The infectious glance of mercy
Some questions cannot be easily avoided, because they move us right in thedepths of our hearts. These questions challenge us, and we find it difficult to leave the maze of possible answers these questions leave us in. And while we insist upon giving purely theoretical answers to these questions, the answer can truly be given only through life itself. One of the questions that touches me deeply is the meaning of Christian mercy. I’ll attempt to illustrate a (possible) answer to this question: not one passing through who knows what sort of lengthy reflection, but through the example of a person who has incarnatedmercy concretely, rather than becoming lost in rhetoric.
If one had to speak about God’s mercy for humanity (I’m reminded here of the parable of the Merciful Father in Chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel), one may begin to grasp that whatever we are trying to speak about is a great mystery. Yet the mystery of God’s mercy appears to be a mystery which, in the difficulty itself of understanding it, are already able to accept to some extent. That said, when we move from theorizing to action, when Jesus turns to us and asks us to be merciful, to forgive our enemies, to turn the other cheek … I personally feel agreat contradiction within me, like a wave pushing me farther away from my desired destination.
In addition to feeling the great difficulty in living what Jesus teaches, Isometimes also feel that what is being asked of us seems unjust. Does beingmerciful mean, ultimately, surrendering oneself to evil, to suffering passivelyprecisely that evil that should be actively fought? Isn’t not opposing the evildoer, as described in the famous passage of Matthew’s Gospel following the Beatitudes, a sign of weakness and of our own incapacity in the face of evil? If so, then Nietzsche would be correct in saying that Christianity is, ultimately, a religion that, by preaching piety, compassion and mercy, has done nothing but con people into thinking that living failure and weakness is virtuous. That said,there’s something within me that just doesn’t want to give up on trying to live what Jesus proposes. And I can’t simply give up on myself. Being merciful, I find myself thinking, isn’t weakness. It truly has the power to transform.
Amongst the many concrete examples of mercy that could be mentioned, I findthat of the late Vietnamese cardinal Van Thuan (he died in September 2002) particularly illuminating. During the 1970s, he was one of the victims of an anti-Christian persecution initiated by the country’s communist regime. He was held under guard in solitary confinement for nine years. Communicating withhis family by post, he would receive wine (which he would claim to be a medicine for his stomach). With the wine he received and with crumbs of bread,he would say Mass daily and in secret, having memorized the liturgy. Hesecretly managed to invite other inmates to the celebration. The guards admired the goodness of his heart, and some even became Christian. The authorities were forced to change the guards regularly in order to discourage conversions, but to no avail.
One day, Van Thuan asked a guard for some electrical wire. The guard believed that the prisoner wanted to take his own life, but the prisoner simply explained to him that he wanted to fashion a cross from the wire. Over the next few days,the guard brought what he needed for his cross. Following his imprisonment,Van Thuan was exiled from Vietnam. His cause for beatification is currentlyunderway.
The behaviour Van Thuan adopted before the threat of evil he encountered was anything but one of weakness and compliance. Instead, it incarnated love for enemies of the gospel. I am convinced that those who met Van Thuan changed because they found themselves before the same merciful gaze, without trace of condemnation, that God has for every man, a gaze that doesn’t look primarily to his evil or sin, but which desires every human being to be … human, not a slave to evil, but free and capable of living a life fulfilled.
Van Thuan’s might seem an example distant from our own concerns, yet Pope Francis reminds us that there are many people who live out a “hidden” or “ordinary holiness”, transforming their lives into a great gift for others – holding back nothing for themselves – and into icons of mercy. It may, perhaps, be sufficient to open your eyes and allow yourself to be “infected” by holiness and mercy, to become “infectious” as Van Thuan was himself was.
(Two useful links to read more about Van Thuan: THUAN NGUYEN, M., Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan. An Icon of the Vietnamese Church, 2014; and AID TO THE CHURCH IN NEED, The Ven. Cardinal Van Thuan – Witness to Hope, 2018)