instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, June 16, 2013

To whom much is forgiven

Following up on my last point in the "What counts as Pelagian?" post, I am thinking these days that one of the keys to a person's behavior is his attitude toward mercy. Put simply (and echoing Pope Benedict XVI on hope): The one who desires mercy lives differently.

But hey, if you want something put simply, why read this blog?

To start the complications, what is mercy? What, indeed, asks St. Augustine, "but a fellow-feeling for another's misery, which prompts us to help him if we can? And this emotion is obedient to reason, when mercy is shown without violating right, as when the poor are relieved, or the penitent forgiven." And, as St. Thomas points out, when you've got emotions moving a person to act in accord with reason, you've got a virtue.

So an act of mercy is an act of helping someone in misery. St. Augustine mentions two kinds of misery, and if I may take a broad understanding of "the poor," I'd say they are the two kinds of misery: privation and contrition. Bad things can happen to you, or you can do bad things and feel bad about it. You need assistance, or you need forgiveness. Either way is miserable.

To obtain mercy, three conditions need to hold:
  1. There must be some sort of misery, of either privation or contrition, which could be eased by some sort of succor, of either assistance or forgiveness. Help must be useful.
  2. There must be someone who can give the assistance or forgiveness. Someone must be able to help.
  3. Someone who can give the assistance or forgiveness must choose to do so. Someone must be able and willing to help.
Someone has to believe the first condition holds in order to desire mercy, but someone can believe all three conditions hold and still not desire mercy. I can think too much of myself to want help, or too little of myself to think I deserve it.

It's a lot simpler to live without the desire for mercy. Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is easier if you wouldn't have them do anything unto you. But it's also pretty miserable, at least for anyone who's conscious of his own sinfulness (condition 1) or aware of the love God has for His people (conditions 2 and 3). And that ought to include every Christian.

I propose, though, that Christians who desire mercy for themselves must also desire it for others -- and Christians who experience God's mercy as mercy all the more so. Otherwise, it's not really mercy for themselves they desire, it's favoritism. It's not as mercy that they experience God's mercy, but as satisfaction of a contractual obligation.

If you desire mercy for others, you will be merciful to them. A Christian is always able to help anyone in misery with prayers, if not also with material assistance. And someone with fellow-feeling for everyone else's misery, someone who can and does help them, such a person lives differently.