One typically conceives of God’s mercy as His making the unjust just – when punishment ought to be doled out, mercy swoops in as a gift of salvation that nobody actually deserves. But God’s mercy stretches beyond “paying our ransom” in the juridical sense, and is far more than a “covering over of our sins” so that we appear white as snow.
The English word “mercy” is miseridordia in Latin, which breaks down in parts to misereri (“to pity”) and cor (“heart”). In short we have a word imbued with experiential overtones – to pity someone, not at a distance, not only with the mind, pondering their position, but to enter into their situation with the heart. The act of showing pity, sorrow, or compassion with the heart is likened to bringing my whole person into that sorrow. The word “compassion” carries with it similar undertones. The Latin compati breaks down into com (“with”) and pati (“to suffer”). To suffer with someone. To enter into suffering as a presence. This, my friends, is the greatness of God’s mercy – not only that He demonstrates His power through a complete overthrow of the enemy, of sin, and of death, but that He does so by entering into the miserable state of being human.
This becomes clear even in the Old Testament with the story of Job, for example. God’s answer to Job’s suffering is not an explanation, but an action. In the story it is His presence, a theophanic whirlwind, a presence that would be fulfilled in the whirlwind of love found in Christ Jesus. Pope Benedict XVI picks up the reflection here:
The answer is a sharing in suffering – as a mere feeling but as reality. God’s compassion has flesh. It means scourging, crowing with thorns, crucifixion, a tomb. He has entered into our suffering. What does this mean, what can it mean? We can learn this before the great images of the crucified Jesus and the Pieta, where the Mother holds her dead Son. Before such images and in them, men have perceived a transformation of suffering, they have experienced that God himself dwells in the innermost sphere of their sufferings and that they become one with him precisely in their bruises.
This is precisely what happens to Paul, who, as sinful Saul was encountered by Jesus Christ crucified and risen. For Paul, to live was Christ and all he knew, all he spoke, all he lived was Christ. In 1 Cor. 2 we read that Paul comes to the Corinthians in their pain and weakness and enters into it with his own pain and weakness. He remains little, empty, etc. (Cf. 2 Cor. 12). He resolves to enter into their situation fully and with a being that has been transformed by Christ. His intention is not to overwhelm them with philosophy, a discourse, a sympathy card, or any cheap knock-off. His method is that of presence, a share in Christ’s presence within our sorry state of affairs.
Mary, Jesus’ parting gift to us on Good Friday, demonstrates true mercy for us as well, suffering as she does with her Son on the via dolorosa. She suffers with her Son as a seemingly helpless presence – she offers nothing to take away the burden or pain – but it is often the case that a presence is what we need most.
It is the case that those who have entered into the suffering of another know that there is a certain helplessness involved that is almost paralyzing. An example will serve us well. I have often heard parents with sick children say, “If only I could take on this illness” (implying that they cannot), or when confronted with the person dying of cancer, “I felt like I couldn’t do anything to help.”
Because we can’t “play God,” though our desire to overpower whatever malady afflicts the one we love stands as a testament to the magnanimity of mankind, we often find ourselves in a frustrating and lowly position with seemingly nothing to offer our suffering comrade. This experience of utter helplessness in the face of another’s pain can produce a number of effects. I will just focus upon two:
1. Despair – Back in the day I was a sidewalk counselor outside of a Pittsburgh abortion
clinic. This intense ministry involved approaching women who were making their way into the clinic and trying to convert their hearts within about a 30 second span of time (hence saving the life of the baby as well). As one could imagine, this was incredibly challenging and often extremely discouraging. Well, one morning a man dropped a girl off at the door. Someone else approached the girl and I followed the man as he parked his car across the
street. What followed was a long, drawn out conversation, that was seemingly fruitless at the time. We talked, I pleaded my case, and promised his daughter the resources and support that she would need to carry the baby to full-term. This father did not relent, but not without breaking – at least a little bit. I remember standing on that asphalt in the cold of early spring crying with a father who found himself completely paralyzed by fear and frustration, a father who was allowing his daughter to abort her child. I replay that scenario in my mind quite often and the same despair creeps in every time. Why? Upon further
the real gravity of his situation. reflection, I really believe that I was trying too hard. I don’t remember praying much during that conversation and I don’t remember asking to pray with him. I just remember trying to overwhelm him with facts and arguments. In retrospect, the greatest part of that tragic conversation was crying with the man – it was the only time my whole being came close to
2. Hope – My grandfather was dying of cancer as I graduated from college, and because I wasn’t starting my job until August, I had plenty of time of my hands. So, I helped. He needed care. He needed to be spoon-fed. He needed to be washed. He needed his pillows adjusted. All of this was fine and good, and by no means do I mean to downplay well-intentioned gestures – they are valuable on the physical and metaphysical levels. Yet in no way did I really feel I was helping his situation. In many ways, I was stricken with helplessness. This was most apparent as I tried to sleep in the chair next to his bed one
Several observations become clear at this point: night – waiting and waiting as the space between his breaths increased, while the strength behind each one seemed to wane. My grandfather died late in the middle of a June afternoon, almost immediately following our entire family joined in the Rosary, and with my grandmother’s “fiat” – “It’s okay Ralph. You can go. We will be okay.”
- Entering into someone’s situation using only your reason is not actually mercy – in the fullest sense. Instead, one needs to meet a person from the inside out, so to speak – always clinging to the Truth. Mercy must be personal.
- Mary knows mercy. She, who had been completely overcome by Mercy Incarnate, displays the greatest human act of mercy in her com-passion with Christ at Golgotha.
- My grandmother, knowing the power of Christ crucified, which is to say faith in Christ and the certainty of hope, was able to love my grandfather to the end – willing his good unto his final breath. Hence the severity of mercy gives way to the power of love that even death cannot destroy. Mary modeled this for the Church at the cross, and my grandmother modeled it for me in that small room overcome by death, yet imbued with new life.