The other day I dropped into my favourite local bookstore to see the new offerings in the history and fiction sections. I happened upon a book by Pope Francis instead. It was an encyclical declaring 2016 as “The Year of Mercy”.
I will admit that had Pope Benedict done this (he’s the Pope that resigned and is under a type of voluntary confinement), I would have walked right by. But Pope Francis is a global soul, a human being who obviously lives from the theology that human life is sacred goods. All human life. He means it and he lives it.
So, I read bits of his encyclical on the grace of Mercy: what it is, what it isn’t, what the absence of mercy creates in the human heart, and how acting mercifully toward others blesses both the giver and the receiver. Something in me felt his words to be the truth. I realized, as I paged through the Pope’s book, that mercy is not a word I hear very often. I wondered how long it had been since I heard anyone speak of being merciful toward others or experiencing an act of mercy toward themselves. I came up empty. I could not recall one instance.
When was the last time you spoke about mercy in any way? Aside from prayers that contain the word, it seems to have been shelved from common parlance.
A couple of thoughts occurred to me as a result of pondering about the evaporation of the word mercy from our mainstream vocabulary. The first has to do with appreciating all the creative power that is contained in a single word – every single word, which I will chat about in a second as regards the word mercy. Secondly, what would change in your life if you consciously framed the words Mercy, Patience, and Faith as graces and not just words?
On the Power of a Word
I love words. I always have. I used to read the dictionary as my bedtime reading. And when I came across a new word in a book, especially in fiction, I would read the sentence again and again. The sounds of new words struck me like chords of music. They still do. Words, for me, are flying carpets. Consider how we select the words we use to describe our feelings or to communicate something we witnessed. The word compassion is frequently used but I rarely hear someone use the word mercy. That struck me, as I flipped through the pages of the Pope’s book.
When I came home, I looked up mercy in the Oxford-English Dictionary. Among the definitions was, “forbearance and compassion shown to a powerless person” and “kind and compassionate treatment in a case where severity is merited or expected.”
And then, of course, there is the renowned plea that Portia makes in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.
It is twice blessed: It blessed him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest.
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above the sceptered sway.
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
Though we are none of us kings, we are the rulers of the kingdom of our lives. We decide in our hearts who is forgiven and who is not. We dole out judgments, fairly or unfairly. And it is also the case that we are sometimes on the receiving end of harsh judgments, unfairly criticized. Is that not so? Have you not at times felt deeply misunderstood? I know I have – and more than once. A dose of mercy would have been appreciated along the way.
But for me, mercy takes on an extraordinary meaning in the context of a prayer. I grew up hearing – and saying – the prayer, “Lord, have mercy upon me.” In truth, I have not said that prayer in a very long time. I dusted it off because of this article and spent a bit of time reflecting upon the meaning of it.
Grace and prayer can be defined, but proof of their power cannot be produced to the naked eye, like all mystical forces. I can offer examples of grace but I cannot prove that it was this mystical substance at work. For example, every one of us has been in heated exchanges with someone that crossed the line into the crazy zone. The issue evaporates, as the argument gets more and more personal. Emotions get raw and old wounds start bleeding. And then comes the moment at which you think about saying something that you know is especially hurtful. Just as you are about to launch that missile, a quick thought pops into your head, “You sure you want to say that?”
You become filled with a sudden awareness that if you do say this remark, though you might experience a second’s satisfaction for having hurt someone just a bit more than you are feeling, the regret you will feel immediately afterwards will be crushing. You are given a microsecond to ask yourself, “Is hurting this person because of your pride worth losing this person?”
Many people have told me that it was exactly this experience that saved their marriage. An infusion of grace – and it may well be the grace of Mercy – prevented them from uttering words so hurtful that no number of apologies could repair things afterwards. People have told me that they stormed out of the room instead to calm down and reboot their rational mind. And in the process of rebooting, often they could better see the needs or vulnerabilities of the other person.
Remember that Mercy is a grace that gives a person the capacity to show compassion to someone who is powerless, often over their own weaknesses. Or it can give us the means to cope with a situation that court justice tells us deserves severity; yet we can see that such a response would inevitably solve nothing.
And then there is the theme of one of the most wonderful novels of all time, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Ex-criminal Jean Valjean is touched by the grace of Mercy by the act of a priest who catches him stealing silver candlesticks from his home. The priest tells the police that he has given the candlesticks to Valjean and once the police leave the priest’s home, the priest tells Valjean to take the candlesticks and use the money he could get from the silver to begin a new life. But he steals again – only he cannot live with his choice – and thus begins his life of redemption and countless acts of mercy for the downtrodden of the town he lives in.
However, his act of theft caused him to break his parole and set into motion the ongoing dynamic between Valjean’s adversary, Inspector Javert – a policeman bound to the letter of the law and merciless punishments – and Valjean, now loved by an entire village for his kindness and mercy toward all.
In Les Miserables, Hugo asks, “What is a society without mercy?” We are heartless beings when we lack mercy in our hearts. We have no alternative but to turn to the letter of the law, without concern for the human condition. Taking a loaf of bread to feed starving children is viewed as the same type of crime as stealing gold jewelry for greed. Theft is theft. That is the letter of the law. Mercy has no place in the law, according to Inspector Javert.
Imagine mercy not having a place in the human heart. That is often the case, as we know. And when it is, that person has only the law, usually his or her personal law, to lean on as the means through which decisions are determined. Fairness and justice become subjective self-serving positions. Only the power of a grace can break through a mind possessed by greed. You certainly cannot reason with greed. The genius of Hugo’s novel is that both characters are on their own path of redemption – and in both cases, the grace of Mercy is center stage.
Finally, let’s return to the prayer, “Lord, have mercy on me.” Sometimes that prayer is said, “Lord, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.”
As I reflected on this prayer now, it took on a very different significance. I see the world through different glasses these days, most of them with a mystical lens. I live by the mystical teaching that we are governed by the laws of creation and that these laws are an expression of the nature of the Divine. Laws have no religion. They are a constant governing system that orders the nature of creation.
We are held accountable for the choices we make within this theater of life. We are participants in constant acts of creation. How conscious we want to be about what we create and our motives that inspire our words and deeds is up to each of us. For some, life is sacred. For others, it’s a shopping spree. For still others, it’s a “not sure.” None of those answers make any difference when it comes to this fact: Every choice we make has a consequence, for the believer and for the atheist, just as both are subject to the law of gravity. Who cares if you don’t believe in gravity? No one. You will fall if you jump off the top of anything.
That said, the prayer for Mercy is a plea to the Divine for the intervention of grace into the consequences of choices made in darkness, in fear, in haste, or without faith. The Eastern traditions recognize karma – consequences for human actions. Karma is the name given to the mystical laws of cause and effect and action and reaction.
How many choices do we make fearfully? Or from the darkest part of ourselves or in haste or motivated by greed? We are attached to the consequences of those choices. Period. It doesn’t matter that we regret them the next day. Consider how gambling works. You blast through $5,000 at a poker table in a casino and you wake up the next morning in gambling debt. No one cares that you regret it or that you don’t have the money. You now owe big time and that’s that. Your life now has to be adjusted according to your debt. It takes over.
The same is true of all choices, whether we see the consequences of them or not. Choice is power. And power is the fundamental ingredient of creation. Power has many expressions: Every form of matter and energy. But the most refined expression of power is grace.
"The most refined expression of power is grace."
The prayer for Mercy is a request that the Divine intervene in choices made without prayer, without grace. We are still accountable – I must add that. But the Mercy of God somehow reshapes the consequences or prepares us to better handle them or provide us with what we need for that stage of our journey.
As I say, I cannot prove this to you. But in my heart and soul, I know this to be the truth.