Learning Mercy

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Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and you have neglected the weightier matters of the Law—judgment and mercy and faith. These you should have done without neglecting those. Blind guides, you strain out the gnat and swallow the camel.

Matthew 23: 23-4

The distinguished 20th century psychoanalyst Karen Horney speaks of the neurotic solution to life and reality as a result of our human “search for glory.” The nature of our common and ordinary neuroses is captured in the words of the Pharisee in the parable of Jesus:  “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people” (Luke 18:11). We all have the necessary desire to “stand out.” In fact, we only truly “exist” in the world by standing out out in some way. Yet, there is a fine and conflicted line between radiating into and offering as gift to the world the unique image of Jesus that we are and inflating our own significance as superior to others. It could be argued, in fact, that the very root of all sinfulness is our ambition to be and to have more than the others.

Why is it that far too consistently the core teachings (the weightier matters) of the great spiritual traditions are reduced by their “experts” to comparatively trivial matters of rule and law that become bludgeons to judge and diminish others? It is tempting in reading the “woes” of Matthew’s gospel to use them as a means of judging our own religious leaders. Yet, it is more important for us to see that they are warnings against our own unconscious search for glory.

The Jubilee Year of Mercy which we are living has, by now, probably lost its initial gloss. Part of the reason mercy as well as all the “weightier matters” of the tradition tend to fade so readily from consciousness is because they are truly so difficult in practice. As Pope Francis recently reminded the priests of Rome whom he led on retreat, “mercy” is a verb. We must constantly work, in his coinage, “to mercify.” Exercising mercy toward others, however, requires the deep interior work of reforming our innate and unconscious “search for glory.” It requires of us that we undertake the lifelong journey from our stance as the Pharisee in Luke 18 to that of the Publican (“Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”). This is no less than the task of reformation of one of our core unconscious motivations.

We reduce religion to a tool of self-aggrandizement and judgment and condemnation of others for the same reason that we slander, gossip about, and subvert the life and work of others. It is because we fear our own weakness, lacks, and sinfulness and seek glory by reducing others that we might feel superior to them. That which appeals to what is deepest, best, and holiest in us is no less subject to the inversion and perversion of our pride than any other aspect of our lives. In fact, because it is potentially a “way” to transcend that pride, it is even more subject to perversion. Our religious practice is not a way to make something of ourselves; it is rather the way to abandon ourselves to the mercy and love of the One who knows us better than we know ourselves. The mercy we are called to live is God’s mercy, not ours. It must pass through us to others. Yet, this requires a continuing and constant conversion on our part: a forsaking of our search for glory in favor of a rejoicing in redemption. It is not only okay that we are small and fragile and broken; it is actually in this that we come to know that we are loved not for anything we do or accomplish but for simply who we are. It is this mercy and love that we are called to radiate to others.

The best practitioners of this mercy that rights wrongs are those who know that they themselves are forgiven and sent to help others.  We see this with addiction counsellors: those who have overcome their own addiction are usually those who can best understand, help and challenge others.  So too, the best confessors are usually themselves good penitents.  Almost all the great saints were great sinners or, like Saint Therese, knew that it was by sheer grace that they were not.

The real vessel of mercy, then, is the mercy which each of us received and which created in us a new heart.  This is the “new wineskin” to which Jesus referred (cf. Lk 5:37), the “healed sore”.

Here we enter more deeply into the mystery of the Son, Jesus, who is the Father’s mercy incarnate.  Here too we can find the definitive icon of the vessel of mercy in the wounds of the risen Lord.  Those wounds remind us that the traces of our sins, forgiven by God, never completely heal or disappear; they remain as scars.  Scars are sensitive; they do not hurt, yet they remind us of our old wounds.  God’s mercy is in those scars.  In the scars of the risen Christ, the marks of the wounds in his hands and feet but also in his pierced heart, we find the true meaning of sin and grace.  As we contemplate the wounded heart of the Lord, we see ourselves reflected in him.  His heart, and our own, are similar: both are wounded and risen.  But we know that his heart was pure love and was wounded because it willed to be so; our heart, on the other hand, was pure wound, which was healed because it allowed itself to be loved.

Pope Francis, Retreat for Priests, June 1-3, 2016

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