In the world of religion, to judge from the way we speak sometimes, it seems to be all about ideas, principles, articles of belief, laws and texts. Of course, they all help us to clarify what we believe about Christ and how we follow Him more faithfully. But they are not an end in themselves: it is people for whom the Lord came. And the tool that God has given to His Church is not theory in words, but theory in practice and the name he has given it is mercy. It seems to me that Pope Francis has changed the entire nature of our discourse about matters of pastoral care and justice, perhaps for decades to come. Thus it is all very easy to talk of justice and mercy, but he insists to us, they have to take form in physical ways, for concrete people, with practical help that, just like the balm and the wronged father’s loving embrace of a forgiven son, lets the blessing sink in, as the heart changes out of sheer gladness. This is why our God took flesh and became a man. This is why he felt real pain all through a true death. This is why he rose from that death, not as a religious myth, but in the flesh. This is why the Church has been given sacraments to use so that from the other side of reality, heaven can touch our bodies in the world and enter our inner beings to take them into the Kingdom, grace by grace. It is interesting that the Pope quotes St Bernard, the great Father of the Cistercian Order, which has stressed how both the work of prayer in choir and practical tasks and labour out of love unite in the contemplative monk so that there is no escapism into the world of the mind but heart, soul and body are all at one in God – a spirituality that is incarnate and concrete, just as the hard practical fact of human existence is also thoroughly path in the Spirit. St Bernard says, “My merit is God’s mercy. I am by no means lacking in merit as long as He is rich in mercy.” This is no sentiment, no pious wording. It is the experience of a life lived physically as well as spiritually, with struggle, adversity, but also joy that comes from mercy.
What then is this mercy? We think of mercy as exceptional to justice, a begrudged pardon, being let off. In response we may explain its virtues: loving-kindness and self-sacrifice, sacred-heartedness, and restoration, all borne of forgiveness, which changes everything. But these virtues are not mere attitudes: they, are concrete in the fellow-feeling of One Who lived among us and died and rose again in one of our bodies. Christ’s compassion is in miracles that happened not in the mind but to things and people, the tender care from hands that turn tables as well as bless.
But why should Christ be merciful and ask us to be merciful too? (cf. Luke 6.36 – Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful). In Psalm 88.3, King David says, “Mercy shall be built up for ever; in the heavens Your truth shall be prepared.” So mercy is the perpetual heavening of earth. Recall what happened when Caesar Augustus issued his decree, “the whole world being at peace”. Not long afterwards, a host of angels appeared praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven and on earth peace to people on whom His favour rests.” In our Liturgy we call those people the ones with good will. So it seems to me that our first thought, when contemplating what mercy can mean to the world and for its people, is that we need to begin with God’s own perspective. Beholding His universe, and the creatures within it, He saw it to be very good. God’s thought to be merciful first arises from His view from the outset that creation is good.
The second thought is that in the Good Creation things are amiss, and so are we. To some the remedy is tighter control, tougher punishment, humiliation, shame, force of correction, or even resorting to magic. But to God, it is to be all mercy, for forgiveness is what is needed to break the cycle. Our nature’s fall from grace marred God’s image in us, and to see that clear again is what he is searching for. The ultimate disfigurement of God’s image in us was to put His own beauty to death on the Cross. But in that most extreme of emergencies, when God Himself is torn inside out through our humanity, nothing perturbs the Word of God from breathing out the mercy He came to say: “Father, forgive them.”
So God is merciful because He sees what He created is good, and what is amiss He will forgive. But He will not leave it there. In His moment of bloodshed with words of judgment that pronounce for ever our absolute forgiveness, we are reminded that the word we translate as ‘holy’ in our Liturgy in Latin is ‘sanctus’, which means something that has been bloodied. The priests, the altar, the veil in the Temple, were consecrated from being spattered with sacrificial blood. This was what enabled them to serve God’s purpose in His presence. It brought about communion between God and humanity. In the same way, everything, everyone, that Christ shed His blood for has not just been forgiven, redeemed, or saved. It is to be made holy. So the third to God’s mercy is that it takes a world that God perceives to be good, forgives it, and then makes it holy.
But are these not just religious ideas? What about those practicalities we were so struck by? In the Latin Catholic Church, there is a special Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs, in praise of Christ Who ‘went about doing good’. It reads:
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, to give You thanks at all times and in all places, Father of mercies and faithful God. For You have given us Jesus Christ, Your Son, as Lord and Redeemer. To children and the poor, to the sick and the sinners, always He showed that He Himself is the Merciful One, and made Himself close to those who are oppressed and afflicted.
So Christ is not merciful because He is the Son of a Father of mercies, or because it is how He feels, or because it is how He has decided to act. He is the Merciful One: Mercy itself.
Therefore the fourth aspect of mercy to bear in mind is that, as well as God’s regard for the world as good, His forgiveness and His resolve to make us holy, Mercy is the nature of God and it takes flesh in the person of Christ and hence in us. Christ’s aim is to ‘make One New Man … in One Body…”, bringing all that is lost, amiss and discarded to the lifting up of God on His Cross – thus into His Ascension and His Kingdom, so that nothing lies beyond its power to heal and change, with new reasons for living and being.
When we say so insistently in the Eastern Liturgy, “Lord, have mercy”, we bring ourselves back to the Merciful One, we find it is more the truth that He is for ever returning to us, meeting us before we reach Him, always attracted to us and never repelled by our ugliness, never begrudging compassion, never merely tolerant. And we are to be like that in turn, “merciful as your Father is merciful” – to be mercy as Christ is mercy personified. As Pope Francis reminds us from the words of St Bernard, “I am by no means lacking in merit as long as God is rich in mercy.” My merits are Christ’s: if God is mercy, so I am mercy too.
If God regards me as good, forgivable, potentially holy, and - even more than that - someone who can be so united in His life that I can become all mercy too, what does it make of me now? How am I to go on? The Prophet Micah tells us to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” and yet there is something even more.
In Psalm 84, King David sings that “mercy and truth have met together”. So the merciful and those in need of mercy encounter each other in the light of truth. For Cardinal Newman, Blessed John Henry, this was a resonant conviction – it all comes down to the facing of two facts: the truth about the individual and the truth about Christ - and thus the inevitable effect. Either the individual turns away, unable to bear the presence of truth – not so much the truth about God, but the truth about “myself” in the light of God’s face; or else the individual comes forward into the light and feels the touch of the Creator wanting back the person He has made, of His forgiveness, His holiness, union with Him and existence in His own life, the summit of mercy. So mercy and truth indeed meet, not as formerly estranged but as the reality of each other.
To some, mercy (misericordia, with its undertone of meaning a saddened and even impoverished heart) is too exquisitely painful to bear. This is why mercy is often described as tender. It and we are neuralgic when it is applied and gets to work. It is no wonder that people reject it and insulate themselves from it: there is too much pain to go through. But God wants us, not our insulation, not our disguise, or our wrapping - whether it comes out of sin, or pain, or injustice, or from the belief that we must appear to be something we do not have it in our nature to be. God cannot be merciful to a disguise, only to the real person in which He seeks to view His own image, uncovered and shining back at Him.
So our understanding of mercy applied to us, and how we apply it to others, concerns a search for integrity – how the world ought to be, how we ought to be, how I ought to be, how we are true, and good, and heaven’s citizens on earth. To be merciful as our Father is merciful involves uncovering the disguise hiding the true person, with our true nature. So I am very struck by how, in Pope Francis’ recent decree reforming the Church Marriage Tribunals, he speaks of the judicial process becoming ‘converted’ to the ends of mercy. Indeed this is the way to get to the truth; and the truth will set you free.
Charles Wesley put it this way:
He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me! (from "And can it be)
Mercy does not just find you, it finds you out. So: mercy – good, forgiven, holy, one and new in Christ, the very being of His mercy, converted wholly to shining out as the living image of God, true and free.