Topic: Mercy

Br. Thomas Aquinas Pickett, O.P.'s picture

Heart of Mercy

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            What's the point of being a Christian? This is a question that applies to many groups: those outside the Church; those who are estranged from the Church or are living on the cusp of faith; and even those fully within the Church who practice their faith. Indeed, while it is a simple question, it is an essential one that we should ask. Knowing why, knowing the point or goal, is as essential as knowing how: the two must go together. So, what is the point of being a Christian?

            Unfortunately, how some have answered this question has either caused people to lose interest in becoming a Christian, or has caused division and polarization within the Church that has driven some away from the faith. Some who have been seduced by contemporary secularism might reduce the point of being a Christian to a vague moral system concerned, first of all, with justice and being nice to others: deifying any and every element of human life and proudly casting off any belief or practice that interferes with the latest political fad. Others who have the ossified faith of Pharisees can codify the point of being a Christian to following rules, maintaining traditions, preserving customs, and being staunch signs of stolid contradiction to a world gone to hell: humanizing the divine and turning religion into a quaint museum of antiquarian oddities. It is not that justice, morality, tradition, or rules are bad in themselves, but that some confuse the part with the whole.

            Authentic, orthodox Christianity, subsisting in the Roman Catholic Church (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus) however, reveres tradition, advocates for justice and morality, establishes sound laws and rules, and, in addition to these things, offers something beyond what mere human institutions can: satisfaction of the infinite longing of the human heart. As the Catechism puts so well, "The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for..." (CCC #27). The Church, by joining humanity with God through the Sacraments, Doctrine, Scripture, and Tradition, offers to every man and woman of good will the One answer to the deepest desires of their hearts.

            So often in our world the hearts of men and women are filled with fear, shame, and pain. They fear loneliness as they draw closer through communication devices but father apart through a disturbing ignorance of the experience of true, lasting love. They experience shame through the haunting memories of using others or of being used themselves. They feel a deep, silent pain as they secretly call out to the others surrounding them, their neighbors, their co-workers, and those whom they call their friends, "Here I am! Love me! Know who I am!", but are met with the superficial niceties of bourgeois civility: they are left empty by the empty words and empty gestures and empty "love" of those who, themselves, are empty. 

            Recently I was out in the Berkeley area doing some street evangelization, when I came across a woman, who I will call Alice. Alice was sitting down on the driveway in front of her house with her knees pulled up to her chest, smoking a cigarette, listening to her MP3 device, and generally looking miserable. I came up to her and asked her if she wanted a rosary. She looked up at me with a mien of a person who has been taken advantage of too many times to distinguish goodwill and deceit. After several moments of pensive silence she responded, "O.K". As I gave her the simple plastic rosary, tears began to fill her eyes. I asked her if she was all right. Alice replied, "I am just a little heartbroken."

            The point of being a Christian is that we have found the answer to the fear, shame, and pain within our hearts. We have found the answer, we know the answer, we have come to love the answer, and we are called to give that answer to the aching hearts in our own time and place: the mercy of God, misericordia Dei. To have mercy means to have our hearts ache (in Latin Miser, "unhappy" Cor, "heart") at another's sorrow or distress. To be a Christian means to realize that, in the person of Jesus Christ, God is merciful: He is not an aloof universal force, nor a pathetic projection of the human psyche, nor a bearded entity enfeebled with senescence. No! In Jesus God is moved with mercy for us! For me! For my heart! And he came to heal our hearts, so that we may no longer "sit in darkness and in the shadow of death" (Lk 1:79), but may "have life, and have it abundantly." (Jn 10:10). All the evil and garbage that we have done to others that weighs upon our heart, all the evil and garbage that has been done to us and that scars our heart, is met, embraced, forgiven, and healed through entering into the love of Jesus. Our hearts are restless until they find this merciful love: "Behold, the ears of my heart are before Thee, O Lord, open them, and say unto my soul, 'I am thy salvation'. I will run after that voice, and take hold of Thee." (Augustine, Conf. I.v)

            But how do we run after that voice of mercy and love? How do we take hold of it? Through conversion. Conversion to Jesus "always consists in discovering his mercy, that is, in discovering that love which is patient and kind" (Bl. John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia, 13) By entering the hospital of the Church, where Jesus has called sinners, that is, those in need of a physician of hearts and souls (cf. Lk 5:31-32), the new convert is given divine medicine to remove the scars of the heart: "He healed many who were sick" (Mk 1:34). By remaining in the hospital of the Church, where "the heart is strengthened by grace" (Heb 13:9), the faithful continually grow in love, and are invited to seek out new patients for the heavenly physician.

            However, not all patients in the hospital of the Church take their medicine. Like Ananias and Sapphira (cf. Acts 5:1-11), they hold on to their old ways and refuse to turn over their hearts to the new life in store for them. Like the crowds at Athens who dismissed the message of St. Paul (cf. Acts 17:16-33), they are unwilling to let their hearts be changed by the Gospel. These patients require great attention, because the medicine of God's loving mercy works with only those who are willing.

            The point of being a Christian is that, in entering the hospital of the Church, where we are gathered with others suffering similar symptoms, our hearts are healed and strengthened by the infinite love and mercy of Jesus, and we, in turn, proceed to seek out other patients whose hearts are longing for the fullness of life that we have embraced.

Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

To Be A Neighbor is to Practice Mercy

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There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test Jesus and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The man said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have answered well; do this and you will live.” But because the man wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied… (Luke 10:25-37)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a story we’ve heard many times before, and yet like all of Jesus’ parables, it is not just a story. In this case it is Jesus’ mysterious response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Now Jesus could have been very direct and said, “Brother, sister, friend and enemy…all of these are your neighbor,” but instead he leads the scholar to the realization that the one who acts as a neighbor is the one who shows mercy. In other words, Jesus helps the young man to see that the real question he should be asking is: “Am I treating others with mercy?”

Mercy, or the lack thereof, is one of the themes addressed in the documentary Bully, which I recently watched for one of my classes at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. The film features five families whose children have been the victims of bullying, but the primary focus is a boy from Sioux City named Alex. At 13-years-old, Alex doesn’t like going to school. In addition to being taunted on the playground and called “fishface,” his bus ride to and from school is a nightmare. While one boy stabs him with a pencil, strangles him, and repeatedly slams his head into the back of a seat, another threatens, “I will end you.” 

Over the years there have been many responses to the question of bullying, why it happens, and how to stop it. Some have suggested that it’s just a phase, that “boys will be boys” and will eventually grow out of it. Others have taught that the only way to stop a bully is to stand up to him, or to ignore him entirely. Finally, there are those who believe that the only way to get a bully to stop being a bully is to teach him about compassion. Anyone who has been a victim of bullying or cyberbullying* would probably agree that this last option is the best one, for no one wants to wait for their bully to "grow out of it," and often standing up to a bully or ignoring him can make things even worse.

So how does one teach a bully about compassion? Surprisingly, the process begins with the victim showing mercy. Now this doesn't mean condoning the bully's behavior. A bully still needs to be shown that his/her actions are harmful; it would be unjust to do otherwise, and mercy never undermines justice. Mercy, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out, is a certain kind of fulfillment of justice (ST, I, 21, 4 ad 2). In this case then, showing mercy means not returning like for like, not responding to physical and verbal abuse with further violence. For Alex, the young man in the film, this is extremely difficult. At one point he notes that, he "wants to become the bully." Yet to do so would only result in a further perpetuation of the problem. The young boys who bully Alex might learn about suffering, but it's high unlikely that they would learn anything about compassion and empathy. 

Mercy, justice, and compassion...these are virtues one must practice in order to be a neighbor, and in order to love one's neighbor. Without them, the possibility of inheriting eternal life is a long way off.

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*Cyberbullying involves the use of e-mail, text messages, and various forms of social media to harass and humiliate other individuals, and may include the spreading of rumors by way of a blog or website, the posting of embarrassing photos, and/or the use of hate speech in online conversations or posts.