Misericordia: The Roots of Mercy

In 1976, Pope Paul VI was talking to his secretary Monsignor John McGee as they strolled through Vatican City. The Holy Father was explaining the foundations of his spirituality which was grounded in the authentic notion of mercy elucidated by St. Augustine. Pope Paul VI explained that in the writing of the great Church Doctor there is found an explanation of the two extremes that encompass the playing field for the entirety of human spirituality; human misery and God’s infinite love.

On the lower extreme there is found the profound depths of human misery. In this vale of tears it is wretchedness that characterizes much of human life, especially pervasive in lives disconnected from the truth, goodness and beauty of the One True God. Since the fall of our first parents, temptation plagues us at every turn. We are prone to become slaves to our appetites. We are constantly challenged by the difficulty of “seeing through a glass darkly.” We are in conflict, strife and turmoil with one another spanning across the countless centuries into times long forgotten. Yes, misery is a single word that captures the essence of man’s experience in this life on earth, and even though modern man strives to conquer nature by technological means, the tears still flow.

The opposite extreme is God’s immeasurable love. We can catch glimpses of God’s outpouring of benevolence in marvelous creation, the gift of free will, the consolations of the Holy Mass, the gifts of the Holy Spirit and in countless other observable phenomena. However, the best we can do from the vantage point of an earthly life is a pale and truncated look at the unfathomable love God has for His creatures. He made us in His image and likeness. Our clearest and most profound look at His love is in Christ on the Cross, that unimaginable self-emptying carried out before His passion. He endured degrading torture and insult for our sake. He is the source of all life and the end of all things. He is the alpha and omega. We come from dust gifted life by His abundance and we are offered a return to His loving embrace at the end of all time for an eternity of heaven. If that’s not love what is?

The entire conundrum of human existence can be examined in the strain between these two extreme positions of man’s misery and God’s vast love for us. The gap between the two is an incredibly immense space where man asks all his seemingly unanswerable questions about the nature of human existence, our purpose in life, human suffering and about our final ends. Philosophers, gurus, teachers and sages have been positing solutions to the problems that arise concerning the reconciliation of man’s obvious misery and the omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent Creator’s boundless love for us. Nothing wholly satisfying has been discovered by the light of man’s mind on these matters. The only real answer that bridges the gap between these two extremes is found in the second person of the Trinity, Christ Our Savior, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, who died, was buried and is risen from the dead.

The Incarnation is the ultimate act of love. God humbled Himself to become man in atonement for our sins. Christ drew all human evils to Himself. He didn’t just redeem us, He endured the torment we deserve by our disobedience. Christ is the embodiment of sacrificial love and His life, death, and resurrection embody the only substantial and sustaining answer to our most pressing and eternal questions. In a word beyond the Logos Himself, we find that the tension between the two extremes can be illuminated by God’s infinite “mercy.” In the fullest expression of the divine economy concerning Salvation history, God’s profound mercy is the key to interpreting what appears to be senseless and cruel suffering and illuminates it as redemptive. A closer look at “mercy’s” Latin roots is clarifying.

In Latin, mercy is signified by “misericordia.” This is two words combined, the Latin “miseriae” meaning misery and the Latin “cor” or “cordis” meaning heart. It is the nature of God’s mercy that His heart extends into our misery and redeems it. This is the answer to the mystery of human suffering as it relates to redemption. Mercy signifies that God draws our misery into His own infinitely loving heart. When the saints and sinners experience God’s mercy and recognize it for what it is, there is only one truly profound response, that of Our blessed mother who cried out “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord!”

Christ told us “blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.” If ever we are given the great gift of seeing God’s immeasurable mercy for what it truly is, we will encounter it in intense suffering at the depths of human misery. If such a vision is granted to us then we will catch a foretaste of the whole of the fallen human drama played out to its beatific end. Man is redeemed not by his meritorious efforts but by the unmerited gift of unbounded love expressed by God’s ineffable mercy.

Let us now take the steps to purify our hearts first by acts of faith followed by prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Let us never forget the endless mercy of God no matter how intense our trials become. Let us choose His mercy and heed the divine wisdom of St. Faustina Kowalska who relayed the revelation that God said “He who refuses to pass through the door of My mercy must pass through the door of My justice.” It is by the very sacred heart of Christ Himself that we see the immense gap between human misery and God’s heart permanently and definitively bridged. This will become ever clearer to us as we strive to pick up our crosses and follow Him to the narrow path of salvation. Let us say a resounding yes to the unmerited gift of God’s infinite mercy that we may be redeemed instead of facing His greatly deserved justice.

Author’s note: The first half of this article is a re-conveyance of a homiletic narrative by an anonymous faithful priest.

image: Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

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Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is the executive director of the 7 Institutes at the Veritatis Splendor HQ project. He is a senior fellow at The American Principles Project and a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society. He is on the Teacher Advisory Council at Sophia Institute Press for teachers where he has written Catholic curriculum for the past 8 years, he also serves on the advisory council for Aquinas Learning. Steven is a writer and speaker on education, culture, and the Faith.

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