On Mercy

Three is Company & A Short Cut to Mushrooms

Logo for Holy Year of Mercy

The logo for the Year of Mercy (Source)

2016’s “Word of the Year” seems already to be shortlisted with two seemingly contrary contenders: justice and mercy. The former has often been cited in political and economic discourse, whether in regards to race, law enforcement, inequality, or migration. The latter’s prevalence, of course, is in no small part thanks to Pope Francis and his Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. Francis cites mercy regularly in his speeches and homilies, and it is often used to describe his actions and outreach by spiritual and secular commentators alike. The word even appears emblazoned in Latin upon his coat of arms: Miserando atque eligendo, “to be shown mercy and be chosen.”

Yet, what exactly is mercy, and how does it relate to justice? According to Etymology Online, the word mercy first appears in the English language around the 12th century meaning “God’s forgiveness at his creatures’ offenses,” coming through French from the Latin mercedem meaning, interestly, “rewards or wages.” However, the Latin can also be traced back alternatively to the Greek word eleos meaning “pity,” a root from which we obtain both the kyire eleeson (Lord, have mercy) and the English word “alms.” This background provides some material for reflection: mercy brings together the divine, sin, gift, and pity.

In his announcement for the Jubilee, Pope Francis himself meditated on justice and mercy:

“Mere justice is not enough. Experience shows that an appeal to justice alone will result in its destruction. This is why God goes beyond justice with his mercy and forgiveness.” (Misericordiae Vultus 21)

The Lord of the Rings attempts to explore the nature and impact of mercy. Near the end of last year’s series of reflections, I noted that Frodo embodies the cause of mercy, and that well-known contender for mercy, Gollum, has already arisen in the early pages of our tale. Yet many moments of Middle-earth mercy are more humble and fleeting in their appearance. Gildor and his Elven companions aid Frodo with victuals and shelter, though it not be their custom. Farmer Maggot and his family risk harm and danger to sneak Frodo to the ferry, even though Frodo long trespassed on their land. In each case, justice demands a certain course, and mercy transforms that course into an alternate end. Mercy is never earned or necessitated: it is always a gift, a moment of pity, a human interaction.

Mercy in the idealized abstract is hard to comprehend: only in the practiced action is it understood. The Christian tradition suggests a compilation of fourteen particularly merciful habits; as Pope Francis himself recommends: “it is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus 15). In the pages of The Lord of the Rings are vignettes describing these works of mercy, and it seems only appropriate to linger and muse upon them over the weeks to come. Perhaps by the end, with so many words dedicated to its unearthing, a richer understanding of justice and mercy will be known.

For now, however, we are left with simple moments of mercy and pieces of the truth: “mere justice is not enough,” “mercy is always a gift,” miserando atque eligendo.


2015’s Reflection: “On Mushrooms

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