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.”

  • Sarah Harkins

    very good practical advice, Allison! I had never heard of this exercise in such detail. I will have to try to practice it next time…Sometimes I feel I have tried everything to forgive a person and really think that I have forgiven them, only to have another hateful thought pop into my mind a while later. Do you think this means I haven't completely forgiven them?Or if I really think I have forgiven them and all is well, until I encounter them again. If I can't seem to put critical thoughts past me, does this mean I haven't forgiven them? Forgiveness is tricky! or should I say, the Devil is tricky in the way he keeps put salt back into old wounds.

  • Jim H.

    I come forth from lurkerhood to say thanks for this rigourous honesty and for the beautiful spiritual exercise of imagining our enemies "rising in the morning…." For several days I've been meditating on something I read recently suggesting that it's impossible to pray for those we hate and continue hating them. Your words make that thought even more real.

  • Frank

    Excellent post partner. Thanks for putting some flesh on the bones of "love your enemy."

  • Mary R

    I have been wanting to pray for those who make me angry, my enemies, those against us, those actively against religion or Catholicism. Within the last year I have found two prayers that help me. I found them on an Orthodox blog site. Save, Lord, and have mercy on those who hate me and offend me, and do me harm. Do not let them perish because of me, a sinner. (A prostration is made). Save, Lord, and have mercy on those whom I have caused to stumble, turning them away from the path of salvation and leading them to evil and unseemly deeds. Return them to the path of Salvation by thy divine Providence. (A prostration is made).In these prayers, I am directing my thoughts out for another person. Not being self absorbed in my pain or outrage, but rather having my focus outward brings me closer to God. First, my prayer is to God for His intersession with me and for the other person. Seccondly, I am reccognizing that it is through God that change is made in us. Third, I recognize that I am a sinner. My actions affect others and I pray that the effects are part of God's plan. Finally, the prostrations are humbling. An apt position for this sinner in God's presence.Sincerely,Mary R

  • Webster Bull

    "Where does my enemy sleep?" What a great question!

  • Reversal of Tubal Ligation

    information well and good … I like your way of thinking.Thanks for sharing