In preparation for World Youth Day, I’ve been reading the diary of St. Faustina (if you’re going, especially if you’ll be visiting the Divine Mercy shrine, then you should read it, too). If you don’t know, St. Faustina was instructed by Jesus to write her diary, and she recorded His words to her. Now, I was really bothered by something that Jesus kept telling her: He’s always telling her that He knows that she is an abyss of misery, and she’s the most miserable person, etc. Which, that’s true and all since we are literally nothing without God and can do nothing except sin, but my first reaction was, “Wow, Jesus, way to rub it in.”
Then I started thinking about what He actually meant, because He obviously wasn’t saying it to be mean or make her feel bad. Now, to understand Jesus’ words, we first need a little Latin lesson. In Latin, we have the adjective miser, which means ‘wretched’ and from which we derive the word ‘miserable.’ When I first learned this, I automatically thought of the Agnus Dei, in which we petition God to ‘have mercy’ –miserere- on us. Or there’s the Salve Regina, in which we call Mary the ‘Mother of Mercy’ –mater misericordiae. My first thought was that the words ‘miserable’ and ‘mercy’ both came from the same Latin word, but my second thought was, what do mercy and misery have to do with each other?
This is the same question I was asking of Jesus’ words. The whole point of St. Faustina’s diary is to spread the message of divine mercy- why such a heavy emphasis on our misery, then? What do mercy and misery have to do with each other?
To figure out the connection, let’s look at the definition of mercy. Mercy is a kind of love- more specifically, love directed toward misery with the aim of comforting the sufferer or alleviating their pain. That’s what the spiritual and corporal works of mercy are all about- alleviating suffering, or at least comforting the person. That’s what mercy over justice is all about- removing the pain that would be caused by a just punishment.
Now we can look at the definition of misery in the context of our definition of mercy. In short, misery is what is alleviated by mercy. Or in other words, being miserable is having the ability to receive mercy. Think about it- we can’t be merciful if there is no misery. So the whole purpose of misery is to be able to receive mercy. The more miserable someone is, the more mercy they are capable of receiving.
To understand this better, we can look at the example of the Cross- the greatest act of mercy ever performed. We, as fallen humans, are truly miserable. Why? Because without God we are nothing -what is a creation without its Creator?- and because without God’s grace, the only thing we can do is sin. So God took it upon Himself to alleviate our misery, and the way to do this was to take away our punishment for sin, which is eternal death and complete separation from God. So, in order to fulfill the demands of justice, He sent His only Son to take our place, and not only did He alleviate our misery by taking away the punishment, but on top of that He also opened up heaven and eternal life to us. Truly, this is the greatest act of mercy ever performed, and it was done in response to our own great misery. In fact, the only reason we can receive the grace of the Cross is because we are so miserable. A perfectly blessed (by blessed, I mean happy) person wouldn’t need mercy- they wouldn’t need the Cross.
Here’s the really amazing thing- mercy goes both ways. We are called to be merciful because we have received mercy- so not only are we capable of being merciful to others, but we ourselves are in great need of mercy. That way, we don’t get all puffed up with the idea that we are so benevolent and wonderful because we condescend to help all these miserable people. No- we, too, share in that misery, and we need mercy just as much as anyone else. So now you might be thinking, what about God? He gives mercy, but He doesn’t need any. And that’s the awesome part- in order to become like us in all things except sin, Jesus didn’t just become man. Even as a man, He would still be perfectly blessed because He’s God. So He wouldn’t share our misery. But He fixed that with the Cross. By taking all of our sin -our misery- upon Himself, He made Himself capable of receiving mercy by merit of our misery. Because of this, we don’t just receive mercy from Him. We can also show Him mercy.
How? Well, remember how we said earlier that mercy is love directed toward alleviating another person’s misery, either by comforting them or fixing whatever causes them to suffer? Yes? (smile and nod) Good. Okay, so Jesus was infinitely miserable on the Cross because He took all the misery of the world upon Himself, and on top of that, He was abandoned by His Father because God couldn’t bear to see so much sin in one place. God was letting justice have its way- no mercy was coming from Him in that moment, because His Son freely chose to pay the price of justice. So who’s left to be merciful toward Jesus? Who’s left to comfort Him in His last agony? We are. The amazing task of consoling Jesus, who is in pain because of our own misery, is left up to us. We alone can comfort Him- we are the ones who can wipe His face, help Him carry the Cross, give Him a drink when He thirsts… We are the ones who can show Him mercy. There are two ways we can do this.
The first way is very direct- through uniting sacrifices and prayers to the Cross, meditating on the Passion, receiving the Sacraments frequently (especially Penance, the sacrament of mercy), and just physically being present for Jesus in His passion (like visiting Him in the Blessed Sacrament), we can console Him. We comfort Him in His suffering just by being there for Him, reminding Him that we won’t reject the mercy that cost Him so much. This way of being merciful toward Jesus fulfills one of our obligations- to love God.
Our other obligation is to love our neighbor, and in doing this, we can also show mercy to Jesus. More specifically, we can show mercy toward the members of His Body. Jesus Himself tells us that in being merciful to others, we are merciful to Him: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Now, people tend to get a little mixed up with this concept. This does not mean that we are merciful toward Jesus through another person. That’s like saying, “I don’t love you. I love Jesus in you.” And that’s exactly the wrong thing to do. When Jesus says that whatever we do to each other, we do to Him, He’s referring to His mystical Body- the Church. We are all part of the Body of Christ, so whatever we do to someone else, we do to His whole Body- not just the Head (Jesus Himself). You can’t say you love the head but not the rest of the body. That’s what Jesus means.
So, how do we shake off this mentality that we can love Jesus without actually loving the person who we are loving Jesus through? How can we learn to actually love -and be merciful toward- a person for their own sake, and how does that allow us to be merciful to Christ?
Let me use a metaphor to explain how this works. When a person makes something, they put a little bit of themselves into it. For example, when an author writes a book, characters’ reactions are often going to be based on how the author would react, because that’s what the author knows. In general, when we create something, it reflects us- it may fit one of our needs, it may be something we enjoy, it may reflect part of our personality, etc. Well, it’s the same way for God. He made us in His image, so all of us reflect a part of Him- not His divinity (pantheism is a no no), but such things as His ability to love and His beauty. In fact, everything in us that is good, is a reflection of God’s goodness. In this way, we all reveal an aspect of God that no one else does- whether it’s tenderness, or creativity, or intelligence, or anything else, we all show a different part of who God is. Because of that, we are bound to love our neighbor because it is through our neighbor that we can see another part of God- we can learn another way to love His Heart, and we can learn to know Him better.
To explain this another way, let’s go back to the idea of the mystical Body of Christ. In a body, every part reveals something about the person. My hands show you a part of me that nothing else does. My eyes show something else, etc. The same goes for the Body of Christ. Each member of His Body shows us a part of Him that no one else does. So, we love each member not because they are the head (that would be love of God), but because they are part of the body (or, in the case of the unbaptized, because they are potential members of His Body who are made in the image of God). But both parts- head and body- are part of the same Christ. What we do to one member, we do to the whole body- when we are merciful, it doesn’t just go straight to the head and ignore the members.
Okay. So hopefully now we understand that being merciful toward our neighbor is distinct from loving God, and that we must love our neighbor because they are in the image of God and help us to know God better- not because they are some sort of unfeeling instrument through which we love Jesus. But in spite of this, we are still merciful toward Christ by being merciful toward our neighbor, because our neighbor is part of His Body. With that settled, another question comes up (maybe this should have been a two part post?)- how is loving our neighbor as someone who reveals Christ to us, the same thing as being merciful?
Again, let’s return to the definition of mercy. In short, mercy is love directed toward misery. Right? Okay. Now, let’s remember that every single person on this earth (ourselves included) is miserable in and of themselves, because we are nothing and we can do nothing but sin. But add in God, and we are a beautiful creation that can achieve holiness by His grace. So, adding in God is what comforts us in our misery. In other words, being merciful (loving someone in their misery) means that we show them that God is in them and gives them life and purpose and hope. And when we look at our neighbors with the idea that we can see another part of God in them, we are doing just that. No words or deeds needed- just a perspective in which we learn something new about God in every person. This outlook* will be recognized by other people. They will notice that we see them not as the misery that they are alone, but as a unique creation of God who is called to show the world a part of the Body of Christ that no one else can show. We see them through the eyes of mercy.
Notice that this is something we can do constantly. The spiritual and corporal works of mercy aren’t always things that we can literally do- I, for one, have never actually buried someone or built a shelter for a homeless person. Of course, there are less literal ways to accomplish these works of mercy, but most of them still require specific opportunities. But having the eyes of mercy? That’s something we can do all the time. In fact, it’s a whole way of life in which we are constantly pouring out mercy on those around us. It’s certainly challenging, but it’s necessary. And now is as good a time to start as any- not only is WYD Poland coming up, in which we will be in the homeland of the two great Saints of Divine Mercy, but it’s also the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Both are perfect opportunities to change our perspective- to have eyes of mercy.
So there you have it. Going back to my original idea- the question of why Jesus liked to emphasize St. Faustina’s misery so much- we now have a different perspective of His words. He wasn’t trying to discourage her, but rather to emphasize how much mercy she -and all of us- can receive from Him, if we choose to accept it. Because we are abysses of misery, we are capable of being filled with an abyss of mercy. And when we see the misery of other people -Jesus included- then we have the chance to be merciful, as we have received mercy. That’s the real point- the idea of misery should instantly lead us to the idea of mercy, just like word association automatically led me from miser to miserere.
*Note: the idea of the ‘merciful outlook,’ along with some other concepts in this post, were inspired by the book Consoling the Heart of Jesus by Fr. Michael E. Gaitley, MIC