Mercy has lost her way, in translation.
What does mercy mean?
Understood as showing compassion when wronged, mercy is an outward bound anthropological virtue: it is directed to another. But the exercise of a more perfect, more authentic mercy, of Mercy with a capital ‘M,’ necessitates a reclaimed understanding and practice also of justice, and further, of mercy’s divine and incarnational orientation as a form of charity.
The sum total of the Christian religion consists in mercy, as regards external works: but the inward love of charity, whereby we are united to God preponderates over both love and mercy for our neighbor. . . Charity likens us to God by uniting us to Him in the bond of love: wherefore it surpasses mercy, which likens us to God as regards similarity of works.”
–Summa Theologica II, II, 30, iv
Somewhere beyond us we perceive an unattainable horizon where justice and mercy ideally meet and merge, yet fail to see mercy and justice as intimately and presently bound. Both mercy and justice are modernly practiced in extreme but separate ways. That delicate balance that requires both an expectation of reparation, as necessary for experienced wrongdoing, and the choice to respond mercifully has been lost.
To deny justice as key component of a more perfect mercy would be to speak not of a true mercy but of a self-humiliating and diminishing false kindness, that pretends wrongs somehow disappear. We are conditioned to think we must both ‘forgive and forget.’ The forgetting part seems to be essential to the forgiveness. And as we are often, naturally, unable to forget, we think that forgiveness, and therefore mercy, is also beyond us.
The key problem, however, is that the modern age has both moved ‘beyond mercy,’ and also carelessly defines justice as revenge. We are a post-merciful society that seeks retribution actively and aggressively in the personal, social and political realm. In this hermeneutic of mercilessness, an even-ing out of right and wrong, relative to the subjective interpretation of the gravity of the offense, leads to endless entanglements of spite, begrudging and hatred, that pinnacle in bitter antagonism, and finally in a trap of despairing spiritual and personal isolation.
In this context, our will and our emotions are no longer free.
Mercy is marketed as the virtue of the heroic, and for right reason. It takes heroic virtue to break forth from the snare of retribution-bound, revenge-ridden personal inclination, without sacrificing justice. As virtue has been cast to the wayside, and we are conditioned to believe that virtuous heroism is either passé or no longer attainable, authentic mercy has also been jettisoned to the realm of the impossible.
There are many ‘beyond mercy’ tales of compounding misery around and perhaps within us. They add a dimension that was not present in the original offense: they weary us, and usher a personal discouragement that gives up on mercy before even trying. Underlying this weariness, is a manifest forgetfulness of the Mercy previously received. Perhaps, this is the greatest loss.
Looming above this earthly panorama there is the great beatitude:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.”
How then are we to understand the mercy that is blessed?
What does this blessed mercy look like?
A favorite exercise of mine, English being my second language, is to return to the roots of words. In this case,‘mercy’ comes from the Latin ‘misericordia.’ There is a significant difference between the original and its translated equivalent; somehow, from the Latin, through other metamorphoses, to the English, the translation lost its way (or took a shortcut). But beyond the apparent severance from source root, one far more insightful than I has broken it down further in a surprisingly poignant and revealing way:
“Oh, this word, mercy–misericordia–‘miseris-cor-dare,’ a Heart which gives itself to the miserable, a Heart which nourishes itself on miseries by consuming them…”
-Fr. Jean C.J. d’Elbée, I Believe in Love, 24
Within this simple but powerful deconstruction, we find the answer in the form of an exchange and gift that involves the very root of a blessed mercy: a purification of our weariness and misery. The post-merciful society we live in is in effect a post-Christian one. One need not attempt here to reflect on the many manifestations of a post-Christian modernity to realize that apart from the Heart of Christ, mercy would be an arduous if not impossible task. Sadly, it proves itself so among us; we are unable to consume miseries since we are barely able to endure them.
But on the beatific horizon, there is a luminous counter-proposal. The relational response that is possible between creature and Creator comes up even here, and it is summarized in three words: miseris, cor, and dare.
Miseris– ‘to the miserable:’ those without hope, those who have stopped believing in the possibility of loving and of being loved; those who despair in anger and distrust; those who suffer the pains of humiliation, the cross of forsaken abandonment, the darkness of hearts en-thorned in retaliatory grudge. Those who labor and are burdened.
Cor– ‘the heart,’ and not any heart, but the Heart of Christ; a human heart, burning with divine love and desire for souls. A heart that divulges a great attribute of God: over-abounding mercy– love based on His own goodness and not our merit.
Dare-‘to give,’ the generosity that is unbound and unconditional, not held back or reserved, but freely offered and often refused. The giving that manifests another great attribute of God: His lavish generosity.
These three words, reconstructed, are the key to moving beyond understanding mercy from a simply anthropological standpoint of faux-compassion, allowing us to choose to travel that wayside road often left untrod on which justice and mercy merge into charity. The reward of this risky adventure is an expansive vista across which lies a gradual unveiling of that glorious and blessed mercy which, once encountered in Christ, can also be exercised towards others through an incarnational participation in His divine goodness.
‘…Charity likens us to God by uniting us to Him in the bond of love: wherefore it surpasses mercy…’
To successfully move beyond ‘beyond mercy,’ to charity, we need to newly envision ourselves capable of this level of heroic, blessed mercy that is possible only after a response to another invitation:
“Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful.”
The untrod road is the more arduous one, for it leads often to the foot of the Cross. But precisely there is the substantive (and rational) engagement of Mercy that modernity needs. There Love consumes misery by choosing to suffer it, though undeservedly, in its fullness.
The Cross again becomes the symbol of contradiction where good meets evil and vanquishes it; the place where that Heart is given to the miserable, and Mercy, offered and received, encountered and adopted, triumphs purified.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy’
Kneeling there with the Magdalen we might utter–O Mercy, late have I loved Thee…
You may reach Maria Grizzetti at email@example.com