Mercy — both receiving it and granting it — is among the sweetest of human experiences, and of course it is at the very heart of the Gospel.
|Deacon Kyle Eller
The word itself as used in Scripture and in our faith is rich in meaning. We often speak of mercy as a matter of forgiveness of sins, but it is that and more. It’s also the corporal works of mercy, like feeding the hungry and visiting the sick and imprisoned. It’s also the spiritual works of mercy, like counseling the doubtful and comforting those sorrowing and forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently.
God’s mercy for us is like this. That one term embraces his forgiveness of our sins and his meeting of our needs and his caring for us in our distress and his loving presence in our lives. The late Bishop Paul Sirba’s beautiful description of mercy — “God’s love where we’re hurting” — is so beautiful because it enfolds that whole reality in the true context, God’s unfathomable love for us meeting our misery.
Psalm 85, as we pray it in the Liturgy of the Hours, speaks of God’s mercy and saving help this way: “Mercy and faithfulness have met; justice and peace have embraced.”
Who doesn’t treasure the experience of this? When I am finally able to forgive some hurt I’ve experienced, when I receive someone’s forgiveness for a wrong I’ve committed, when I am unexpectedly pulled from “another fine mess” I’ve gotten myself into, when some old grudge is brought out into the open and reconciliation begins, when I finally understand someone’s point of view that had eluded me, when I finally feel like I’m understood, when I’m in need and I learn a friend has been praying for me, when I see someone struggling and lend a hand, and in many similar moments, I experience not just freedom and relief from a suffering alleviated but the joy of God’s loving presence. I really feel touched by his love, with all the gratitude and joy that accompanies it.
These last months have, in an intense way, involved human misery in myriad forms. That should be an invitation. Pope St. John Paul II, in his letter on the Christian meaning of suffering, said there is a vast “world” of suffering with both personal and collective meanings, but which calls for solidarity.
“People who suffer become similar to one another through the analogy of their situation, the trial of their destiny, or through their need for understanding and care, and perhaps above all through the persistent question of the meaning of suffering,” he wrote. “Thus, although the world of suffering exists ‘in dispersion,’ at the same time it contains within itself a singular challenge to communion and solidarity.”
In other words, it calls for mercy, for God’s love where we’re hurting.
Sadly, that seems to be the last thing on many minds. Or if there is mercy, it is too often a cheap mercy, a willingness to forgive and excuse and address the suffering of ourselves and those we already love while reserving none for those perceived as enemies.
In some cases, this may be more or less explicit, where reconciliation and forgiveness are directly repudiated as goals. More often, it’s implicit in the way we act, ascribing the worst possible motives to people based on the smallest deviation from the party line, enforced with public denunciation; online and in-person mobs; and personal, social, economic, and sometimes legal shunning.
More and more, people give no quarter, apparently lacking the humility to entertain the possibility they could make a mistake or the imagination to consider how someone might disagree with them in good faith.
This is not new, of course. One of the parables of Jesus I find most haunting is the unmerciful servant, who is forgiven a massive debt but then goes and attacks a fellow servant who owes him a pittance. It’s such an easy trap to fall into.
But it seems to me that, barring a merciful divine intervention, upon which we have no right to presume but for which we may rightly beg, there is no hopeful future for a society that abandons mercy and reconciliation on a broad scale. How can we go on this way?
Be that as it may, among followers of Jesus, who commanded forgiveness and mercy and love of our enemies, it must not be so. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.
May our little leaven leaven the whole loaf with the mercy we need — God’s love where we’re hurting.
Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].