christianity, almost unknown to anyone today, is that the look is what saves…when we sense ourselves incapable of the elevation of the soul fitting to sacred things, it is then that the look toward perfect purity is most effective… There are those people who try to elevate their souls like someone who continually jumps from a standing position in the hope that forcing oneself to jump all day—and higher every day—they would no longer fall back down, but rise to heaven. We cannot take even one step toward heaven. The vertical direction is forbidden to us. But if we look to heaven long-term, God descends and lifts us up.” –Simone Weil (quoted in Magnificat)
Saint Therese again: “We should like to suffer generously and nobly; we should like never to fall. What an illusion! What does it matter to me if I fall at every moment! In that way I realise my weakness, and I gain thereby. My God, Thou seest how little I am good for, then Thou dost carry me in Thy Arms…”