Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Mercy of Father Brown

“The secret is,” he said; and then stopped as if unable to go on. Then he began again and said: “You see, it was I who killed all those people… I had murdered them all myself,” explained Father Brown patiently. “So, of course, I knew how it was done…

"I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully,” went on Father Brown, “I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”

Chace gradually released a sort of broken sigh. “You frightened me all right,” he said. “For the minute I really did think you meant you were the murderer. Just for the minute I kind of saw it splashed over all the papers in the States: ‘Saintly Sleuth Exposed as Killer: Hundred Crimes of Father Brown.’ Why, of course, if it’s just a figure of speech and means you tried to reconstruct the psychology — ”

Father Brown rapped sharply on the stove with the short pipe he was about to fill; one of his very rare spasms of annoyance contracted his face. “No, no, no,” he said, almost angrily; “I don’t mean just a figure of speech. This is what comes of trying to talk about deep things. . . . What’s the good of words . . .? If you try to talk about a truth that’s merely moral, people always think it’s merely metaphorical. A real live man with two legs once said to me: ‘I only believe in the Holy Ghost in a spiritual sense.’ Naturally, I said: ‘In what other sense could you believe it?’ And then he thought I meant he needn’t believe in anything except evolution, or ethical fellowship, or some bilge. . . .

I mean that I really did see myself, and my real self, committing the murders. I didn’t actually kill the men by material means; but that’s not the point. Any brick or bit of machinery might have killed them by material means. I mean that I thought and thought about how a man might come to be like that, until I realized that I really was like that, in everything except actual final consent to the action. It was once suggested to me by a friend of mine, as a sort of religious exercise. I believe he got it from Pope Leo XIII, who was always rather a hero of mine.”
 GK Chesterton, The Secret of Father Brown

Reflection – Just a couple more days of Fr. Brown, and then we’ll move on to other things. When we talk (or at least try to talk) about the general subject of mercy—mercy received, mercy given, mercy lived—I sometimes wonder if we quite go as far as we should in our thought and words.

There are those who approach the matter of mercy in fairly strict legal terms—the crime, the repentance, the restitution, the forgiveness. Both for themselves and for others, mercy is pretty much understood in this rather extrinsic sense of the process whereby moral failures are redeemed. Of course there is real mercy at work in this, and I would never discount the above process as not just valid but necessary.

Others approach mercy in a sort of genial ease of spirit. A waving aside of the sin of the other as something of no great consequence, certainly nothing that any particular effort has to be taken with, something that God just forgives because that’s just what God does, and we don’t have to bother our silly heads about it. Again, this is not entirely wrong, either, and we poor human beings can never fully comprehend the full extent and the outer reaches of the mercy of God. Because His mercy is so vast, and ours so puny (necessarily, by comparison), we cannot really know where any of us stand in the mercy, and we are indeed called to be profoundly merciful and kind to one another.

But Fr. Brown here is talking about an expression of mercy that is quite different, it seems to me. “It was I who killed all those people,” he says. Mercy as a legal process, mercy as simply waving aside the sin—these both fall short. There is a call at the heart of the Christian Gospel to go deeper and further in our imitation of Christ’s mercy. A call to identification with the other, to genuinely, truly, really knowing ourselves to be one with this person.

Certainly no better than them, and quite likely somewhat worse, but at any rate in a sense to be this person. There is no us, no them, no fingers to point, no blame to lay. Just a bunch of sinners all slouching along together, trying to find our way to the New Jerusalem and to the merciful Jesus who bears us there.

This identification is what Jesus Himself did, even though He was in fact sinless. “For our sake, God made the sinless one into sin, and so made us the goodness of God.” I can’t find the exact chapter and verse, but St. Paul puts it here as strongly as anyone ever has.

In the Father Brown stories, this identification is used at the service of detecting crime (these stories are, in the end, merely light entertainment). But the reality of this identification is, in the truest sense, a religious exercise, a work of our faith and imitation of Jesus Christ.

When we who are Catholic Christians are tempted to get censorious about our society and the various things that go on in our society, we really should try to embrace this religious exercise. Why is this person doing this behaviour? Why are they hooking up, smoking up, shacking up, breaking up?

Become that person, in everything except committing the actual sinful act, come to know just exactly why and how a person may come to some low point of choice and action that takes them so far from the ways of God, know yourself to be ‘really like that’ yourself.

This is mercy at its deepest and finest level, and is, I would say, a necessary work in our task of bearing the Gospel of Christ and the love of Christ into our hurting world today.


  1. I think your chapter and verse are 2nd Corinthians 5:21: For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

    Perhaps there are others?

  2. Yes.
    Thank you for saying that so clearly.

  3. Hi Fr Denis,
    Your reflection reminds me of Archbishop Carlson's statement here:
    I am in St Louis and this is his response to the decision on Monday night. I was directed by our wise shepherd to look at my own heart and home first in response to this crisis. Are we asking forgiveness and accepting mercy within our family and community. He pointed out that poverty and racism are in man's heart- just as violence and anger. So even though I am not involved directly with this problem in Ferguson, when I don't say I am sorry and ask forgiveness and in turn don't give mercy to my family and community- then I am contributing to the problem. It was an eye (heart( opening moment for me- am I doing this enough? 70x 7
    Also are you aware of this :? The Father Brown Reader adapted by Nancy Brown. It has introduced my 12 year old to Chesterton and Fr Brown and I think it is well done- but I am not a well learned Chesterton fan. Just a fan.
    Sarah (fr z's sis)


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