Divine Mercy: The Audacity of Mercy

To be without mercy is to be yet without an honest awareness of our own humanity.”

Thomas Ann Hines, a divorced mother of an only child, learned mercy the hard way. When her son, a freshman at college, lay murdered by a seventeen year-old drifter who first solicited a ride from him and then, when he got in the car, turned a gun on the young driver, Thomas Ann descended into a pit of anger and vengeance. The murder was a random, groundless, indefensible act. And her son was not the only person who died that night—Thomas Ann was alone, distraught, full of the kind of pain and hate that paralyzes the heart and stops life in its tracks, even for the living.

Her son, a good boy, a successful student, the hope of her life was gone. She herself was completely alone now, without a future, without hope, without any reason, it seemed, to live.

But thirteen years later, Thomas Ann Hines visited her son’s killer in prison, intent only on getting information about the night of the killing. But when, in the course of the conversation the young man put his face down on the small table at which they sat and began to sob, she touched the man. And she got to know him.

The story shocked the country. “How could she do such a thing?” people asked. Or, more to the point, perhaps, they asked themselves the question, “Could I ever do such a thing? Could I possibly show mercy to someone who had done something so senseless, so heinous, so destructive to me?”

Thomas Ann’s answer to the question was a simple one: “If my son was sitting in this room,” she said, “I’d want someone to reach out a hand and lift him up.”

The story is not only a moving one, it is an enlightening one for all of us. It teaches us something very important about mercy. Mercy is what God does for us. Mercy discounts the economic sense of love and faith and care for a person and lives out of a divine sense of love instead. Mercy gives a human being who does not “deserve” love, love. And why? Because, the Scriptures answer, God knows of what we are made.

The fact is that we are all made of the same thing: clay, the dust of the earth, the frail, fragile, shapeless thing from which we come and to which we will all return someday. We are all capable of the same things. Our only hope is that when we are all sitting somewhere bereft, exposed, outcast, humiliated and rejected by the rest of society, someone, somewhere will “reach out a hand and lift us up.”

Every one of us is capable of every sinful thing. Most of us have simply never had the opportunity or the anger or the sense of desolation it takes to do it. While we’re being grateful for that, it behooves us to be merciful to those who have.

Mercy is my answer to my own weaknesses. When those weaknesses erupt in me, may those around me remember their own. “If you wish to receive mercy,” St. John Chrysostom wrote, “show mercy to your neighbor.”

The mercy and understanding I show to others is the degree of mercy, the kind of understanding I will get when I need it most.

To be without mercy is to be yet without an honest awareness of our own humanity.

It is one thing to be righteous; it is another thing to be merciful. Righteousness only confirms us in our pride. Mercy is a sign of humility.

Mercy is what enables us to raise law above the stringency of legalism to the ultimate level of human idealism. “Mercy,” Thomas Aquinas wrote, “is the fulfillment of justice, not its abolition.”

When we understand why people do things, we have the capacity to change life for the better at its very roots.

To thirst for the punishment of another is to abandon ourselves to the kind of standards we know down deep we cannot keep.

We pray for mercy; we expect mercy. What we find difficult to do is to be merciful to those in need of it. Or as George Eliot says, “We hand folks over to God’s mercy, and show none ourselves.”

The great spiritual question is not whether or not this person, this situation deserves mercy. It is about whether or not we ourselves are capable of showing it.

The major holy-making moment in our own lives may be when we receive the mercy we know we do not deserve. Then, we may never again substitute disdain for understanding, rejection for openness, legalism for justice. “I think perhaps it is a better world,” Helen Waddell writes, “if one has a broken heart. Then one is quick to recognize it, elsewhere.”

Learning to withhold judgment is difficult in a media-driven world but essential in a better one. “Forgiveness,” Christian Baldwin writes, “is the act of admitting we are like other people.”

Mercy is learned first in the human heart. “If you haven’t forgiven yourself something,” Dolores Huerta writes, “how can you forgive others?”

Not uncommonly, those are self-righteous who are most sinful themselves. Because they hate themselves for what they are, they can’t possibly be merciful to anyone else.

Because history shows us that the church is a sinful church, it is the very place in which we should be able to find the greatest degree of mercy, of understanding, of compassion, of non-judgmentalism.

To be merciful is to be kind, to be open, to be trusting, to be a friend. Mercy, Shakespeare writes, “is twice blest. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” It is when we show mercy that we may be closest to God.

Mercy is what makes us, keeps us, available to one another. It opens our heart to strangers. It enables hospitality. It is the glue of the human race. Tennessee Williams understood the relationship of mercy to human interdependence when he wrote, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Coming to understand that there is nothing unforgivable in life is the beginning of real love.

Mercy is the trait of those who realize their own weakness enough to be kind to those who are struggling with theirs. It is, as well, the measure of the God-life in us. “The weak,” Gandhi wrote, “can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Beware those who show no mercy. They are dangerous people because they have either not faced themselves or are lying to themselves about what they find there.

“We are all sinners,” we say, and then smile the words away. But the essayist Montaigne was clear about it: “There is no one so good,” he wrote, “who, were they to submit all their thoughts and actions to the laws, would not deserve hanging ten times in life.”

It is our very weaknesses that enable us to understand the power, the necessity of mercy.

The Sufi mystic Mishkat al-Masabaih reminds us, when we are overwhelmed by our own inadequacies, our own diversions from the straight paths of life, that the mercy of God is always greater than the sin of being too humanly human. He writes: “She who approaches near to Me one span, I will approach near to her one cubit; and she who approaches near to Me one cubit, I will approach near to her one fathom; and whoever approaches Me walking, I will come to her running; and she who meets Me with sins equivalent to the whole world, I will greet her with forgiveness equal to it.”

The mercy we show to others is what assures us that we do not need to worry about being perfect ourselves. All we really need to do is to make the effort to be the best we can be, knowing we will often fail. Then, the mercy of others, the mercy of God is certain for us, as well. “The only thing we can offer to God of value,” St. Catherine of Sienna said, “is to give our love to people as unworthy of it as we are of God’s love.”

To hold others to standards higher than our standards for ourselves is to live in constant agitation, personal, national, and global. “Unless it extends the circle of its compassion to all living things,” Michael Nagler writes, “humanity will not itself find peace.”

To become “God-like” is the most common–and the most elusive–of all spiritual aspirations. What can that injunction—that desire—possibly mean? A medieval mystic answers the question directly. “When are we like God?” the mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg writes. “I will tell you. Insofar as we love compassion and practice it steadfastly, to that extent, do we resemble the heavenly Creator who practices these things ceaselessly in us.”

When we, too, “know of what we’re made,” there is no room in us for anything but mercy for the other. “Being all fashioned of the self-same dust,” Longfellow wrote, “Let us be merciful as well as just.”

Mercy takes us outside ourselves. It makes us one with the rest of the world. Or as Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us, “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But the Good Samaritan reversed the question. He said: “If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

A sign in Springdale, Connecticut makes the whole subject clear. It reads: “There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us, that it’s rather hard to tell which of us ought to reform the rest of us.”

Strange, isn’t it? We expect that God will show us mercy; but, too often, we show so little ourselves. We believe fiercely in capital punishment; we tolerate the thought of nuclear war; we suspect whatever is unlike ourselves. If heaven is based on the same punitive, violent, and segregating principles, we are all in trouble.

The strangest of all human phenomena, perhaps, is that we take God’s mercy for granted for ourselves but find it so hard to be merciful ourselves. If there were any proof needed that God is completely “Other,” this is surely it.

Perhaps forgiveness is the last thing mentioned in the Creed because it is the last thing learned in life. Perhaps none of us can understand the forgiveness of God until we ourselves have learned to forgive. Perhaps we cannot understand the goodness of God to us because we are so seldom that good to others.

On the contrary, we want mercy for ourselves but exact justice for the remainder of humankind. God, on the other hand, the Creed implies, desires justice but gives mercy like a rushing river, gushes mercy like a running stream.
(Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief)

“It is often the most wicked who know the nearest path to the shrine,” the Japanese proverb reminds us. Don’t let anybody fool you: Goodness is as goodness does. Be careful who you call bad simply because the “good” people have named them so. God, it seems, is far less quick to judge.

—from The Way of Mercy, ed. Christine Bochen, Orbis 2016
(Originally published in God's Tender Mercy, Joan Chittister, Twenty-Third Publications)