Lessons in experiencing mercy
Jesus teaches us that power should be used so that there might be life, and life to the full. In other words, power should be exercised mercifully. However, is there something required of us in order to experience the merciful exercise of power? Are there “preconditions” that dispose us more readily to experience, for example, God’s mercy? Is there something that “enables” God’s merciful action to take effect in our lives?
The witness of the Gospels
Consider each of the following accounts:
A leper approaches Jesus amidst a great crowd and says, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus replies, “I will do it. Be made clean.” The leprosy immediately leaves the man.
At another time, a centurion approaches Jesus and makes his appeal, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.” When Jesus offers to go to the centurion’s house to cure the servant, the centurion says, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus replies, “You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.” At that moment, the servant is healed.
An official comes forward and kneels before Jesus saying, “My daughter has just died. But come, lay your hand on her, and she will live.” Jesus rises and follows the official to his home. However, along the way, a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years comes up behind Jesus and touches the tassel on his cloak. She says to herself, “If only I can touch his cloak, I shall be cured.” In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus turns to her and says, “Courage, daughter! Your faith has saved you.” The woman is instantly cured. When Jesus finally arrives to the official’s house, he takes the girl by the hand and she arises.
Finally, Jesus encounters two blind men following him and crying out for pity. They approach Jesus and Jesus asks, “Do you believe that I can do this?” They both reply, “Yes, Lord.” Jesus touches their eyes and says, “Let it be done for you according to your faith.” Their eyes are opened.
Lesson #1: The hope to approach
In each of these accounts, the person who is seeking mercy has to first approach Jesus and ask him for it. Of course, one would only bother to approach Jesus in the first place because he or she hopes that he has the power to do what they ask of him.
The catechism teaches us that hope is the virtue by which “we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (1817) In short, hope is the grace of both the desire itself and the expectation of obtaining what is desired.
What could be more important than the virtue that makes it possible for us to desire our greatest good, and grants us the assurance we can attain it? Hope provides the motivation for us to begin, and then to continue on the path to fullness of life in Christ. It is hope that assures us we are definitely loved and – whatever happens to us – we are awaited by this Love. And so our lives – all of our lives – are good.
So the existence of hope in our hearts seems to be a necessary precondition to experience the life-giving mercy of Jesus. Now, is there anything else that is required?
Lesson #2: The faith to move mountains
The Letter to the Hebrews (11:1) asserts that faith “is the realization of what is hoped for.” In each of our stories, the hope for healing that drives each of the protagonists to approach Jesus is ultimately realized. The mechanism by which this is accomplished is faith.
Jesus repeatedly responds to the petitioner’s faith in his ability to heal them or their loved one. Faith is that interior instinct with which God invites us to believe in his word. Faith makes it possible for the human mind to believe in the truth which reason cannot comprehend, based on the authority of the God who reveals it. In other words, faith allows us to overcome lack of evidence through confidence in the one who speaks.
What’s more, faith is essential because, as Hebrews 11:3 explains, “What is seen was made from things that are not visible.” What this means is that faith enables us to see beyond the visible to the invisible, so that the invisible can be made visible.
In closing …
Hope and faith both make it possible for us to experience Christ’s mercy in our lives. Perhaps this is the reason the Church links hope, faith and love so closely. These virtues adapt our faculties for participation in the divine life of communion for which we are destined, and where fullness of life alone resides. As St. John Paul II writes in Dives in Misericordia, “Believing in the crucified Son means ‘seeing the Father,’ means believing that love is present in the world and that this love is more powerful than any kind of evil in which individuals, humanity, or the world are involved.”
Thomas à Kempis provides us with sound advice and the proper mind-set as we approach our spiritual reading to end this Year of Mercy. Spiritual reading is not simply reading spiritual classics, but reading in a spiritual way that desires the closeness of God. To this end, The Imitation of Christ would make a fine addition to our reading list. It is a devotional book and handbook for spiritual life composed by the Dutch canon regular Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471). It is perhaps the most translated book, apart from the Bible.