Letters to Peregrinus #20 – On the Quality of Mercy

Dear Peregrinus (4 PM):

It has been since July, old friend, since we wrote to each other. Thank you for your letter.

I am smelling autumn in the air in the mornings. Autumn has such a striking capacity to access my soul – the smell of the earth; the diminishing brightness of the daylight; the leaves changing color and then letting go. Mine is an autumn soul, which becomes in this season a longing for something that I know not what.

But back to your letter.

“The quality of mercy is not strained:
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest...”

(Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1, 180-184)

You asked me whether I have learned something new about mercy, as a result of my commitment to embrace the purposes of the Year of Mercy commenced on 8 December 2015 by Pope Francis I. I have begun to learn – that at least I will claim. Here are some clues that will give you a way of seeing how God is teaching me. I say “clues” because that is what they are for me right now. They are inner “suggestions” given me by which I feel that God is trying to teach me what I understood less well.

Clue #1 – Mercy is a proper noun, which in grammar is: “a noun that designates an individual person, place, organization, animal, ship, etc., and is usually written with an initial capital letter.” (Oxford English Dictionary) A regular noun – mercy – is the name of a thing that we can have, or not have; or which may serve as the subject of a verb or as its object. A proper noun designates, in this case, a divine Person – a “quality” of a person. “Mercy” is one of Godʼs names. A human person may, through grace, encounter God personally, and experience Love (the principal name of God) as mercy.

In this sense, mercy is a way that we experience God when our broken- heartedness, or confusion, or self-disappointment, or fear, or our outright sinfulness, is how we are experiencing ourselves when we turn towards God. We know God as Love in the mode of mercy ... who, in its most privileged manifestation to us, is Jesus Himself.

1 Timothy 1:16 (J.B. Phillips) – “I realize that I was the worst [sinner] of them all, and that because of this very fact God was particularly merciful to me.”

This is why Shakespeare writes that mercy is foremost a quality of person – “‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest”. Such a person is mercy-full without having to think about it. And as Shakespeare also remarks, in such a person mercy is not strained. That is, mercy is neither selectively offered to one person but not to another, nor can a person be forced to be merciful (notice the two- fold meaning of “to strain”), because from such a person Mercy flows – love in the mode of mercy.

Clue #2 – Love and Mercy are the Divine Names of God that are dearest to us who know God in Jesus Christ – “Have I been such a long time with you,” returned Jesus, “without you really knowing me, Philip? The person who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14a9, J.B. Phillips) When we have really gotten this insight and made it our own, we speak of Godʼs unconditional love as something to which we can testify, because we have experienced God as God is. Such is the ground of our “sure and certain hope.” We ground our Hope on who God is, not on the possibility that God will, or will not, be offering us mercy when, and only if, we ask it of Him.

But a person does not have from God this unconditioned love because that person has learned how effectively to earn it, how successfully to entice God habitually to grant it him or her. No. Instead, a person may come to know God profoundly enough that he or she begins to grasp that God is Love, is Mercy. God is unconditionally Himself; God freely and magnificently does Who He is.

Clue #3 – Someone who is Mercy is not in the business of deciding, in some particular case, whether or not to be merciful to someone. And this fact is of enormous importance when trying to understand God, as well as people we know who are Christ-like. We must cease our efforts to perform for God in ways that will make God decide to be merciful to us! So much of what people call Christian spirituality is rooted in this fundamental misunderstanding of God – Christians seeking effective ways (!) to persuade God to grant us mercy.

What, instead, is proper for us to mean when we ask God to be merciful to us is that we ask to have an experience of God Himself as God is that is so compelling and real that simultaneously we feel/know/are convinced that God is Love and especially for us “earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7) is a tender and majestic Mercy.

Peregrinus, I recall the intractable confusion inside of which the “elder son” of Lukeʼs famous Parable in chapter 15 wanders so unhappily. He figures that love and mercy are things that he has learned to deserve from his father by performing activities intended habitually and effectively to persuade his father to give them to him.

Luke 15:29 (NRSVCE) – “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command;”

But in thinking in this way he fundamentally misunderstands his father who is love and mercy, and as a result profoundly misconstrues the relationship his father has with him. How poignant that the father is he who must now figure out how to persuade his son that his love and mercy is not a thing! “But he was furious and refused to go inside the house. So his father came outside and called him.” (Luke 15a28, J.B. Phillips) Love and mercy in this father are qualities of his personality; a kind of person he is ... a person the younger son has just met moments before; a person the elder son must yet meet.

Well, old friend, those are the three clues that I am following currently. Any thoughts to offer?

I will leave you with a text (quoted in part) so personally important to me that I chose it to be one of the three biblical texts used at the Mass of Priestly Ordination on 16 June 1984 at which I became a Priest. It is from 1 Timothy 1, and which section J.B. Phillips (our translator here) titles: “My Debt to Jesus Christ.”

1 Timothy 1: 12-14 – I am deeply grateful to our Lord Jesus Christ (to whom I owe all that I have accomplished) for trusting me enough to appoint me his minister, despite the fact that I had previously blasphemed his name, persecuted his Church and damaged his cause. I believe he was merciful to me because what I did was done in the ignorance of a man without faith, and then he poured out his grace upon me, giving me tremendous faith in, and love for, himself.

Let us meet in prayer.

I am your old friend and fellow pilgrim,

Rick, SJ
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