Mercy on the Cheap

Rembrandt. The Prodigal Son in the Tavern, 1635.

Latin Mass Magazine – Summer 2015

Ah, Mercy! To the fallen children of Adam and Eve it is sheer music to our ears. Only mercy moved God to rush to the assistance of men who believe they have no need of His attention. In the old rite of admission for Trappists the prior asks of the candidate, “Why do you come here?” to which he responds, “For the mercy of God”. Of its very nature, mercy assumes in the recipient a depth of need, almost a gulf, which separates him from Him Who bestows the mercy. Thus mercy requires both truth and humility in the recipient. Truth in recognizing the defect which begs for mercy, and humility which compels the recipient to plead for a gift he neither deserves or can possibly earn for himself. Mercy is at the heart of our holy religion because in God’s infinite love He sends His Only Begotten Son to salvage man from his miserable condition. Such a Divine Condescension is utterly undeserved, and hence all the sweeter. So it is that Mother Church exclaims in the Exsultet on Easter Vigil, “O Felix Culpa” (O Happy Fault!) It is man’s awful sin that has moved the pity of God not merely to aid sinful men, but to bring pallid aid to the heights of dizzying extravagance.

The Savior exhibits this lavish mercy in every corner of the Holy Scriptures. He has pity on the multitude for He saw they were hungry (Mt. 9:36). He leaves the ninety-nine sheep in search of the one who is lost (Lk. 15:4). The Good Samaritan pities the wounded man and supplies all that is necessary for his recovery (Lk. 10:33). The Father rejoices in his prodigal son “who was lost, and now is found” (Lk. 15:32). Each time we read any of these passages we are startled. The extremes of such love are unsettling, defy comprehension, and invite incredulity. So Graham Greene rightly speaks of God’s mercy as “strange”. Only because it upends the conventional categories of human measurement. Divine Mercy stretches ordinary reason beyond its ability for sober assessment. Isn’t is this which provokes the Magdalene to “wash Christ’s feet with her tears”? (Lk. 7:38). God’s mercy shocks. It leaves sinful man flummoxed. His normal steps are thrown off, and all the old certainties collapse before the stunning mercy of God.

Elation at the Divine Mercy warrants some caution. It should not lead to swoons but to steadiness. It shouldn’t sweep us off our feet, but place our feet more securely on firm ground. It would be a serious affront to Divine Goodness to think that His mercy is a no-fault proposition: God gives, man merely takes. Unfortunately the secular mood of our times has forced such thinking into the retail consumption of more than a few. Without the presence of both truth and humility, mercy curdles. It becomes trafficking, for trafficking is the callous indifference to the worth of the person for the sake of mercenary profit. It cheapens a glimmer of the Divine Beauty into a worthless knockoff. It becomes a replay of the Israelite worship of the Golden Calf: Impatience with the efforts necessary to win the Divine outpouring threw the Jews into a frenzy of bloated self-indulgence, all the while calling it religion.

God extends His mercy to sinners only after there is evidence of a turning of the will. Truth is necessary in this terrible encounter of man and God. For this reception of Divine Mercy, God expects human conformity to His will. Or at least its sincere beginnings. All that is necessary for the Father of the Prodigal Son is to see his son running toward him from afar. It must not be presumed that the Prodigal Son changed overnight. No sinner does. God does not expect that. Overnight conversions are always highly suspect. Just as natural things grow ever so slowly, making changes imperceptible step by imperceptible step, similarly with man. God knows this, because He designed us that way. All natural things operate according to the laws of nature. Trouble surfaces when thinking ourselves above these laws of our nature. Even with the assistance of Divine Grace, the changes are glacially slow. Grace is not amazing, despite what many Catholics these days shout from the top of their lungs (even, I fear, in the very presence of the Divinity). Grace is supernatural. As Saint Thomas teaches us, gratia perfecit naturam (grace builds upon nature); it neither destroys it, replaces it, or transcends it. Grace moves us according to the nature of the thing being moved. Just as the sun remains the same even as it produces different results in different things: scorches the earth, softens the flowers, and evinces green in the leaf, so it is with grace. Even though God is infinitely superior to any natural thing, God still respects the nature of natural things.

God’s mercy waits for the slightest nod from the sinner. But there must be the nod. When that nod comes, the floodgates of the Divine Heart open, and mercy rushes in upon the soul. The nod is a recognition of sin; a desire to rectify the offense. Divine Mercy is not promiscuous, given without truthfulness. Such would make God a simpleton. God will not be tempted, as the Old Testament wars. Tempting God is assuming God gives of His bounty without man having to return a thing. If our age wants any part of God, it is this kind of God it wants. It heaps scorn upon the Holy Catholic Church because she will not second its self-serving logic. The world becomes delirious at leaders in the Church who speak as the worldly do. Thunderous applause awaits any voice which will squeeze the church into the culture’s puny prejudices. The culture is patient. Even if the Church announces no denial of past moral doctrines, as long as there is a discrete silence, the world is satisfied. Great rejoicing ensued when a prominent European cardinal advanced a preposterous separation between the unchangeable doctrine of the Church and the ever-accommodating obligations of his compassion. Translation: Christ commands one thing, but His mercy allows me to do quite another. With that, a certain kind of Catholic joined with the culture in a boisterous roar of approval. Finally, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, a church of Christ without Christ.

Yes, mercy. To find it look at it practices by a Saint Vincent de Paul, a Saint Katherine Drexel, or a Saint Peter Claver, along with the countless army of other saints. Their exercise of mercy changed the face of the earth because it was a mercy imitating the Divine Mercy. Adoration of the merciful Heart of Christ allows them to bring mercy to the world. Every saint lights fires in a dark world because everything they do they do out of love for God. As Saint Thomas teaches, “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” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 30, a. 4, ad.2). Tell that to those who chatter endlessly about love of the poor. Only the truth about God and His mercy will relieve the plight of the poor. Oh yes, they want bread, but their hearts crave the Bread of Angels more. Yes, they desire justice. Don’t we all? But the justice they covet most of all is the right to know how to love God. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul” (Mk. 8:36). Outside of this luminous Divine Truth, all mercy talk is just cheap talk.

It might be time to stop kicking around mercy. Otherwise it won’t be long before mercy becomes unrecognizable and ultimately fades from our midst. If that happens we shall rue the day, because the consequences for man will be merciless.

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