This week’s Monday Merton is taken from chapter 11 of No Man Is An Island, “Mercy.” I feel like starting off by sharing one of my favorite gems from James 2:12-13 which I only discovered recently: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom,because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Thanks be to God that mercy does indeed triumph over judgment.
We learn to know Him, now, not in the “presence” that is found in abstract consideration–a presence in which we dress Him in our own finery–but in the emptiness of a hope that may come close to despair. 206
This passage really jumped out at me even though it doesn’t seem to have anything directly to do with mercy. I do think Merton is being hyperbolic here, because he’s such an advocate of the “abstract consideration” of contemplative prayer. But there is truth in the way that moments of crisis that force us into the arms of God are when we get to know Him best. What I do think is true is that we cannot really know Him unless we throw ourselves upon His mercy because the God we consider from a perspective of aloof self-sufficiency is a metaphysical construct, not a Father who holds us.
God has left sin in the world in order that there may be forgiveness: not only the secret forgiveness by which He Himself cleanses our souls, but the manifest forgiveness by which we have mercy on one another and so give expression to the fact that He is living, by His mercy, in our own hearts. 208
Wow. This is a very bold statement. Of course, it’s one thing to say it in the abstract like this and quite another to use this to justify a horrific evil that any particular victim of sin has suffered, which I don’t think Merton would ever do. But there is something better about a relationship in which mistakes have been made and mercy has been manifested than one in which everything has always gone perfectly. The manifestation of mercy is a truly lovely thing. I would much rather be friends with a merciful person than a person who never makes mistakes. “So should we sin all the more that grace may abound?!” Me genoito!
In the holiness of God, all extremes meet–infinite mercy and justice, infinite love and endless hatred of sin, infinite power and limitless condescension to the weakness of His creatures. His holiness is the cumulation of all His other attributes. 210
Even though this definition of holiness seems a bit arbitrary, I like it a lot better than the way that many Christians pervert holiness by putting it into binary opposition with mercy or love. It doesn’t make sense at all to contrast holiness with love or mercy. God is perfectly merciful because He is perfectly holy. It is part of the way in which He is profoundly perfect and wonderful, not somehow a compromise of it. The holier we become, the more merciful we will be, because we will be undistracted by our idolatry and we will have no need to be the recognized winners of our disputes with others.
We must adore and acknowledge God’s holiness by desiring Him to have mercy on us, and this is the beginning of all justice. To desire Him to be merciful to us is to acknowledge Him as God. To seek His pity when we deserve no pity is to ask Him to be just with a justice so holy that it knows no evil and shows mercy to everyone who does not fly from Him in despair. 210
This will of course ruffle feathers among the fundamentalist NSA agents combing my blog for heresy. Is Merton some kind of universalist? How can justice be merciful? Doesn’t that cause the whole citadel of our doctrine to collapse? Yes, it does. And praise God that it does. We are most just towards others when we acknowledge our utter dependence on the mercy of God. That’s why God must protect those under His mercy from those who refuse it. Because people who think they are infallible on their own cannot avoid being cruel and presumptuous in how they treat others. To do justice to others means honoring the complexity of their circumstances and not making presumptions about them. When we are defending our self-perceived infallibility, our perception of others revolves around the need to justify ourselves.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). We can have the mercy of God whenever we want it, by being merciful to others: for it is God’s mercy that acts on them, through us, when He leads us to treat them as He is treating us. His mercy sanctifies our own poverty by the compassion that we feel for their poverty, as if it were our own. 211
Don’t be too quick to pounce on this as a claim of works-righteousness (So is he saying you earn your salvation through showing mercy? Isn’t that backwards? etc). Merton is describing the way that we are sanctified through the practice of mercy. God can transmit mercy through us preveniently whenever He wants to, even if we are ignorant of His presence. But in order to be in a place of meaningfully and self-reflectively offering mercy, we need to know ourselves to be recipients of God’s mercy. The purpose of the justification provided through Jesus’ cross is to awaken us to God’s mercy for us, so that we are not only accidental conduits of His mercy but eager and proactive practitioners of it.
We can only get to Heaven by dying for other people on the cross. And one does not die on a cross by his own unaided efforts. He needs the help of an executioner. We have to die, as Christ died, for those whose sins are to us more bitter than death–most bitter because they are just like our own… If my compassion is true, if it be a deep compassion of the heart and not… a mercy learned from a book and practiced on others like a pious exercise, then my compassion for others is God’s mercy for me. My patience with them is His patience with me. My love for them is His love for me. 212
This is one of the most radical statements I’ve ever read by Thomas Merton. He’s of course being intentionally provocative. This paragraph only makes sense if you don’t see “heaven” as a reward for saying the right prayer or otherwise putting on an act for God to prove that you have “faith.” In Catholic teaching, heaven is literally the beatific vision, to see God, which is Biblical by the way: “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). I trust and hope that Merton wouldn’t tell the battered wife of an abusive alcoholic that the way to heaven is to die for her husband on the cross. But in a general sense, when we emulate God’s patience (long-suffering) with the daily irritations and misunderstandings that come up in relatively healthy relationships, then we are able to experience God’s mercy for us all the more richly.