The meaning of Mercy

  • Italiano
Juan Javier Flores Arcas

With sadness we note that at present mercy has become equivocal, something similar to what happens with love. Our contemporaries often speak of a purely human mercy, similar, perhaps even equivalent to solidarity. For St. Anselm, however, mercy is a term that describes what God has done for us.

In this sense, we can say that mercy is the wonderful and ineffable way, in which God has freed us from our evils and has gratuitously returned us the goods we had once, before the original sin. Nevertheless, this perspective cannot fully explain the Anselmian concept of mercy. He considers that, although what God has done for us – giving his life – is paradoxically wonderful, the love and tenderness he showed for us is even greater (CDhI, 3). Thus takes place the transition from liberation to love, from reason to tenderness, from intellectus to affectus.

To search for the deep meaning of this mercy, Anselm assumes that it is because of one man’s sin of disobedience, sin entered the world itself. That is why, Anselm infers, God restored us to life through the obedience of another man (Rm 5, 19; CDhI, 3). In fact, only obedience, the fruit of one’s will to spontaneously and generously give their life, will obtain life for everyone (CDhI, 8). It is the spontaneous desire to give oneself to the others as a gift of love. Mercy, therefore, manifests clearly as healing obedience that restores freedom.

Let us consider the vocabulary Anselm uses when talking about mercy: injustice, liberation, delivery, obedience, and death. It reveals us the kind of mercy he talks about. It is not a human virtue, nor a feeling in favor of the other. It is rather utter, radical, last mercy, as he calls it: ‘Nos autem de loquimur last mercy” (CDhI, 24). It is not our work. It is the work of justice God does to grant us boundless joy, bypassing even the ultimate limit of death. This is the ”only” mercy that forgives our sins, restores us to life, and it is the basis of any other mercy. It is the ”only” mercy we can talk about.

Another passage of Anselmian thought describes us mercy not only as God’s work, but also as man’s work of restitution. It comes to us from God and involves us, to get us back to God. It does not leave us on the sidelines because we have been protagonists of sin. The man had wrongly taken away from God what was His due: praise, worship, and the fulfillment of his original plan, obedience to his plan of love, the harmony He created, and the beauty of the beginning. This disorder, this disharmony demands a gratuitous gift from him to be able to restore the original friendship, love, and beauty of communion with God (cf. CDhI, 20).

This is the gift: give back much more than what the Man took for himself. Restore not only the due amount, but a lot more, that is, something we possess which is not his due, a “non debitum” (Med. III, 134, De Humana Redemptione). This is the debt of love. A debt that we cannot pay alone. This is when it comes to ”ultimate mercy”: return what we were not able to return to God alone.

Instead God has made it possible, for He has turned our heart (the “right intention” that makes us become “upright of heart” Anselm says – CDhI, 11-). The ultimate goal of the change of heart is to offer God the praise which is due to him, (honor, CDh I, 11; cf. CDh I, 10), restore the original beauty of order and harmony (CDhI, 15), give back the love we owe.

The only thing that man can return to God can be offered only by the Lord himself. Anselm expresses it in the form of dialogue in which God the Father and the Son talk with the man; the Father (tells the Man): “Take my Only Begotten, and offer Him for yourself”, and the Son, on his part (still to the Man): “Take me and redeem yourself ‘” (CDhII, 20).

Few theologians have dared to go so far: the Man is invited to take the Son, thus working the redemption for himself!

P.Juan Javier Flores Arcas OSB, Rector of the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm in Rome

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