Sunday, August 23, 2015

Glory, Grace, and Mercy, part IV: Mercy

Mary, Joseph, and three angels
From the Chapel of the Confraternity of our Lady in s'Hertogenbosch
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Hieronymus Bosch would have been familiar with this touching set of figures.

Lord Jesus Christ, through your glory, grace, and mercy, help me to honor and obey.

The Oxford English dictionary defines Mercy as “forbearance and compassion shown by one person to another who is in his power and has no claim to receive kindness; kind and compassionate treatment in a case where severity is merited or expected.”

The second part of the first definition is, “God’s pitiful forbearance towards his creatures and forgiveness of their offenses.”

From these two definitions, we see that Mercy is the quality of a person: that is, like all qualities that emanate from the heart of God, it is a quality of personhood. In other words, in addition to its absolutely objective quality which is universal — God’s pitiful forbearance towards his creatures — it is also individual and personal; that is, in the same way that every angel receives the personhood of the Lord and finds himself or herself within it:

 “Angels are in the Lord and he in them; and as the angels are only recipients, the Lord alone is heaven” —Swedenborg, Divine Love and Wisdom, 113-118 

Every human being also receives the Lord, in the form of Grace and Mercy, since we are receptacles not only for the inflow of the lower nature of the world and creation, but also for these blessings, which are of a Divine nature. 

Our ability to receive impressions from both of these levels is what makes us the bridge between God and His creation. In exactly the same way that organic life on earth fills a “shock” between earth and the moon in the ray of creation, so is the natural world and creation itself the moon for God, with sentient beings (man and like organic three-brained beings) forming the shock. 

This goes a long way towards explaining why the moon is sensation — the created universe is God's sensation of Himself.

 These questions deserve a great deal more study, but readers can see the essential outline of a Great Thought here, one that belongs rightly to God alone and is revealed throughout all the law and all the prophets.

In any event, let me speak a bit more about this idea that we have no claim to receive kindness. The whole point of self-observation is to understand this: and this is also the point of sensing our own nothingness. We are given everything; and everything, even the greatest pain, the worst plight, flows into us as a blessing — all of it is part of a sacred process that is given to us selflessly as a gift. Now, it is possible to mistake selflessness as a lack of personhood, but nothing of the kind is so. Selflessness merely implies being part of a greater whole; and in the sense of angels being only recipients, we can understand that to be selfless is simply to knowledge one's existence within the personhood of the Lord.

Personhood is, conversely, the act of playing a role, or agency (see the first two definitions in the Oxford English dictionary.) As persons, we all play roles and act as representatives — hence Ibn Arabi’s characterization of mankind as the Vicegerents of God’s action within the material realm. Representatives have no personal claim — they undertake their actions on behalf of their master, a classic idea which is essential to understanding the story of Christ and the Centurion  (Matthew 8:5-10.) Although we have no right to forgiveness and Mercy, it is given anyway. And it is given unstintingly and eternally, because it is Love itself, which is infinitely compassionate. (Remember that compassion is an essential part of Mercy.)

In Islam, the quality of Mercy is the absolute and utmost quality of the Lord; it trumps all the other aspects of God’s Being.

We tend, I find, to frame this conceptually and interpret it in terms of specific worldly events; to objectify it and apply it to specific objects, events, circumstances, and conditions. That is to say, we refer to such-and-such a situation or condition and say, “Lord have Mercy,” hoping for an improvement in that condition—whether it be forgiveness and pardon of a criminal’s sins and transgressions, or remission of disease. We hope, in other words, that by way of Mercy the Lord will remove our obstacles. 

Yet our obstacles are righteous and justified; and they are placed there by God. (In a similar vein, all the souls in Dante's purgatory understand that their punishments are just; the ones in hell don't.) God already has Mercy: there is no condition in which Mercy is not already in full operation. We don’t need to ask for Mercy; it is given by default. What we lack is not Mercy, but trust, which is the offering we ought most rightly to place first and foremost before the Lord our God. 

Yet we don’t; and I see for myself that although trust is always the very best offering, I inevitably find some other thing to put between me and the Lord first. 

I would rather not trust.
This objectifying of Mercy, which turns it into a thing of attachments and negotiations—a place which clearly cannot be right for the most exalted property of the highest Being— is deeply mistaken. Mercy can’t be objectified; it exists as an action, not a thing (although it is in a material sense substantial, that is, mediated by divine substance), and emanates directly from the great and most infinite heart of the Divine Love. Things are already Merciful; even the worst manifestation consists of a form of Mercy which cannot be seen and cannot be measured, because the action of Mercy is so absolutely inscrutable. Even the Being of the Devil Himself is a form of Mercy. This doesn’t make wrong things right; but it does give them their place and their due, for they too are necessary. The wrong takes a terrible burden on its shoulders in order to affirm the right.

Readers can see from this discourse, which is brief and wholly inadequate, that the idea of Mercy binds almost everything else in the universe together, acting as it does in its role of agent for Divine Love and Compassion. 

Hence Ibn Arabi's (and Islam's) explanation of Mercy as the most absolute and supreme quality of God.


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