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.
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).