I came across some wise words of a Doctor of the Church I had never heard of the other day. The subject? The importance of being merciful.
For the longest time, and long before I became a Catholic, I thought being merciless was the correct tack. After all, that is the way of the world. So I was, in an upside down way, fasting from being merciful.
It didn’t matter to me one iota how often I was told that I should be merciful to be a good Christian. It was all in one ear, and out the other.
But when I started coming around to realizing that being merciless is un-Christlike, I discovered that the Catholic Church doesn’t just “talk the talk” on being merciful, but she “walks the walk” too. In St. Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord says “Be merciful, just as your Heavenly Father is merciful.”
And the Church is absolutely that. If anything, she is not just the school of love, but the school of mercy too. Because you can’t be merciful without love, nor can you love without being merciful. But wait, there’s more.
These lines from a homily of St. Peter Chrysologus are what prompted this post,
There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting, and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy, and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other.
Good things come in threes, don’t they? God is Three in One, for example. The Holy Family are three. Who knew that prayer, mercy and fasting are a holy trinity of sorts too? This is the kind of practical instruction of how we are supposed to live as Christians that I love to learn. And its coming your way too, dear reader, ready or not.
Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ears to others you open God’s ear to yourself.
I know that fasting is hard, but that is only if you isolate it in a vacuum. As St. Peter C. explains though, it isn’t a stand alone sacrifice, but is a link in the chain of our calling. As he explains to us here,
When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry. If you hope for mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness, show kindness. If you want to receive, give. If you ask for yourself what you deny others, your asking is a mockery.
Read that last line again, and again and try not to wince. “If you ask for yourself what you deny others, your asking is a mockery.” Gulp! That is the kind of thing that I need to hear more often. Any other nuggets of wisdom?
Let this be the pattern for all men when they practice mercy: show mercy to others in the same way, with the same generosity, with the same promptness, as you want others to show mercy to you.
Yes, the Golden Rule. St. Luke reported that Christ spoke these words just a few lines before He commanded us to be merciful: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” The good Doctor, whose very name Chrysologus means “golden worded,” reminds us that mercy too is golden. And where does prayer fit in here?
Therefore, let prayer, mercy, and fasting be one single plea to God on our behalf, one speech in our defence, a threefold united prayer in our favor. Let us use fasting to make up for what we have lost by despising others. Let us offer our souls in sacrifice by means of fasting. There is nothing more pleasing that we can offer to God, as the psalmist said in prophecy: “A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; God does not despise a bruised and humbled heart.”
For bruised and humble we are, when we confront our real selves. When we put away the false self, the simulacrum, and embrace the truth of our brokenness. And I like this idea of a “threefold united prayer” too. After all, didn’t His Majesty say about prayer, “Ask and you will receive, knock and the door will be opened to you”? So here is what we are to do,
Offer your soul to God, make him an oblation of your fasting, so that your soul may be a pure offering, a holy sacrifice, a living victim, remaining your own and at the same time made over to God. Whoever fails to give this to God will not be excused, for if you are to give him yourself, you are never without the means of giving.
Now that is the kind of makeover that even I find appealing! And here comes the grand finale, which I have taken the liberty to emphasize in bold, because it explains the title of this post.
To make these acceptable, mercy must be added. Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy. Fasting dries up when mercy dries up. Mercy is to fasting as rain is to earth. However much you may cultivate your heart, clear the soil of your nature, root out vices, sow virtues, if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit.
See what I mean? All those years that I wasn’t fasting, I was being merciless. I was also an unhappy wretch. And I still am when I cast mercy aside even now. But the Lenten Season is the time to put away the old self, and put on the new. For as my newfound Doctor (whose name I will never forget) says,
When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn. Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering. Give to the poor, and you give to yourself. You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give others.