Wednesday, 12 December 2007


Blessed are those who show mercy, for they will be shown mercy. (Matt. 5, 7.)

One of our readers will be baptized day after tomorrow along with his family. By way of our final blessing, we would like to admonish him and his family: God has shown great mercy to you. Do you also in the same way.

While Shakespeare is not one of our primary sources, he has got it right on the nature of mercy:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.

The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I.

We say again to our friend and brother along with his family: Do you also in the same way until you die.

To all, we would like to remark on the nature of mercy. First of all, the blessing in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus pronounces on those who show mercy provides us with a variant of ‘Pascal’s Wager’. As we all know, Pascal’s original wager was this: ‘We lose nothing if we believe, but if it’s true, we gain Heaven. Hence, it’s a good bet.’ Our variant: God promises us that he will show us mercy if we ourselves show mercy to others. God can’t break his own word. Therefore, even if we are arrant sinners, it behoves us to show mercy to others even if we do nothing at all else virtuous: we can’t lose because God is obliged by his own word to show us mercy.

In our last post, we discussed forgiving the other. Forgiving the other and showing mercy to him are not quite the same thing although they are clearly related.

As Shakespeare makes clear, mercy tempers justice. There is no indication in the history of Christianity that mercy treats the wrong as right or the right as wrong: the presupposition of mercy is that the other has sinned, perhaps not against us but somewhere. Mercy looks to him in whose power it is to punish the wrongdoer and beseeches of him not justice but forgiveness of the punishment which is due to the other, the wrongdoer.

Hence, it is a mistaken reading of Christianity to use Jesus’ admonition to mercy as an excuse not to treat sin as sin. That is something different, a deep confusion within us about the nature of truth.

In the case that the other has sinned against us, our Christian duty to forgive him might extend in the case of mercy to the restoration of relations of previous intimacy. But again, we ourselves would not counsel such a course willy-nilly: it behoves us to see things clearly in prudence and wisdom and to proceed not on the basis of our hurt or even on the basis of a naïve application of the Gospel, but on the basis of what is spiritually the soundest course. In the history of Orthodox monasticism this is what has been called discernment. In this post, we provided St John of Sinai’s definition of discernment:

23, 1 Discernment, first, is in beginners the true deep knowledge of things which pertain to themselves; in intermediates, then, the spiritual sense which faultlessly discriminates among that which is really good, that which is naturally good and the opposite (i.e. the bad); in the perfect, finally, that spiritual knowledge existing within the perfect which comes about through divine enlightenment and which is strong enough to illuminate that which exists darkly in others.

O perhaps most generally this is known to be and in fact is discernment: the sure possession of the will of God in every time and place and thing, which exists only in those who are pure in heart and body and mouth. Discernment is an unspotted conscience and a pure sense.

The meaning of discernment we need in the context of forgiving and showing mercy is this one: ‘the spiritual sense which faultlessly discriminates among that which is really good, that which is naturally good and the opposite (i.e. the bad)’. In other words, discernment is the spiritual sense which allows us to see correctly what the true good is in the situation we find ourselves, as opposed to the apparent good and as opposed to the bad; or which provides us with ‘the sure possession of the will of God’ in the particular situation.

Now it might be thought by the naïve that the will of God as defined in the Gospel is invariably that we forgive and get along. While it is true that the invariable will of God is that we forgive and show the other mercy insofar as it is in our power, discernment tells us what that means practically in the situation in hand.

This is true even of the ruler. In other words, someone has sinned against us, or against someone else, and it is in our power to forgive him or to show him mercy. Wisdom (i.e. discernment) tells us what that means practically in the situation in hand. We do forgive so that inter alia we are free of anger towards the other (we wonder about the quality of forgiveness of a Christian who is still angry with the other) but we don’t necessarily ‘let him go’: that depends on a discernment of what the will of God is in the case in hand.

We are reminded of a Byzantine saint, Theodore of Sykeon (April 22) we think, into whose presence was brought a condemned murderer. He ordered that the man be unbound. They said, ‘He’s violent’. The saint replied ‘Don’t worry.’ They unbound him. The man ran over and sat at the saints feet. The saint counselled him that being executed paid for the sin he had committed, if indeed he had committed it, or for other sins if he had not. The man departed from the saint’s presence in peace. He was executed. The saint made no effort to prevent his execution.

This is not a defense or condemnation of capital punishment. It is a remark that the saint discerns in the matter of hand what the will of God is in that situation. St Theodore discerned that the thing to do in the situation at hand was to prepare the condemned man for execution. When two Byzantine co-emperors visited St Maximos Kavsokalyvis (January 13) on Mt Athos, he admonished them to show mercy to wrongdoers. One of the co-emperors later became a monk.

So, to return from our general remarks to our reader who is about to be baptized: May God grant you a heart that shows mercy.

Orthodox Monk

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