When a soul has fully embraced the virtue of humility and subsequently embraced a life of trusting abandonment to God, the floodgates of mercy are opened. This chapter will reflect upon this experience of mercy from four perspectives. First, the mercy of God that personally floods this humble and trusting soul occurs so as to free the soul from sin. Second, once freed from sin, the soul interiorly experiences an even more glorious grace of freedom and new life in God. Third, the infinite nature of mercy cannot be contained within this person’s heart, so mercy begins to overflow from this person into the lives of others through acts of forgiveness and reconciliation. Fourth, once the humble, trusting and merciful soul offers the mercy of forgiveness and it is received by another, a spiritual bond of true friendship in Christ is formed. Sacrificial love then enlivens that bond, producing immeasurable good fruit.
Mercy is meant to be received from God and given to others in a limitless way. Our relationship with God and the reception of His mercy must become the foundation of our lives. As we grow in love of God, the holiness we experience will become the guiding source of how we relate to one another. Each person God puts into our lives will experience God’s mercy through us in a way that God chooses. As we remain open to Him, He will use us to form holy bonds of love with all who are willing to receive that love.
Mercy for Sin – Forgiveness or Condemnation
It’s easy to think that mercy and justice are opposed. But they are not. Justice is what results from one of two forms of mercy: either the mercy of forgiveness or the mercy of condemnation. The mercy given to a sinner is completely dependent upon the disposition of that sinner. Those who are sincerely sorry and repentant are offered forgiveness. Those who remain obstinate and refuse to acknowledge their sin receive condemnation. Both forgiveness and condemnation are acts of mercy on God’s part. Condemnation fulfills God’s justice by issuing forth the effects of sin to call the sinner to repentance. Forgiveness fulfills God’s justice by accepting the sincere contrition of the sinner and removes the sin. Condemnation leaves a person bound and burdened by sin. Forgiveness leaves a person free from those chains.
The best way to understand these two forms of mercy is to look at God and His love for us as it is revealed in Scripture. Here are two Scripture passages worth spending time on to understand the mercy of God as it comes in the form of forgiveness condemnation
Forgiveness of the Adulterous Woman:
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.” John 8:3-11
The woman in this story needed forgiveness. She was caught in the very act of adultery and was guilty of grave sin. The legal penalty for her sin was death. But instead of issuing forth condemnation, Jesus chose forgiveness. And in that act of forgiveness, He perfectly fulfilled justice through this form of mercy.
In this story, Jesus did not excuse this woman’s sin and treat her adultery as “no big deal.” Rather, by saying to her, “Neither do I condemn you” and “Go, and from now on do not sin any more,” Jesus was acknowledging her sin and His right to condemn her. Therefore, true mercy requires that one’s sins be honestly acknowledged and the consequences of those sins be clearly seen.
One aspect of this story, which is not explicitly mentioned, is that Jesus knew the heart of this woman. He knew that she knew her sin and He knew she was sorry for it. She had been humbled and she embraced this humility. It is this humble acknowledgment and realization of her sin that allowed Jesus to offer forgiveness rather than condemnation. She accepted that mercy in trust. If she had had a self-righteous attitude by which she refused to acknowledge her guilt, Jesus’ mercy would have taken on the form of condemnation.
Condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees:
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the kingdom of heaven before human beings. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You traverse sea and land to make one convert, and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves.
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If one swears by the temple, it means nothing, but if one swears by the gold of the temple, one is obligated.’ Blind fools, which is greater, the gold, or the temple that made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If one swears by the altar, it means nothing, but if one swears by the gift on the altar, one is obligated.’ You blind ones, which is greater, the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? One who swears by the altar swears by it and all that is upon it; one who swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it; one who swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who is seated on it.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. [But] these you should have done, without neglecting the others. Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth. Even so, on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’ Thus you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets; now fill up what your ancestors measured out! You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you flee from the judgment of Gehenna? Therefore, behold, I send to you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that there may come upon you all the righteous blood shed upon earth, from the righteous blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Amen, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” Matthew 23:12-36
This litany of condemnation is quoted in its entirety to present the clear, powerful and piercing condemnation uttered by Jesus toward the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus says, “Woe to you…” seven times in a row indicating that His rebuke was one of perfect condemnation. The question at hand is this: Was this a lack of mercy on the part of Jesus by which He chose justice over mercy?
As explained above, justice and mercy are not opposed. Both justice and mercy work hand in hand. The way that mercy is given and justice is fulfilled is dependent upon the heart of the receiver. In this passage, Jesus’ justice was fulfilled through the perfection of condemnation. The definitiveness and severity with which Jesus spoke reveals that the hearts of the scribes and Pharisees were completely obstinate. They lacked humility and, therefore, could not turn to Jesus in trust. They were not even slightly open to seeing their sins and repenting of them. Therefore, it was exceptionally merciful on the part of Jesus to issue forth this powerful condemnation. It was merciful because His sevenfold condemnation had the goal of converting their hearts by revealing their sins to them. Jesus’ hope would have been that, as they heard this condemnation, they would have listened, been humbled, repented and sought forgiveness. We can be certain that if any one of them repented after this rebuke, forgiveness would have been offered. If, however, they remained obstinate in their sins, then God’s justice would have been fulfilled by the judgment they received from this perfect condemnation.
Of course, this book presumes that humility and trust in God are something you are already striving for and, therefore, you are not in need of such an act of condemnation by our Lord. Nonetheless, it is helpful to be reminded of this form of mercy given by God to the proud and obstinate of heart, to help you remember the ongoing need to seek humility and trust every day. Even the faithful Christian can fall into sin. When you sin, are you willing to repent and humble yourself before God? If not, you will experience the same condemnation Jesus issued forth to the scribes and Pharisees. The effect of this condemnation was one of extreme interior suffering in the form of bondage to sin and its effects. And that’s a heavy burden to carry. Nonetheless, this condemnation is an act of mercy focused upon the conversion of the sinner.
A Mercy Beyond Forgiveness – Freedom and New Life in Christ
Even though mercy is first for the forgiveness of sins, it does not stop there. Once forgiveness is offered and received into your heart, God invites you to share in the freedom and glory of His abundant life. This second level of mercy is found in the story of the Prodigal Son.
The Prodigal Son:
Coming to his senses he thought, “How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.’” So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But his father ordered his servants, “Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.” Then the celebration began. Luke 15:18-24
This passage reveals the son coming to his senses after experiencing the effects of his disordered living and making the conscious choice to apologize to his father. He is partly motivated by his desperate state of life and lack of food. He is also motivated by a realization that he has sinned and that his father is merciful.
Though his sorrow and contrition may not be perfect, they are enough to receive the immediate gift of forgiveness from his father. However, this passage reveals much more than a simple act of forgiveness. The father not only forgives, he also invites his son to share in the abundance of his joy. He does so by clothing him in the finest robe, by putting a ring on his finger, by killing the fattened calf and by celebrating with a great feast. The son had come to the father hoping only for forgiveness and basic sustenance. The father, however, could not contain his joy at the son’s return and lavished his mercy upon him.
The same is true for us as we experience the mercy of God. When we are sorry, even if our sorrow is not perfect, God forgives. He is quick to forg
ive in abundance, no matter what our sin. On our part, it can be hard to understand how easy it is for God to forgive. We often have very low expectations of His forgiveness and fail to realize that He wants to forgive far more than we want forgiveness. For that reason, it can also be hard to fathom that God wants to offer much more than forgiveness. He also wants to invite us into the celebration of His glorious feast. It’s a feast through which we receive the infinite gifts of freedom, joy, peace, patience, strength and the like. God wants to bestow every good gift on us and He wants to bestow them in abundance. For our part, we only need to be ready and willingto accept all that He freely chooses to bestow.
One of the first experiences we will have once we are forgiven of our sin is freedom (liberty). We all have free will, even if we remain in our sin. But “freedom” (liberty) is so much more. Freedom is the interior experience of having our attachment to sin severed so that our hearts can then become attached to God and His holy will. This experience is like having a spiritual weight lifted from our souls.
By analogy, imagine that someone is in prison. One day, a judge shows mercy and grants a full pardon. There is joy in being pardoned but there is even greater joy in being set free from prison. Moreover, imagine that this same prisoner, upon being set free, is lavished with much wealth and has his former life restored tenfold. The new life that this former prisoner experiences goes beyond the pardon; it soon becomes a discovery and exercise of freedom as the new life that is given begins to be lived.
Therefore, the “feast of mercy” first involves complete freedom from sin, from guilt, from shame and from all the chains of sin. But from there, the abundance of joy that awaits is more than we can ever fathom. Too often we are tempted to hold on to our past sins, even when we are forgiven. Freedom means we come to realize and experience the fact that we are not the sum total of our past mistakes. We have a future. And that future is a glorious sharing in the new life God has planned for us. We are freed from the chains of sin and we are invited to live a new and glorious life in Christ.
As new life is experienced, we will begin to experience the Fruits of the Spirit. As mentioned in the previous chapter, these Fruits of the Spirit help us to discern the will of God. But they are not only guideposts to what we ought to do. They are much more. The Fruits of the Spirit are limitless and continue to increase in our lives as we enter more deeply into the mercy of God. They become the human experience of our new life in Christ. Traditionally, we speak of twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit. These fruits are as follows:
Charity: An ability to offer care and devotion in our thoughts and actions, with the same love God offers to everyone
A spiritual experience which lifts us, strengthens us, and delights us
Peace: A presence of great calm in good times and challenging ones
Patience: An ability to endure whatever may come, with peace and strength and without anger or frustration
Kindness: A quality of offering thoughtful and delightful words and actions
Goodness: A genuineness in virtue and character
Long-Suffering: A strength when life’s crosses are heavy and enduring
Gentleness: An even-temperedness, tranquility, balance in spirit, unpretentiousness
Faithfulness: A steadfast and unwavering commitment to God and His Kingdom
Modesty: A quality of seeing oneself honestly and purely, being respectful and reverent with one’s own body
Self-Control: A strength of overcoming one’s passions and desires and of resisting temptations
Chastity: A deep respect for one’s own sexuality as well as others’
Take time to prayerfully reflect upon these blessings from God. Understanding them is a way of understanding the experience of new life in Christ. Each one of these fruits offers a particular manifestation of this new life. God desires to bestow all of them on those who are humble and trusting and have received the complete forgiveness of their sins. As you reflected on these fruits in the last chapter as signs for discerning God’s will, reflect upon them now as blessings bestowed upon you so as to become immersed in the superabundant life of God’s mercy.
The Superabundance of Mercy – Mercy Overflowing into the Sins of Others
Mercy must overflow from your life into the lives of others. The overflowing of the mercy of God from your life into the lives of others will happen in the same way that you received mercy. First, you are called to offer mercy directed toward the sins of others. Let’s begin once again by reflecting upon a Scripture passage to put things in perspective.
Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” Matthew 18:21-35
This parable puts much into perspective. It not only reveals that God is ready and willing to forgive “a huge amount” of sin in your life, it also reveals that you must subsequently offer the same depth of forgiveness to others. And if you do not, you will lose the forgiveness you have received.
The very nature of mercy is such that, when you receive it from God, you must give it to others to the same degree. It’s important to understand that this is essential to the very nature of mercy. It’s as if you must see yourself as a funnel of mercy. God will not pour it into your life unless you are willing to open your heart to let it flow forth. Any attempt to hold on to mercy yourself, without giving it away, causes an immediate end to this infinite gift from God.
Additionally, it’s important to understand that the more you open your heart to pour mercy out on others, the more God will pour mercy into your life. There is a direct correlation. Understanding this fact should inspire you with zeal to be merciful to the greatest degree.
The first step in offering mercy is directed toward the sins of another. In a sense, you are in a blessed position when someone sins against you. It’s not that their sin is a blessing in any way. Rather, you are blessed in the sense that the sin another commits against you offers you an invitation to forgive. This reveals the power of God in that God is able to transform the sins another commits against you into an opportunity for your own holiness and their conversion. You become holy as you imitate and share in the forgiveness God shows you. Recall the Beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5: 7).
Recall, also, from the beginning of this chapter, that you are only able to receive the forgiveness of God when you are sorry for your sins. When you remain obstinate in your sins, God issues forth His condemnation to satisfy His justice and to convert your heart. This same principle applies to the way you offer mercy to others. Though you must always forgive, you will at times encounter those who remain obstinate in their sin toward you. When this happens, the forgiveness you offer them must also take on the form of a holy rebuke of love. Your rebuke cannot be a judgment of their hearts, since only God knows the heart. However, it must be a rebuke of the objectively sinful actions.
The greatest rebuke of love you can offer another is to forgive them. Byforgiving, you are actually pointing to the sinful action. You are not excusing it, you are forgiving it. You are acknowledging that a particular action is objectively wrong when you say that you forgive it. Some will welcome this forgiveness and true reconciliation will take place. Others will not admit their wrongdoing and, thus, your act of forgiveness will become a source of God’s condemnation. But this is mercy! It’s not a judgment of one’s heart, rather, it’s a judgment of one’s action. In fact, without making such a judgment, forgiveness cannot be offered.
Ideally, when someone sins against you they will ask for forgiveness. In that case, it’s much easier to forgive and fully reconcile. However, when your forgiveness is not sought by another, and they remain obstinate in their wrongful actions, you must “condemn” them by your act of forgiveness. From there, God will take over and accomplish that which He wants to accomplish.
mercy of condemnation you are called to offer others will take on various forms. For example, if you are a parent, you will often be called to correct your children out of love. You must judge their actions and be firm with them when their actions are contrary to the law of God. You must also correct your spouse, siblings, friends and others in the appropriate way and at the appropriate time. However, correction always begins with an act of interior forgiveness on your part and only addresses the objective action.
What if someone remains obstinate in their sin toward you? How do you react? The following Scriptures are good guides:
“If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of t
wo or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” Matthew 18:15-17
“Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words—go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet.” Matthew 10:14
When you go to someone to tell them their sin, you must be careful to understand Jesus’ words correctly. The duty of “fraternal correction” is not an open door for you to judge the heart of another. Rather, it is essential that you look only at the objective actions of those you are called to correct, and not presume to know their intentions. There is a huge difference between these two approaches.
Judging actions simply means that you consider what you see, externally, and address it in love when the action appears to be contrary to the law of God and is causing some form of discord. For example, if someone speaks vulgar and critical words about another, you do not need to know their heart to know that those words are inappropriate. Thus, your fraternal correction will not be a judgment that this person is a sinner; rather, it will be that the words spoken are not consistent with the law of God. Though this may be a subtle distinction, it is essential to an honest correction of another.
More specifically, say a friend speaks many harsh and inappropriate words about a co-worker. How should you respond? You should take note of these harsh words and address them with your friend. You could ask them more about their frustration and try to understand them more clearly. As you do this, if your friend manifests more clearly that he or she is filled with anger and cannot forgive, then you have an open door to gently speak about the need to forgive. In this case, your friend has revealed his or her conscience in such a way that you can address what was said.
Or, say a spouse speaks a critical word in a fit of rage. Once the emotions calm down, it is essential that this outburst be brought to his or her attention. It’s most appropriate, and most merciful, to tell your spouse that the words that were spoken were hurtful. Doing so is not a judgment of their heart; it’s a judgment of the external actions. Furthermore, unless these actions are directly addressed and healed, it will be difficult to reconcile and enter more deeply into a relationship of love over the years.
Another important factor in making a decision to correct someone is the consideration of whether or not they are open to the correction. If, for example, emotions are still high and frustration is quite evident, it is more merciful to wait to address these actions later. Sadly, some relationships remain continually hostile and, therefore, it becomes very difficult to seekreconciliation through correction. However, there must always be hope that it will eventually happen.
If you judge that the time is not right to bring up the action that was hurtful or inappropriate, it is essential that you, nonetheless, offer the mercy of forgiveness in your heart. And when the hurt is severe, the forgiveness must be even greater, even if reconciliation is not possible. Note that “forgiveness” simply means that you make an interior act of mercy, forgiving them in your heart. “Reconciliation” means that the person who sinned is sorry, seeks your forgiveness, receives it from you and, thus, your relationship is restored and strengthened.
Praying for the Mercy to Forgive
One helpful way to offer interior forgiveness to someone who remains obstinate is to pray for that person. However, forgiveness of one who has hurt you can be very difficult. It is not something that you can simply accomplish overnight. It takes much grace and surrender to God. And it takes much prayer.
Jesus never asks us to do anything He is not willing to do. He forgave, from the Cross, those who had just treated Him so brutally. The chaplet below is designed to help those who struggle with forgiving another. Pray it daily if this is you, so that God can free you from this burden.
The Chaplet for the Mercy to Forgive Another
The following chaplet (which is different from the Chaplet of Divine Mercy) is also prayed using a rosary. The prayers are taken from Scripture. The first prayer comes from St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He spoke it just before he died from stoning:
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Acts 7:60
The second prayer is based upon the very words of Jesus as He hung dying on the Cross:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do Luke 23:34
Start with one Our Father, one Hail Mary and the Apostles’ Creed.
Then, on the large bead of each decade of the rosary, pray:
Lord, do not hold this sin against them, for You are full of mercy and compassion for all. Please give me the grace to forgive so as to imitate Your perfect love.
Then, on the ten small beads of each decade of the rosary, pray:
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Conclude all five decades by saying three times:
Lord, Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.
This is a powerful prayer based upon Holy Scripture. If you are finding it difficult to forgive someone who has hurt you and refuses to reconcile, then start praying this chaplet for that person every day. You will be amazed at how much it will help.
Ideally, when forgiveness is offered by you, the one who has sinned against you humbly accepts your forgiveness, and reconciliation takes place. However, too often it happens that the person you have forgiven will not acknowledge their action and is, therefore, not open to your act of forgiveness. As a result, reconciliation does not happen. Perhaps you have prayed for a person (such as a spouse or a child), forgiven them repeatedly in your heart, but they do not accept your forgiveness, holding on to their sin and a self-righteous attitude. Sadly, when this happens, all you can do is continue to forgive. If this is you, do not get discouraged. Discouragement is a direct attack on hope and once hope is lost, a forgiving heart turns cold and angry. Do not let that become you.
When someone in your life remains obstinate in their hurtful actions, all you can do is pray and wait for the moment when they are ready to reconcile. Recall the earlier passage of the Prodigal Son. In that story, the father was waiting and continually looking for his son’s return. He saw his son from a distance and ran to him. So it must be with you. You must continually look into the “distance” searching for any indication that the person you need to reconcile with is ready. If you perceiv
e any willingness, be attentive to it and be ready to show mercy and forgiveness.
However, in some cases there may come a time to “shake the dust from your feet” as the earlier quoted Scripture passage indicated. What does this mean? This is a holy sharing in the mercy of condemnation. When obstinacy is deep, and every attempt has been made to reconcile, there may come a time when the most merciful thing you can do to another is to “wipe the dust from your feet.” This does not mean that you treat them in a rude, critical and sinful way. Rather, it means that you let them see the effects of their actions in your relationship. You allow their apparent obstinacy to manifest itself in a more visible way. But this is mercy.
This act of “shaking the dust from your feet” may happen in a variety of ways. For example, it may be the case that the only appropriate response you can give to someone is your sorrow. Not in a passive aggressive way, but in a merciful and sorrowful way (“Blessed are the sorrowful…” Matthew 5:4). When obstinacy is severe, a sorrowful silence may be quite charitable. This is a way of manifesting the effects of the disordered actions of the other. A sorrowful silence becomes a “loud” reflection of the effects of another’s refusal to reconcile.
However, be careful, pray, forgive in your heart and allow God to guide you. Again, passive aggression can easily take on the mask of this form of mercy. However, passive aggression is just that: aggression. And aggression is not mercy. When you are called to a form of sorrowful silence toward another, there must always remain a strong hope that reconciliation will take place. And just as the father in the story of the Prodigal Son stood waiting and looking into the distance to reconcile with his son, so you must always be ready and willing to reconcile the moment the slightest opportunity presents itself.
Hopefully, this above experience will not be necessary in your closest relationships. Hopefully, hearts are continually open to reconciliation. When they are, the abundant Feast of Mercy is waiting to be experienced in every relationship. And that Feast of Mercy is made manifest through the gift of sacrificial love.
The Joy of Spiritual Friendship and Sacrificial Self-Giving
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship” (On Kingship To The King of Cyprus, book 1, chapter 11, paragraph 77). The bond of true friendship takes place when the mercy of God is given and received in a way that goes beyond mere forgiveness of sins. True friendship is the result of two people being individually united to Christ and, as a result, individually expresses the love of Christ to the other. This form of “friendship in Christ” is something that applies to every relationship of love you engage in. Of course, you cannot be “best” friends with everyone you meet nor can you be friends with everyone in the way that ordinary friendship is understood. Time and energy limits our ability to enter into close relationships with numerous people. But you can establish a “true bond of friendship” with everyone who is living a life in Christ, even if that friendship only consists of a brief conversation from time to time. In that case, it can still be the source of much joy since it will share in the outpouring of the mercy of God. A “true bond of friendship” can also be established between those who get to know each other on a much deeper level. Spouses, neighbors, “best” friends, siblings, etc., are relationships that ideally also share in the holy bond of friendship in Christ.
How is true friendship in Christ experienced? How is it lived? First, recall John’s Gospel: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). It’s important to note that Jesus calls us to lay down our lives for our “friends.” This implies that the ultimate level of mercy can only be offered to those with whom we have been reconciled and share a common bond with in Christ. As already mentioned, when someone remains obstinate in his or her sin toward us, it is not possible to offer mercy on this next level. Their obstinacy keeps us at the level of forgiveness and they continue to experience the “condemnation” of our forgiveness until they repent and accept our forgiveness into their hearts.
Once you are truly reconciled with another and are thus friends in Christ, you are called to lavish the mercy of God upon them. This is ultimately done in the form of sacrificial love by which you put the other first and love them with your whole being. It’s a giving of your very self. This depth of sacrificial love will be experienced differently for different people, but it will always be a sharing in the perfect sacrificial love of Christ as it was perfectly manifested upon the Cross. Specifically, it will always be a total and freely given gift of yourself for the other.
The first thing we should note about sacrificial love is that it is “sacrificial.” Sacrificial can easily be misinterpreted as something negative and undesirable. This is because, on a selfish level, it undesirable. In our selfishness, we tend to take rather than to give. But mercy frees us from this form of selfishness and allows us to discover a much more glorious way of living. Recall the Scripture, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Losing your life for the sake of Christ and, thus, becoming an instrument of His mercy is what you were made for. Thus, in the act of giving yourself away, you discover yourself and become fully human in a perfected state of grace. Doing so is the way you become who you were made to be. You become more human by living the way you were intended to live, becoming more fully the person God created you to be.
This depth of love shared between spouses will take on the form of mutual support when each spouse is looking out for the good of the other. Children will always be cared for and certain needs will be met when parents offer this depth of unconditional love to them. Within the family, there is a special duty to give of yourself in a total way.
Mercy, however, is in infinite supply within the heart of Christ. Therefore, God will daily inspire you to offer your heart to others in various ways. Though this does not give another the right to demand of you more than God calls you to give, your acts of mercy to every person will still be lived in a total and unconditional way. Very often, God will also bless you with certain people with whom you share much of your heart and life. When these friendships mutually share in the mercy of God, the fruit of these bonds are sustaining, transforming, uplifting and holy. Even Jesus had people in His life with whom He shared a special bond of friendship, spending extra time and energy with them. Think of the Apostles, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. But Jesus’ friendship also extended to all people, even to those with whom His interactions were limited to a brief moment of time. He continually gave of His heart, sacrificially, to those who were open to receive His love.
The key to sacrificial love is not so much about the quantity of time and energy you give to another; rather, it’s about the quality of love that is shown. The quality of love given to a “friend” in Christ mustalways be of the highest level possible. Even if it only consists of a brief moment of time.
Sacrificial love will also “hurt” in a certain sense. It hurts in the sense that this level of love requires a constant choice to humbly put the other first. It requires a continuous death to oneself to be a constant instrument of the mercy of God as it was made manifest from the Cross. Love hurts. But it is a pain that is also sweet. Its sweetness is found in the good fruit that comes from giving your heart away to the greatest extent. And when this “sweetness” is experienced, the sacrificial aspect of love is not a burden at all.
Another experience we may have that “hurts” is that of spiritual dryness. On an interior level, many of the saints have experienced a form of interior dryness in their relationship with God. God feels absent from them even though He is intimately present. However, this experience of dryness is so that the saint begins to love God on a far deeper level: that of the will. Their sight of God becomes darkened, they do not sense His presence, but they choose to love Him anyway and choose to live out His will because of love, not because of what they feel.
We may also discover this experience of dryness in our love of others at times. Parents, for example, may not always experience an emotional delight in all that they do to love and care for their children. There will always be a sense of fulfillment that comes from their sacrificial love, but this love may not always be motivated by a good feeling. In fact, when that good feeling is taken away, their love may actually become more holy and beneficial for their children. This is because this form of love is more sacrificial and done purely out of mercy in imitation of the Cross of Christ. It becomes more selfless and more focused on the good of the other. Charitable self-giving may often feel good, but when it doesn’t, we should not be surprised or discouraged. We must see those moments as opportunities to offer our hearts in a more total and selfless way.
When you daily give of yourself sacrificiall
y, especially to those with whom you share a spiritual “friendship” in Christ, you will begin to find that your acts of mercy toward them are deeply life giving and sustaining. The distribution of mercy toward another person powerfully elevates you to a glorious life in Christ. By doing so and by allowing the mercy of God to flow through you, His mercy first flows into your own soul. Receiving and then being an instrument of mercy has the effect of filling us with much satisfaction in life. Make this your daily goal. Look for opportunities, with those with whom you are reconciled, to lay down your life without reserve. If you do, you will find that themercy you receive from God and distribute to others will have no bounds. You will also find that living on this level of mercy is the quickest way to walk down the path to true holiness.
As mentioned at the beginning of this section, “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship” (St. Thomas Aquinas). And when that friendship is plunged into God’s mercy, the Fruits of the Spirit are experienced within it. The delight is great, and the strength that is mutually received from that friendship makes every sacrifice of love worth giving. Seek to make all your friendships glorious in this way, especially family relationships, and God will be very much alive in your life, coming to you and acting through you in the lives of those whom you love.
The Path to Holiness – A Summary of Our High Calling
This short book offers reflections on three virtues that are central to becoming holy. All three are necessary, in that one builds upon the other. But the ultimate result of living humility, trust and mercy is a life that is both deeply fulfilled on a personal level, and one that makes a tremendous difference in the lives of others.
When we live a life of holiness, ultimately giving of ourselves sacrificially, the result is a happiness that is beyond words, because in the pinnacle act of giving ourselves away out of mercy, we enter into a profound union with God.
The Path to Holiness – Table of Contents