Divine Mercy Sunday is this Sunday. Here are a few thoughts about how my understanding of mercy has changed over time.
In my childhood, I don’t remember hearing the word “mercy” often. Perhaps I first heard the word, outside of a church context, from a childhood game with the same name. One who accepted a challenged to “play mercy” entered into a kind of one-on-one finger wrestling match. Grasping hands like London Bridge, each person would try to bend back the fingers of the other person. The first person to yell, “Mercy! Mercy!” out of pain or fear of pain lost the game. You can see how this game does not create the best picture of what mercy is. It reduces mercy to what the strong show to the weak when they beg for it. I think I also encountered the word in fairy tales or TV cartoons. From these stories, the word “mercy” called to mind the image of a king pardoning a criminal begging to be spared punishment.
Similarly, I thought of the mercy of God as nearly always a response to sin. God, like the king showing mercy to a criminal, forgives sinners. From this perspective mercy seems to be the opposite of justice. There is truth to this, but I soon discovered there is more to mercy’s meaning. I think it was sometime during the Year of Mercy that I realized that it can exist even when there is no crime or sin. God shows us his kindness and compassion at all times, not just after we sin. The Venerable Louis of Granada, citing St. Augustine, says, “God shows no less mercy in preserving man from sin than in pardoning him after he has fallen” (The Sinner’s Guide, Ch. 5). Our creation, our preservation, and all the blessings we receive are gifts from our merciful God.
This broader view of mercy also helps me better understand how people can show mercy toward each other with the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. While some works of mercy do relate to bearing with the sins of another, most can be shown just as well to the innocent as to the guilty. For example, comforting the afflicted, praying for the living and the dead, and feeding the hungry can been done to hardened criminals or to innocent babies. St. Theresa of Calcutta comes to mind in this context, and if I remember correctly, her example played a role in this expansion of my understanding. In showing great kindness to many people, especially the poorest, she seems to me to be a clear embodiment of mercy.
If you’ve never prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet, this week is a great time to start! It follows a similar pattern to the Rosary but takes less time. Instructions can be found here.
~ Nathan Skinner