The Quality of Mercy

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By the measure you use to measure, you will be measured in return.

Luke 6: 38

These days one of the most commonly diagnosed, and in all likelihood over-diagnosed, mental disorders is bi-polar disorder, a condition by which a person swings between depression on the one hand and over excitement or mania on the other.  It is a condition with which we are all familiar to some degree or other. If we get overly enthusiastic or excited, we know it will be just a matter of time before our bodies and psyches attempt to find balance through the alternative experience of tiredness and sadness. Attuning to these rhythms can help all of us to mitigate the extremes of the experiences and to begin to find a “way” or “path” that is not subject to the whims of our reactive selves.

One way we can discover something of the spiritual state of a society is through a reflection on the emotional excesses of its populations, and, of course, our most immediate access to that is in ourselves. What is it that fosters in us these turbulent and excessive emotional states? Perhaps Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel may illuminate one possible cause.

Our needs for recognition, comfort, and gratification are insatiable. If we live merely for physical well-being and functional ambition and recognition, we shall constantly find ourselves excited when these are fulfilled and sad or depressed when they are lacking. When our well-being or human flourishing is determined by external forces, including other people, we are never able to recognize our own failure and sinfulness while at the same time recognizing our deeper worth and significance. Likewise, we are never able to forgive others who have harmed us, because we are ultimately too dependent on their treatment and view of us.

The great “problem” of the merely secular view of the human person is that it makes us so dependent on each other that when our human fallibility and sinfulness inevitably lead us to fail each other we are incapable of forgiveness and only capable of resentment. Today’s gospel is not merely a series of moral injunctions but rather a description of God’s reality. Compassion and mercy are the very nature of God, and that mercy is infinite because it transcends, as every human being does, our physical and functional need, fallibility, and sinfulness. There is life and love that flows from our deepest core, and it is that which enables us to live generously for others and not with a narcissistic demand that the world take care of us, that the limited and impermanent provide the unconditional and infinite love for which we long.

When we live from the fullness that is our communion with God, we experience a love which, even in the midst of suffering, never ceases to nourish us. When we live from our self-preoccupations and fears of being uncared for, unloved, and unappreciated by others, we shall always experience the inability of the world to satisfy us. This is why, in the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “it is in giving that we receive.”

In his reflection on the life and teaching of St. Teresa of Avila, Rowan Williams writes the following:

God’s will is for the concrete good of human beings and is painful because we are slow to let go of our mental and material comfort. The will of God is that the rich should sacrifice their luxury when others are starving; that the carping and gossiping person should understand the obligation to love the neighbor; that the independent and self-indulgent monk or friar or nun should remember that he or she is vowed to poverty, and that religious vows are not awkward school rules to be evaded or kept with no more than minimum standards, but the definition of an integrity or life that should challenge the whole Church. So—unsurprisingly—doing God’s will, with all the difficulty involved, is firmly placed in the context of just and loving community life, the context of the whole of The Way of Perfection.

The wider context is what Teresa goes on to discuss from a rather different angle in what follows. We could not begin to do God’s will without the faithful presence of Christ before the mind’s eye, Christ praying with us to the Father, Christ sharing our human experience; but this presence is not just a matter of what our individual devotion can discover. Jesus knows our weakness and our need; he desires, with God’s own desire, to go on being with us as he was with us in the incarnate life, in humility and vulnerability. 

Rowan Williams, Teresa of Avila, pp. 95-6

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