God’s Love Is Mercy

“Proclaim that mercy is the greatest attribute of God.”
– Jesus to St. Faustina
Devotion to Divine Mercy is not every Catholic’s thing. Some people struggle with the image of Divine Mercy: Jesus, His right hand raised to bless and heal, His left indicating his heart, from which rays of red and white, symbolizing blood and water, pour forth as a fountain of mercy for souls. Every version I’ve seen has been a bit mysterious and unsettling—which seems appropriate, given that it’s a vision of the resurrected Christ.
Some don’t like the chaplet, which is simpler and more repetitious than the rosary. Some consider the visions of a poor Polish nun to be private revelations: fine for her, but not necessary for us (even though she is a saint and was canonized by another saint).
And some struggle with the emphasis on God’s mercy, seemingly at the expense of His justice or even over His love. At first blush, saying that “mercy is God’s greatest attribute” (Diary of St. Faustina, 300) appears to downplay the seriousness of sin and the need for repentance. It suggests—much to the comfort of some sinners—that God will invariably forego His justice. It seems presumptuous.
But let’s think about what love, justice, and mercy actually are. Love, we are told, is willing the good of another regardless of the cost to yourself. Justice is giving another what is due. Mercy is often regarded as a bridge between these two: sparing someone just punishment for his or her benefit.
Because God is infinitely good, justice requires complete goodness from us in return. That is God’s due. But we are all sinners, and even the smallest sin stands in stark contrast to God’s infinite goodness—a grave injustice toward One who loves us perfectly.
What is our due as a result of this? Condemnation. We ought to suffer, not out of retribution, but as the natural consequence of our sins.
So God’s mercy does not deny the reality of sin or the need for repentance. Instead, it depends on these things. Without the grave reality of sin and the suffering that justly results from it, we would have no need of mercy. God’s mercy exists because of sin. There is no other reason.
But how can God be perfectly loving, perfectly just, and perfectly merciful—all at the same time? And how can mercy be God’s greatest attribute, when Scripture tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8)?
Look at it this way:
  • If God is love, then His very nature is to will our good, whatever the cost to Himself.
  • What is our good? Ultimately, it’s the end for which we were made: union with Him.
  • What is the cost to Himself? He sacrifices His claim against us for sinning against Him—He shows us mercy.

By doing this, it appears that God abandons justice in favor of love. But how can He do this, if He is perfectly just? Doesn’t sin demand punishment?

Yes, sin demands punishment. But with so much sin against so perfect a God, who could possibly bear it? Who, except God Himself?

So He becomes flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, living, suffering, and dying for us—willing the good of each of us at whatever cost to Himself. God’s perfect justice demands a perfect price be paid, so He pays it Himself. His love is mercy.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God loves us to death. All that remains for us is to return the favor.

Fool for Christ: An Easter Reflection

Such fools, these followers of Jesus. Witless tradesmen, traitors, cowards, and louts, smelling of dust and sweat and fish—with a carpenter to lead them! The honest one, Nathanael, spoke well when he asked, Can anything good come from Nazareth? Yet even he was smitten—by a wandering woodworker!

And then what? This Jesus rides into Jerusalem like God’s gift to humanity, picks a fight with the scribes and scholars, and blasphemes before the high priest. Who could stand for it? They had him flogged and humiliated, beaten within an inch of his life—they gave him every opportunity—and still he would not repent. So they had him crucified.

Great wickedness demands great atonement.

Such disciples! Most of them fled when God’s arm was revealed. Only the young one, John, stuck it out to the end. His mother was there, too, I hear. Poor woman. She raised him right, by all accounts, and this is her thanks: a criminal in an early grave. She must be proud.

They’ve been in hiding since. What would you do, if you left your home and livelihood to follow your heart’s desire, only to see it crushed completely and come to nothing? They say he worked wonders: fed the masses, healed the sick, even raised the dead! But how could that be, unless he came from God Himself? And why would God would allow his servant to be profaned so publicly, so completely—on the Passover, no less! Why could he not save himself?

Unless…

But no. Nothing short of bodily resurrection could make up for so great a loss. For the man Jesus to redeem Himself and his followers, He would have to burst from that tomb of his own accord, bathed in light and breathing God’s own spirit, baptizing in fire as the beheaded Baptist foretold, with angels as His heralds and judgment on His lips. He would have to show Himself victorious over not only worldly powers, but over sin and death itself.

Some say he will. Just imagine: the stone rolled back, an empty tomb, the astonished guards. Imagine the embarrassment of the Romans, the recriminations among the Jewish leaders, the joy and wonder among His followers.

Mercy! Who could stand before so great a Redeemer as that?

On that day, may every knee bend at His holy name. May He find a people worthy to be called His disciples.
And may I be one of them.

Book Break: The Spiritual Combat

Dom Lorenzo Scupoli’s The Spiritual Combat was recommended to me by a friend many years ago, when I was first looking into my patron saint Francis de Sales’s spiritual classic An Introduction to the Devout Life. First published in 1589, Fr. Scupoli’s book was required reading for those whom St. Francis de Sales advised, and he reportedly carried in his pocket a copy given to him by Fr. Scupoli himself.

Over the past several months, I’ve been reading and reflecting on The Spiritual Combatduring adoration. I will warn you up front: It is not an easy read. The language and structure are archaic and complex at times, and Fr. Scupoli takes sin, Satan, and the possibility of Hell uncomfortably seriously (as we should, too). Take your time; read a section and reflect on it. Re-read if necessary. This is a book the rewards patience and prayer.

I believe it will reward repeated reading, as well. Each “chapter” reads like a short reflection building upon the previous. I have read all of these reflections now, but find that, in my own spiritual life, I’m still focused on the first few reflections. Early in the book, Fr. Scupoli insists that in the battle for souls, we must fight or die—but victory can only come from recognizing our own spiritual weakness and putting no trust in ourselves and our own abilities. We must recognize our overwhelming tendency to fall and put all our confidence in a loving and merciful God, without whom we can do no good, but with whom we cannot fail.

I don’t live like that. Most days I still try to get by on my own steam and get frustrated when I stumble or fail. So in terms of spiritual combat, most days I’m still reminding myself of my weakness and striving to distrust me and trust Him instead. When this becomes habitual, it may be time to read this book again!

My edition ends with a shorter work also attributed to Fr. Scupoli, A Treatise on Peace in the Soul. This is another old fashioned, hard-hitting, and practical work, much shorter than The Spiritual Combat, and for me, much easier to apply as a whole to my day-to-day life. The overarching theme is the importance of maintaining peace in the soul and responding immediately to worries, anxieties, and fears that disturb us, recognizing that these are tools the Enemy uses to separate us from God. I read this part in about two sittings and found myself much refreshed and with much to think about and apply, even as a raw recruit to the spiritual combat.

* * * * *

Blogger’s Note: The cover on my edition is the one pictured. As a former wrestler and father of wrestlers, this image of Jacob wrestling the angel alone is worth the price of the book! Also: toward the end of the post at the following link is my brief reflection on Introduction to the Devout Life, another great spiritual book.

Book Break: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

The genius of C.S. Lewis continues to astound me. I read the Narnia series as a child and liked-but-not-loved them (although The Lord of the Rings has taken on new dimensions now that I am a practicing Christian, so perhaps I should revisit the world in the wardrobe, as well). But as an adult, Lewis’s nonfiction — Mere Christianity, The Abolition of Man, and The Weight of Glory — has consistently delivered new spiritual insights and deepened my conversion, and his fictional meditation on the afterlife, The Great Divorce, is one of my favorite books of all time.

Which brings me to The Screwtape Letters. This little book has been on my shelf for quite some time, and my oldest son, Brendan, read it a year or more ago and loved it. The book, ostensibly, is a collection of found letters from the demon Screwtape, an experienced administrator in the bureaucracy of Hell, to his nephew Wormwood, a young tempter striving to lure a budding Christian away from salvation. The letters show the subtlety and patience of the diabolical, the insidious ways in which we are knocked off the straight and narrow path, and the relentlessness with which we are pursued by the “roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

I saw myself in nearly every letter, as Screwtape outlines the fledgling Christian’s typical stages of conversion and the best ways in which to turn his progress into regress. The book is darkly funny, which makes the medicine easier to swallow. For example, Screwtape admonishes Wormwood for being naively enthusiastic about the outbreak of war in Europe, saying that while human death and destruction are always to be praised and enjoyed, it is not, in itself, necessarily helpful in the damnation of souls, because A) it affords opportunities for men to exercise saving virtue as well as condemning vice, and B) it can end lives in an instant — snatching souls for the Devil just as easily as from God, and undoing years of patient temptation. He also advises his nephew that tempting humans to great and glorious wickedness can backfire into stunning conversions, and that small temptations that lead them slowly, slowly away from God — all unaware of the danger — is just as good for their Father Below, and besides that, more enjoyable for the skill required.

We never hear directly from Wormwood, but we can hear Screwtape’s displeasure with his dear nephew’s failures and mistakes and begin to sense his affection for the young tempter is only marginally different from his ravenous hunger for condemned souls. My volume (pictured above) included an extra essay, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” in which the demon lifts his glass to toast the Tempters Training College and uses the opportunity to explain to the new graduates how Hell is leveraging the public education system on Earth to promote the one thing democracy and virtue cannot survive: forced equality. It is biting and brilliant — and contains one of my favorite passages, about why small, subtle temptations and sins can be better for Hell that bold, passionate wickedness (remember, in this passage from the demon’s perspective, everything is inverted, hence “the Enemy” is God):

I have said that to secure the damnation of these little souls, these creatures that have almost ceased to be individual, is a laborious and tricky work. But if proper pains and skill are expended, you can be fairly confident of the result. The great sinners seem easier to catch. But then they are incalculable. After you have played them for seventy years, the Enemy may snatch them from your claws in the seventy-first. They are capable, you see, of real repentance. They are conscious of real guilt. They are, if things take the wrong turn, as ready to defy the social pressures around them for the Enemy’s sake as they were to defy them for ours. It is in some ways more troublesome to track and swat an evasive wasp than to shoot, at close range, a wild elephant. But the elephant is more troublesome if you miss. — C.S. Lewis, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”

This is definitely spiritual reading, which you can apply to yourself if you try. A brief example might suffice to illustrate this point: in one letter, Screwtape advises Wormwood on what a huge difference a seemingly small tweak in the language of his “patient” can have on the fate of his soul. He urges his nephew to encourage the man to think of his duty to practice charity as unselfishness. Unselfishness has the advantage, Screwtape says, of turning a positive attribute (charity) into a negative (UN-selfishness), and an external, active habit into something more akin to navel-gazing: inwardly focused, inactive, and a potential source of pride.

He then goes into great detail as to how this commitment to unselfishness can be used to increase resentment and secret pride in marriages and families, as men and women forego the pleasures of this life not out of genuine love and desire of the good for another, but out of a selfish desire to appear unselfish:

“Let’s do what you want to do.”

“No, no, I insist, let’s do what you prefer.”

“Well, I don’t want to anymore.”

“Fine, we’ll do neither.”

She doesn’t even appreciate how unselfish I am!

I don’t need his pity — two can play at this game! 

Like The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters led me to think more deeply about the little things that draw me daily away from God, and underscored for me that getting to Heaven is something akin to long-range marksmanship: a tiny deviation at this end can, over the distance of years, result in missing the mark entirely. Yet it never ceases to be hopeful: the demons admit they are at a disadvantage and cannot challenge God directly — and they have no understanding at all of charity, and dismiss it as a lie God has told in service of a secondary goal they have yet to discover. They cannot fathom why He loves us so.

Dante, or Three Things to Love About the Divine Comedy

Blogger’s Note: Several years ago, I agreed to my friend Jacqui’s challenge to read 15 Classics in 15 Weeks. I continue to press forward, this being number 13 of 15, and at this point 15 Classics in 15 Years seems quite doable…

Late last week I finished reading Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy in its entirety for the first time. I had read excerpts for different classes over the years, and have read a little about the great work. The book itself was something of a pilgrimage through hell, purgatory, and heaven. This is my least favorite of the thirteen classics I’ve read so far as part of this challenge, and was tough sledding at times. Nevertheless, I do agree that this is a great literary work and worth the effort to complete at least once.

Without further ado, Three Things to Love about Dante’s Divine Comedy:

  • The Ambition. Dante the poet takes us on a journey through the Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradisio (Heaven) with Dante the Pilgrim in order that the fictional Dante may change his ways and be saved. Each of these three journeys are told in verse, thirty-three cantos each, with each canto approximately 140 to 150 lines long. Along the way he meets ancient and more recent historical figures, who comment and prophesy on the political and religious turmoil of Dante’s time and place, along with sharing their own experience in the world and in the afterlife. The running commentary on the political machinations and rivalries in Dante’s home was the least interesting aspect of the book for me, but it is nonetheless impressive how much he weaves into this ambitious work.
  • The Creativity. The denizens of Hell and Purgatory, in particular, suffer in hundreds of ways peculiar to their specific sins and attachments. Dante’s Hell is hellish, disgusting and terrifying at times, culminating in an immense figure of Satan, not surrounded by flame, but eternally frozen in ice, suffering for his own sins. The journey through Purgatory is hopeful, but not easy, as imperfect souls labor to let go of those earthly things that weigh them down. Heaven, to me, was actually the least interesting of the three, in part due to the poet’s continued insistence that the beauty of the place was beyond his words and ability — but persevering to the end, to full union with God in the beatific vision, has its rewards. The last few cantos are lovely.
  • The Deep Belief. This, to me, is the greatest aspect of Dante’s masterpiece: the depth of theology, of faith, of true belief. Dante believes in the reality of Hell, and he puts people he loved in this world in that place of torment because of their sins. He peoples his poems with friends, contemporaries, nobles, and popes, explaining how and why each fell or rose, and when Dante the Pilgrim is asked to testify to his own faith, the lines resonate as the poet’s own sincere profession. Who knows how accurate a portrayal of the afterlife these poems are, but Dante gives us much to contemplate as we navigate this world.

I have begun number fourteen of fifteen classics, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with that great opening line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It is a long book, but engaging— I hope to be done within the month!