Saturday, April 6, 2013

Too Good to Be True?

Well, it is Mercy Weekend, so to speak. This whole Divine Mercy devotion has grown dramatically in recent years, and has been a true gift to the whole Church. One thing I wonder about sometimes, though, contrarian that I am: are we at risk of ‘devotionalizing’ the mercy of God?

I mean, God’s mercy is something more than an image, a chaplet, a Polish nun’s diary, and a prayer, right? It is, in fact, the very form of love that God shows to us always, and the mystery of love into which each of us is to be drawn and transformed into merciful lovers.

Sometimes we Catholics can ‘devotionalize’ our faith—it is a bit easier to have a devotion to the Divine Mercy than to receive it and live it. In service of a deeper understanding and entry into the mystery, then, I want to take a couple days to excerpt a chapter from my book Going Home, which has nothing at all to say about St. Faustina, and tons to say about God’s mercy. So here it is, below the jump, as it is a bit lengthy:

While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, and embraced him, and kissed him. (v. 20)

“At what point does the mercy of God end? Where His love ends, because mercy is part of love. And our puny little minds will not absorb it.”[1]
            No, our puny little minds will not absorb it, this strange awesome fact. God is merciful. God is merciful. God. Is. Merciful. G.O.D. I.S. M.E.R.C.I.F.U.L. How else can we put it? How about this: among the names of God is that of Mercy; the attribute ‘mercy’ is rightly predicated of God; to be merciful is proper to the nature of God; mercy and God go together; God = Mercy. Goooooood iiiiiiiiiiis merrrrrrrrrcifulll.

            Nope. Somehow. It. Doesn’t. Quite. Get. Through.

We seem indeed to have great difficulty absorbing this. That the Father, seeing us from far off – that is, seeing us long before we’ve gotten ourselves all tidied up and sorted out, long before we’ve figured out the problem and begun to take positive steps to resolve it (The Seven Habits of Highly Repentant Sinners!), seeing us when we are still a bloody, raggedy, smelly mess, covered with sin and slime and shame – that His fundamental, essential divine response is to be filled with compassion? To move out towards us in an embrace of tenderness? That’s his first response?

Oh, it’s hard to grasp this, hard to hold on to this. Mercy. The mercy of God. An infinite fountain of love, tenderness, kindness, healing, forgiveness, flowing from the very heart of Being, flowing endlessly, without beginning or end, the very substance, source, center of all being, the very energy that fashioned, and holds, and restores, and perfects all that is. We can’t quite get it, can’t take it in somehow. Why is that?

            Is it that it’s too good to be true? Too much to hope for? Maybe it’s too far removed from what we’re used to. We’re not like that, after all. We’re not filled with compassion at the ugliness, the wretchedness of our brothers and sisters. When we see that no good prodigal reeling towards us, reeking of pig manure and looking (we know) for a handout, our response is more likely to be disgust and cynicism. ‘Oh sure, he’s desperate now, but wait until he gets a change of clothes and a bit of fatted calf in his belly—he’ll be back off to his prostitutes and high life!’

            When our prodigal next door neighbors have (once again) played their music too loud, let their kids run wild on our lawn, left their mess all over the place (bringing down the property values, you know), when we see that dreaded prodigal co-worker coming towards us with his sweaty palms, body odor, long pointless stories and tasteless jokes, when our inbox is filled with messages from that prodigal cousin who natters away at length, complaining about everything and everyone, when our prodigal spouse has done ‘that thing’ again that he/she knows drives us crazy (and does on purpose!! To specifically drive us crazy!!!)… well, our hearts are not necessarily moved with compassion. We do not run out to meet them and embrace them. Why should we? Why should God? Does He?
“You must believe He loves you. And the next thing you must believe is that He really does. And don’t transfer your attitude to God -- God is not like you and me, in that sense.”[2] What good news! God is not like us. Well, that’s a relief. We’re not always very nice people, you know. We can be real jerks, sometimes. Isn’t it great that God is not like us! But even better:

“Sure, I am a son-of-a-bitch, but He likes sons of bitches. He sat with them, he ate with them. OK? He canonized a prostitute and a thief. What are you going to do about that? It’s so contrary to our ideas. We don't want to absorb that.”[3] This un-absorbable fact, this sheer fact, this reality of God’s mercy is the mystery at the very heart of our Christian faith. It’s way bigger than simply my own lousy sins and God being a Good Guy to me in spite of them. What God does with human sin and more importantly what God allowed human sin to do to Him is the very core of his self-revelation, his action, his grace:

Today is Good Friday. Do you sense something so far beyond mystery that you almost feel as if you were teetering at the edge of the universe? Last night in Gethsemane God the Son took upon himself my sins and yours—the sins of all the world. He took them on himself and lifted them up, or rather, he was lifted up for them on a cross. He died to atone for them.
Before our eyes this simple wooden cross holds the absolute forgiveness of God for us. Lord, have mercy! Lord, have mercy! A thousand languages repeat it, and he has pity on us because he has been lifted up and from him came pity, compassion, tenderness, understanding. Can we comprehend what has happened? God, the Almighty, the All–Powerful, the One who has no limit to his power, limited it. It is incomprehensible…

Today is the day of an examination of conscience, and yet somewhere deep within us joy rises like the sun. However it is still dark and the darkness is I, looking at myself. The darkness is also sorrow that he had to die for me. The joy is that he did! Now I am whole and healed and all is well! My separation from God, the original one, is wiped off. Now I walk in the mercy of God; we live in his mercy. Now the moment of guilt is gone. Man must not feel any guilt anymore, only a terrible sadness when he once again breaks his alliance with God, the alliance of love. Whenever you feel that you have broken it, pray, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!” and it is forgiven![4]

            Is it that it’s too easy this way? Lets us off too light? Why is it so hard for us to absorb the fact, the reality of the mercy of God? Maybe it is just that—some strong stern Puritan sense of duty, of debts owed, recompense to be made rises up in us. If everything can be forgiven so easily, if God’s mercy is that lavish, doesn’t it put us in a position of perpetual irresponsibility? The prodigal son could, indeed, be out the door again as soon as he’s finished plundering the father’s goodness a second time. The question arises: is God’s mercy really good for us?

To be continued… and don’t forget you can buy the whole book at the link.

[1] Transcript, Spiritual Reading, Aug 12, 1970.
[2] Transcript, Spiritual Reading, Nov 2, 1973
[3] Transcript, Spiritual Reading, Oct 31, 1973. The ‘canonization of the prostitute (the woman anointing Christ’s feet) and the thief (on the cross)’ is a favourite reflection of Catherine’s, occurring frequently in her talks.
[4] Transcript, Mass Preparation, April 20, 1973. Catherine was, of course, a devout Catholic and understood well the obligation to bring serious sins to the sacrament of Confession, which she cherished. See Appendix II.


  1. I know it is all there above but not that easy to see the following point: Belief is not enough we must decide invest ourselves in our belief. The prodigal son made an intentional decision. He did not know its consequences or consider the other decisions of obedience to follow but he did do a 180 acting on his belief in his father. It is upon turning that we begin to "know" God's mercy and experience the Spirit leading us toward obedience.

    1. Yes, absolutely - actually the very next chapter of the book (not to be flogging it too agressively) is precisely about that - the call to repentance and conversion that is the necessary opening to mercy for us. Amen.


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