The Justice in Mercy

Not long ago I ran into a hang-up with divine mercy. I was still mid-pendulum swing away from a life of lush selfishness (i.e. sinfulness). That time of my life could be characterized as “spiritual but not religious.” I was a cafeteria Catholic at best with my nice mini-me Jesus stashed deep in my imagination to justify whatever action I thought would bring me happiness. I’m not going to play the victimhood card here, but my lightly Catholic education that emphasized Elmer’s glue, felt banners, and various anthems of hand-holding love didn’t benefit me.

Eventually the Gospel message of repentance broke through my thick sinful crust and soft Catholicism, bringing about serious conversion and a rather dramatic recoil against anything remotely attached to felt banners.

I came upon this never-classy "Wall-O-Felt-Banners" at a parish during vacation last year - the Youth Room graffitied with peace symbols.

I came upon this never-classy “Wall-O-Felt-Banners” at a parish during vacation last year – the Youth Room graffitied with peace symbols.

For this reason, when I initially learned of devotion to Divine Mercy, I was immediately incredulous. Why? Because all of my life I heard nothing about sin, and everything about fluffy love, nothing about justice and everything about mercy. Could the situation be remedied?  To the one extreme there was nothing but mercy, and on the other (the direction I was tending towards), nothing but justice. Presumption and despair. Josef Pieper has a few great lines on the need to strike a balance here:

In theological hope the ‘antithesis’ between divine justice and divine mercy is, as it were, ‘removed’ –

not so much ‘theoretically,’ as existentially: supernatural hope is man’s appropriate, existential answer to the fact that these qualities in God, which to the creature appear to be contradictory, are actually identical. One who looks only at the justice of God is as little able to hope as is the one who sees only the mercy of God. Both fall prey to hopelessness – one to the hopelessness of despair, the other to the hopelessness of presumption. (On Hope 70-71)

The answer, then, is hope. And this is perhaps the theological virtue stressed in the devotion of Divine Mercy.

What is mercy?  A few words will suffice.

Mercy is compassion or forgiveness granted to one who deserves punishment. One who has authority/power to punish freely decides not to punish.  In other words, God’s mercy rests upon some key premises that cannot be overlooked or pushed aside, namely the reality of sin and the need for humility.

The wage of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Mercy makes no sense if sin is not real. And, I would say, sin is taboo too often nowadays. Admitting that evil really exists as a power, that Satan exists as a force, is unheard of. Since the Enlightenment, sin has been seen as a problem of the over-extension of the will that will be solved by an ever more enlightened intellect. In other words, man himself will save himself from the “problem of the rash will.” After all, it’s just a matter with my matter.

But sin is a real metaphysical reality.

If ever there was a doctrine of the Church that was perfectly self-evident, it would be Original Sin. Simply look around – both at your own life or the headlines on any news site. “For I do that which I hate…”  St. Paul’s words still ring true (see Romans 7); man hasn’t fixed himself in all these years. Perhaps sin darkened the intellect too (see CCC 405). Perhaps Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas” are not so easily attained… We’re so saturated in sin, we don’t even realize it most of the time.  “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity” (CCC 1849).

It’s like we’re all driving around with flat tires – every single person – and thus that becomes normal.

But the devotion to Divine Mercy through St. Faustina, as it has always existed throughout salvation history and most recently emphasized again in a time and to a people who have access to sin at speeds faster that dial-up, demands this starting point – God’s just punishment for real sinfulness.  There has to be a fault in order for there to be forgiveness, and a rightful authority in order to carry mercy out.  Far from a banner-waving devotion, Divine Mercy presupposes the cold reality of sin and calls us to stare it in the face.

Here’s what Jesus said to St. Faustina on a few occasions:

Out of love for you all, I will avert any punishments which are rightly meted out by My Father’s justice. (Diary 570)

 

I will reveal to you a secret of My Heart: what I suffer from chosen souls. Ingratitude in return for so many graces is My Heart’s constant food, on the part of [such] a chosen soul. Their love is lukewarm, and My Heart cannot bear it; these souls force Me to reject them…They do not wish to hear my call, but proceed into the abyss of hell. The loss of these souls plunges me into deadly sorrow. God though I am, I cannot help such a soul because it scorns Me; having a free will, it can spurn Me or love Me. (580)

Well that’s consoling…These words are really spoken to any baptized Christian. Yikes.  Sin is real and cannot be denied or watered-down. But what about the second premise?

Humility.  The humble recognize their sinfulness. “Humility is the knowledge and acceptance of the inexpressible distance between Creator and creature” (Pieper 29). This means owning up, seeing the full weight (or as much as our hearts can bear) of the horror of our sin, and turning to God. The devotion of Divine Mercy calls for this humility: “Know that a pure soul is humble. When you lower and empty yourself before My majesty, I then pursue you with My graces and make use of My omnipotence to exalt you” (Diary 576).  “For when I am weak,” and admit to it, “then I am strong,” because I allow Him to work (2 Cor. 12:10).

Far from the felty-soft devotion I thought it was, it holds both mercy and justice in tension with one another. It demands humility. Divine Mercy makes no sense apart from the reality of sin, and the call for humble repentance by which the sinner opens his heart to this ocean of mercy.  As such, it is right for us, Christians, to hope and pray, for “Prayer is the expression of hope…hope itself speaks through it” (Pieper 36). Divine Mercy is both our prayer and our hope.

“Only [the theological virtue of] hope is able to comprehend the reality of God that surpasses all antitheses, to know that his mercy is identical with his justice and his justice with his mercy” (Pieper 71).

Thus it is fitting that the words that appear at Christ’s feet – Christ who is both Lamb and Lion, victim and judge, who unites mercy and justice in his person – are “Jesus, I trust in You.” JezuUfamTobie1

When David became Goliath

Let’s call to mind a rather commonplace story that has possibly become mundane – the story of David and Goliath (1 Sam. 17).  Remember how the Philistine and the Israelite camps faced one another when the champion named Goliath of Gath came forward from the camp of the Philistines in order to offer a challenge.  A one-on-one fight to the death.  Winner take all (of the other camp).

While the Israelites quivered, David entered the camp. He was a young lad with great zeal, who laughably decides that he will confront that champion from Gath.  Goliath, upon seeing the boy, holds David in contempt and smugly taunts him.  To Goliath, David was a joke.  This would be no contest.  Goliath was filled with pride and complacency.  

David_and_Goliath_by_Caravaggio

Running a great risk of being nothing but cliche within this post, I would say that if pride goeth before the fall (see Prov. 16:18), then complacency stands subtly alongside pride.  This was the case for Goliath.  And, complacency is more difficult to identify than picking out the boastful braggart or hubristic me-monster at a cocktail party.  Complacency can run beneath the surface, and it is a quiet killer.  Just look at David.

After the fall of Goliath, David eventually becomes King of Israel.  He successfully leads the army in conquering many of the enemies roundabout, secures Jerusalem as the
“At the turn of the year, when kings go out on campaign, David sent out Joab along with his officers and the army of Israel, and they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah.  David, however, remained in Jerusalem” (2 Sam. 11:1).  stronghold, and brings the Ark of the Covenant to a position for centralized worship.  He was tremendously successful.  Until one day…

Interesting.

While he is lounging around on his roof (why the heck was he up there? Probably the same reason why many of us “just so happen” to put ourselves right in the pipeline of temptation), he spies a married lady named Bathsheba and has relations with her.  She conceives, David has her husband killed, and, speaking through the prophet Nathan, God makes David’s sin known to him.

Was David not complacent here?  Instead of upholding his duty, the same duty all kings maintained at that time, instead of taking up his rightful place at the head of his army, instead of being magnanimous, the successful and prideful David lingers lazily about Jerusalem and practically hands himself over to that death called sin.  Sin slayed him.

Pride and complacency go before the fall.

How is this at all different from our lives, especially at this time of year?  Without fail, right in early Spring, the same sense comes upon me – where is everyone at? Where did the desire for greatness go?  What happened to diligence and perseverance?  Many of us suffer from complacency – this uncritical satisfaction with ourselves or the position we have attained or the accomplishments achieved. We’ve achieved enough, now where is summer?

  • We see this with students in the schools. 3rd quarter is over, and they are almost immovable.  They have reached the summit for the year. 
  • Senioritis – no Senior (in college or high school) is immune to this, yet if there is a time to train up in virtue, is it not those essential months right before an entirely new phase of life kicks off?
  • The Sacrament of Confirmation is happening all over the city right now, coupled with this completely mysterious sentiment that I have somehow now graduated from the faith – that my position in the Church and with Christ is so sufficiently strong that I can somehow completely disregard any further deepening of my soul in the sacraments or at Mass, the formation of my intellect in the faith, or the training ofmy will in virtue.  I’m sufficiently Catholic to become a hedonist.  That is complacency par-excellance.

These are just a few examples.  I watch it happen in Youth Ministry too.  The whole phenomenon is like training for 6 months for the marathon, only to decide that you have essentially won the race one week prior to it actually taking place – so you withdraw from the race.

What are the consequences?  Practically speaking, we watch students’ grades fall, seniors struggle to keep scholarships they worked years to attain, high schoolers abandon any sense of a moral compass at proms, etc.  When we determine, however subconsciously and uncritically, that we need not diligently pursue greatness, when we become complacent and comfortable, the fall looms right in front of our faces.

Is there a solution?  Can sheer human willpower overcome this ubiquitous experience of the weakness of human will?  That’s absurd.  fra-angelico-the-crucifixion-1437-46

However, that’s not to say that the will doesn’t play a part.  One who is stubborn and hard-hearted will not ask for help or be moved in just the same way a rock won’t budge on its own unless acted upon by a stronger outside force.  This outside force is exactly what we need, and exactly what Easter reminds us of.  The force of Love himself, the Word that took on Flesh, contains within himself the power to penetrate the deepest pride and the deadliest complacency if only we let Him.  How do we let this Love in?

David actually shows us in 2 Sam. 12:1. He says, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  David repents and prays.  In the face of his pride and his fall, David prays.  He assumes that position that is most natural to a creature who doesn’t make himself – that of the beggar.  David repents and prays, and that prayer is the deepest expression of his hope.  Hope that his life could be made new, that God could restore him toward virtue and newness of life instead of the death of sin.

When David became Goliath he didn’t stay dead (which is essentially what complacency does to us, even after the lapse into sin), instead he opened himself in death to the possibility of new life.