Sunday, April 15, 2012

On the Divine Mercy

Here is the talk I gave this afternoon at my parish, St. Hedwig's.

On Divine Mercy

I’d like to thank Fr. Shalla for inviting me to speak to you on this holy feast.

            There are two ways in which we can think about the subject of God’s mercy: what we learn of it from faith or revelation and that which we figure out about it by means of reason. I want to focus on the latter of the two today.
            Can we know by the power of natural reason alone that God is merciful? There are a few things working against our maintaining that we can. Non-Christians don’t necessarily believe that God is merciful. Also, does the world testify to the mercy or to the cruelty of God – what do the natural world and the history of man say? Is this world that God apparently oversees, is this world a benevolent type of world or a cruel one? Indeed, even Christians like the philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously stated that life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. And the pessimistic philosopher, Schopenhauer, would add that life is more like the pain of the creature being eaten than it is like the pleasure of the creature doing the eating. Anyone who takes an intro to philosophy course will deal with the problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God. The argument is very simple. It runs like this: the world is not a good place therefore there is no God because if he actually existed He would prevent this from being the case. A simple argument and yet it is perhaps the one most commonly referenced by atheists. Let’s take their concerns seriously.

            And yet, all the above being said, why do we human beings cling so tenaciously to life? In fact, let’s reflect on this observation for a moment: in all of history, over thousands of years, spanning many so very different cultures, so many very different religions, this one thing has been true of them all – and yet it is not something we take for granted today. What is this ancient universal truth? Life is good, very good. Life is a blessing. Every religion has always considered it so, every culture has considered it so. It is only today’s so-called enlightened world that questions this. The number one blessing that one besought the gods for, that one thanked them for was this simply, the gift of life, the gift of living just one more day, the gift of children, the gift of health, the gift of life-sustaining crops. If life is more like the creature being eaten, then why do we cling to it so tenaciously?
I will return us to what Fr. Shalla said in his homily on Easter Day: what we celebrate, he said, is life. What we celebrate is life. The centre of the Christian religion is that, this Paschal Mystery, which does nothing to undermine the essential human truth, that life is good; in fact, the Paschal Mystery says one thing most boldly: life is a blessing, it is good. The Paschal Mystery, and the new heaven and a new earth that it ushers in, does not eradicate life as we know it, no, it confirms it, strengthens it, elongates it, extends it into eternity. Because what the ancient pagans all knew, which various enlightened modern people do not, is that life is good.
To everyone God parcels out this one great blessing: life. But, observe, no one did anything to deserve so great a blessing. A theological fact that both Catholics and traditional Protestants have always agreed upon is that God owes nothing to anyone. No one can get ahead of God such as to make Him their debtor. Why? Because everything we have has come from Him. There is a great passage in the end of the Book of Job where God asks Job exactly what he has contributed to the greatness of the world God has created. Where you even there when I did all of this? – He asks Job.

This is from Job 38:
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
   Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
   Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
   or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
   and all the angels shouted for joy?

Job is confuted, for although he has clung to the idea of his personal innocence, and he was innocent, relatively speaking, God did not owe him all the blessings that he had always enjoyed. Yes, Job deserved them more than we deserve them, but even still, he did not deserve them, not in any sense of the word. But don’t we live our lives with at least at least a slight, ever so slight suspicion, that we deserve good things, that it would be wrong of God to deprive us of them.
I will thank You, O Lord, for what You have done for me, but, honestly, I will curse Your name and begin a war against you such as You, O Lord, cannot even imagine, if you take these things away from me, because You know I need them and it would be just plain cruel for You to do that to me.

-          In his heart this is what man says – at least when he is being honest with himself.
Where you there when I did any of my work of creation, and did I consult you over the best way to do it? -  asked God to Job.

St. Paul echoes this thought, what have you, O man, that you have not received. At if you have received it why do you act as if you have not?
That is how far we get in an argument with God over what we deserve.

And this is why the prayers of the chaplet are so powerful. For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy... not for my sake, not for your sake, not for Job’s sake, but for the sake of the one who actually has a claim on God, Jesus Christ, who is God Himself. Christ has a claim on God. He alone is owed eternal life; for the rest of us it is a mercy. And indeed, He alone is the one who deserves life, for the rest of us life is a mercy.

No, God does not deal with us as we deserve. The metaphor of justice only gets us so far in theology. And this is the great truth that God is reminding us of through His holy servant, St. Faustina. If God were to deal with us according to our dessert, He would not have given us life. He did not owe us this; He blessed us with it. And, every day afterwards is mercy. Mercy begins with the gift of life, and that is something which one does not need faith to realize. In other words, one does not need faith to know that God is merciful.
But, if one does not need faith to see this, why have so many brilliant people missed it, why do so many people fail to see it today? I said one does not need faith to know it, I did not say that it was easy to see it and easy to hang on to. Yet, it is a necessary supposition, if anything else is to follow, whether you are a person of faith or not. For what does the religious man thank God if life is not good? Why does a faithless person keep going in this world, if he does not believe life is good? TV’s Dr. Gregory House says that you should live because there is nothing else. But he is employing a logical fallacy. His statement is self-refuting. If life is not good in and of itself, then life with pain must be worse than no life at all. And, yet, that is not what he is saying. He is confusing himself. Why? Because we all cling to the gift of life; while despising it at times with our words, we cannot despise it in our hearts. No one ever committed suicide easily, because life is good.

Life is God’s first mercy. That mercy which He dispenses us in Christ is His second mercy, or perhaps we should say that in Christ God is simply carrying out His one gift.
Why do we today lose track of the truth of life’s goodness so easily, the truth that life is itself a great gift, a great mercy from God? Why are we so sad today? I think that contemporary people lose sight of this truth more often than people did in the past because we do not let life itself speak to us; we have immersed ourselves in so many false ideas of nature through the entertainment media that we scarcely ever encounter life itself as God has made it. More often we encounter life as men present it to us. Take, for instance, the eternal life of the vampire: it is presented as a curse, not a blessing. Why? Because the writers of these movies do not know God, they do not know what God gives when He gives life. Life to these writers is absurd, so endless life is endlessly absurd. In Barry’s Bay we are blessed to live a little closer to nature than many do. So, if even now you are not convinced that life is a blessing, go and lay in a grassy meadow somewhere, open your eyes, close them – it doesn’t matter. But just lay there for a little while. Lay there until you hear the voice of God, the voice of life saying life is good, life is mercy.

Today we are told that the youthful life alone is the one worth living. I know that’s not true. For, if the life of the elderly person is not worth living, then that of the young is not either, and if the life of the young is worthwhile then so is that of the elderly. For if youth has such a tenuous hold of life’s goodness, how can a life which is stained by a deep fear of losing that thing that it is surely going to lose – youth – how can such a life lived in fear of something that is inevitable, how can such a life be a good one? Likewise, we are told that the life of the poor is not worth living, so we abort the babies of poor women. But if the life of the poor is not worth living then why is it that the only two people I ever met from the Sudan were happier and more grateful for the gift of life than I am? What is wrong with me, what is wrong with contemporary society, that we have allowed such notions to enter our brains?
The first mercy is the gift of life. The second is the redemption wrought in Christ. Schopenhauer got it wrong when he describes life as essentially antagonistic, and the Hollywood writers who see our lives different from that of their vampires only in their longevity. Life is not a taking from others, a taking from the world, as environmentalists conceive of it now. No, life is a great gift. It is the basking in the glow of the divine light. Everyone can share in this mercy, just by the fact of being alive. In his youth, the great Russian novelist, Dostoevsky, was going to be executed. They brought him out in front of the firing squad. He spent seemingly endless moments in terror of his own expiration. When the pardon he received was read out to him, at that moment he felt what every living person feels unconsciously, a deep gratitude for the mercy that is life.

The gift of life is so wonderful that Christ knew He had to restore it to us. So, let us live our lives basking in the light of the divine glow, for this is to reflect on the divine mercies that have been poured out to us. Thank you.


  1. Your talk this afternoon was marvellous. I found the ideas deeply moving, and beautifully woven together. Thank you!

  2. Thanks so much, Christine! Glad it landed. It was about things important to me, so I guess that's how to be effective?

  3. Absolutely. But I'm amazed that you didn't quote from St. Augustine even once.

  4. I quoted St. Paul - what's the diff? ;-)