The Quality of Mercy

James Tolhurst FAITH Magazine November-December 2008s

Fr Tolhurst is the General Editor of the Newman Millennium Edition (Gracewing and Notre Dame).

Rembrandt’s portrait of The Prodigal Son reminds us not so much of the son, as of the compassionate father. Who would so dare to portray the all-powerful, all-knowing God ? The Catechism says, “Only the heart of Christ who knows the depths of his Father’ s love could reveal to us the abyss of his mercy in so simple and beautiful a way.”[1]

Ezekiel in his ‘discussion’ with God hears, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked. . .and not rather that he should turn from his way and live ?“ (Ezek 18:23) The rabbis, when they came to describe how the angels began to sing of the victory of the Israelites at the Red Sea, say that God stopped them with the words, “My creatures are drowning and you wish to sing ?… Do not hate an Egyptian because you were once a stranger in his land.”

The Prodigal Father

Jesus however reveals that God does not simply condone our faults but reaches out to us in love. Pope Gregory the Great meditated on this fact and wrote, “The supreme mercy does not abandon us even when we abandon him.”[2] Yes, he does forbid us to sin, “but once we have sinned does not cease hoping in us to give us his forgiveness.”[3] Such is the Prodigal Father.

How is it that God can continue to love us when we show our hatred to him, not seven times, but seventy-seven times ? We can glimpse an insight in that most un-PC parable of the workers in the vineyard. When the late-comers receive the same as the earliest, the grumbling reaches the ears of the owner who says, “What if I wish to give this last one the same as you ? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous? “(Matt 20:14-16)

We judge God by our own standards, but Jesus tells us that we must set these higher. Jesus tells his disciples, “You call me Lord and Master and so I am,” (John 13:13) yet he washed their feet. He was entitled to be served but in saying that he had come to serve, Pope John Paul II says, “he showed a disturbing aspect of God’s behaviour… he puts himself at the service of his creatures.”[4]

We sometimes see Jesus’ actions as persuasive gestures, encouraging us to be merciful, forgiving and kind, which they are. They are not just gestures but expressions of God’s very being. He is that ocean of love and forgiveness which was glimpsed by the patriarchs, experienced by the prophets and kings, sung by the psalmists, but finally lived by the Son. As Portia said, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”

Our Self Respect

Beyond all the wars and rumours of wars that so beset civilisation lies the desire for self-assertion, and self-promotion which is expressed in that very unpleasant phrase ‘me-time’. Potentially it was present at the dawn of creation, but it was nurtured by sin. Newman analysed it brilliantly when he wrote, “They do not look out of themselves, because they do not look through and beyond their own minds to their Maker but are engrossed in notions of what is due to themselves, their own dignity and their own consistency. Their conscience has become a mere self-respect.”[5] It was to free us from this that God wished to manifest himself in the self-abnegation even unto death of his Son.

As Christians we are united with him through baptism into his death so as to rise with him to live no longer for ourselves. But we need to renew the spirit of our baptism by continual contrition joined to the absolution of the Church.

The Need for Contrition

One of the reasons for the decline in the practice of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is a loss of an understanding of, and a need for contrition. Newman considered that “the most noble repentance, the most decorous conduct in a conscious sinner is an unconditional surrender of oneself to God – not a bargaining about terms, not a scheming (so as to call it) to be received back again, but an instant surrender in the first case.”[6] We grow a hard shell which we use to protect ourselves from admitting our own wretchedness and our need for God’s mercy. St Dorotheus maintained that the reason for all the problems “is that no one blames himself.”[7]

We need to start by having compassion for the faults of others. We do not often realise how conditioned we are to slander, libel and gossip. We must listen to the voice of St John of the Cross when he says, “The holier a man is, the gentler he is and the less scandalised by the faults of others, because he knows the weak condition of man.”[8] There is even an element of self-interest here because, to quote St Philip Neri, “To be without pity for other’s falls, is an evident sign that we shall shortly fall ourselves.”[9]

We must then get rid of the concept that contrition is somehow unworthy and undignified, which is a legacy of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. In fact asking for forgiveness “is not a sign of an unhealthy concern with oneself as is sometimes asserted. It rather arises from, and leads to, the discovery that God is love, and that it is by forgiving that he manifests most fully both his love and his omnipotence.”[10] Pope John Paul II pointed out, “The person who knows how to acknowledge the truth of his guilt and asks Christ for forgiveness enhances his own human dignity and manifests spiritual greatness… he does not feel humiliated but rather found again and restored to value.”[11]

In this, the Pope added a dimension to the teaching of St Thomas, that after Confession a person’s state of grace may be greater than before his sin, depending on the depth of his repentance.[12]

Those who have truly repented, says St John Climacus, “after their restoration to health, become physicians, lamps, beacons and guides to all.” In spite of falling “into every pit and being trapped in all the snares.”[13]

If we then tend to reproach ourselves that we have enjoyed our snares then we should be sorry for the offence to God “even if we cannot manage to feel detestation for the pleasure which seduced us. The Lord sees more clearly into the depths of the soul than you can; leave the judging to him.”[14] St Peter of Damascus makes the point that it is always possible to make a new start by means of repentance, “As long as you do not surrender yourself willingly to the enemy, your patient endurance, combined with self-reproach, will suffice for your salvation.”[15]

Our misfortune is that we underestimate God’s loving mercy and so belittle our need for it. It was not without reason that we read, “Restore us to yourself, Lord that we may be restored.” (Lam 5:21)

[1]n. 1439
[2]Homily 36 on the Gospels.
[3]Homily 34 on the Gospels.
[4]General Audience February 4, 1998.
[5]The Idea of a University p. 192.
 [6]Parochial & Plain Sermons Vol 3 p. 96.
[7]Colloquies on Doctrine 7,2.
[8] Quoted in Gerald Brenan’s St John of the Cross, His Life and Poetry. Cambridge University Press 1975 p. 24n.
[9]Maxims of St Philip Neri in Faber F W If God Be With Us Gracewing 1994 p.25.
[10]Abhishiktananda (Henri le Saux OSB) Prayer. SPCK 1972 p. 52.
[11]Phoenix Park September 29, 1979 ; Dives in Misericordia n. 6.
[12]Summa Theologica 3rd Part a. 89. 2c.
[13]Ladder of Paradise 26,13.
[14]A Monk, The Hermitage Within. Darton, Longman & Todd 1977 p. 33.
[15]The Great Benefit of True Repentance.

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