In her book, Mystical Hope, Cynthia Bourgeault speaks of the quality of mercy, drawing on the work of Helen Luke and Thomas Merton. This commentary shifted for me the meaning of the virtue that in my early life bore the impression of pity, as in “Lord, have mercy on us!” while beating our breasts.
For Luke, in her book Old Age, her understanding of mercy was broadened by a trip to the American Heritage Dictionary (!) where she found, as Cynthia explains, that “the word ‘mercy’ derives from the ancient Etruscan word merc; the words “commerce” and “merchant” share the same root. And so at heart, mercy means some kind of exchange or transaction. It is a connection word.” Luke goes on to connect the word to “the French merci, a grateful response and kindness of heart, and finally to compassion and forgiveness, including all our shades of darkness, whereby we are able to open ourselves to the Mercy.”
It is Thomas Merton, however, whose treatment of the word has stayed with me and remains a linchpin of how I should engage and treat people in all circumstances. In his essay “The Good Samaritan,” Merton refers to the original Semitic translation, which means “a fierce, bonding love – as between committed lovers. It is not about pity, but about passion.” He continues, “Chesed [mercy] is fidelity, it is also strength. It is ultimate and unfailing because it is the power that binds one person to another, in a covenant of hearts.”
Today we honor St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, the visionary who is particularly responsible for the feast of the Divine Mercy. We would do well to spend some time reflecting on the definitions above as they relate to the feast of today and give thanks to the God who is “rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us…” (EPH 2:4)