To Learn How to be Merciful

When someone wrongs me, it’s easy to be right. Being merciful, however, is hard and necessary. What it takes for me to be merciful is to try my best to contemplate that person, who for the moment I consider my enemy, from more than my own perspective. I know I never will be able to behold a fellow human being as God does, because He exists beyond the limited dimension of time and offers us immeasurable love. But I can try to recognize more dimensions of my enemy than I already do.

Pablo Picasso and other Cubist painters reconsidered and reassembled their subjects and then depicted them in one painting from multiple viewpoints. The painting above is one of 60 Picasso created of his companion, Fernande Olivier, during the fall and spring of  1909. What would my life look like if I labored with as much care as Picasso painted his Fernande to behold every difficult person I encounter?

We talked about the difference between being right and being merciful at a CL School of Community (meeting) recently, which took place in the dining room of the rectory of St. Peter the Apostle Church in New Brunswick, NJ. I am thankful to the others in the room for speaking from their hearts about the topic, which helped me gain insight into my own spiritual life. As I wage battle with some of my interior faults, including my tendency to believe I’m right, I often make snap judgments about people based on next-to-no information. This is a sin that leads to others, including prideful, angry and self-righteous behaviors. This tendency to be right also denies me the opportunity to practice mercy.

When I am right, I can still nurture my anger. When I am right, I do not have to interact with the person who wronged me. When I am right, I don’t have to do a thing, except feel right. When I try to be merciful, I have to engage myself with that person. This can happen by sharing my sorrow with them over the pain I felt, and by attempting to reconcile with them. But first, always first, practicing mercy has to happen in my prayers.

When someone wrongs me and I feel my sense of indignation start to swell, I try to imagine this enemy rising in the morning. Obviously, I do not know the details of the rising, but I try to conceive it. Where does my enemy sleep? Alone? With a spouse? How does my enemy leave the bed? By putting slippers on? Turning off an alarm clock? Calling out to children? I consider this spiritual exercise a  prayer because it permits me to understand that my enemies are fellow humans being who have their own ways of facing their days. Like everyone of us, they have had to figure out a way to grapple with the solitude of their own destinies. As recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, Christ Himself taught us to have mercy on our enemies: “But if your brother shall offend against you, go, and rebuke him between you and him alone. If he shall hear you, you shall gain your brother.” Later in that sermon, He admonishes us to have limitless forgiveness of our “fellow servants as I have had compassion with you.”

Of course, my way of learning to show mercy by imagining my enemy from multiple perspectives is not a first with me. Graham Greene expressed this sentiment so well in his novel The Power and the Glory. “When you visualized a man or a woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity . . . that was a quality God’s image carried with it . . . when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”

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