As Fr. Kirby notes, “many contemporary views falsely define mercy as a clean slate without accountability or consequences.” Were this true, mercy would constitute a violation of justice, and one or the other would cease being a virtue.
Since justice and mercy are in fact twin virtues, in constant need of one another, such a misinterpretation makes both impossible.
To understand what mercy truly is, we must look at the preceding beatitude in context. To hunger and thirst for justice in this life is to swim against the current of a fallen world. Anyone seriously seeking what is true and good will swiftly come up against violent contrary motions in his own soul, and in the actions of others.
If our devotion to justice itself remains firm despite such opposition, that is commendable. But it is still necessary to “get smart” about how to achieve justice in the face of sin.
This is where mercy comes to play. Broadly speaking, mercy is the virtue that seeks to procure the good for souls struggling against various impediments.
When we see with the eyes of mercy, we notice what prevents a human being from flourishing, whether it be a lack of bodily goods (food, water, clothing, shelter, health, freedom, or a dignified burial), or spiritual (counsel, instruction, admonition, comfort, forgiveness, patience, or prayer).
Seeing what thwarts the good, we seek by the virtue and inspiration of God to provide what we can, for the glory of God and salvation of souls.
Mercy is most difficult—indeed, humanly impossible—when someone has severely injured us. In this case, it takes a supreme act of self-abandonment to divine Providence to see that, however wicked a thing we have suffered, the sinner remains a child of God, and our potential friend in eternity.
If Christ was willing to forgive his own murderers and torturers, we must acknowledge that those who hurt us are capable of repentance, forgiveness, and a share in the eternal glory which, if we desire it for ourselves, we must be willing to share with them.
Even when we seem to be at peace with others, mercy requires us to look beyond our own selfish interests, and learn to perceive what is lacking in the lives of others that we might, by the grace of God, be able to supply.
If we fail to seek opportunities for blessing others, we lose the blessings our Lord wishes to pour upon us when we discover that helping others is the only way to achieve our own true good.
False forms of mercy, by waving justice aside, fail to demand or inspire penance in sinful souls, and therefore exacerbate the evils of sin by closing the door to redemption. True mercy is not a substitute for but a fulfilment of justice.
When we practice mercy, we learn to see and do the good in circumstances that make it hard to see and harder to do. To learn mercy is to learn how to be a blessing, and therefore to obtain the blessing that only mercy can bestow.
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