Sunday, April 7, 2013

Who Needs Mercy?

You used to hear a lot about "guilt complexes" and "hang-ups" in the twentieth century. It was as though guilt feelings were never to be trusted and always to be avoided. The only thing to be ashamed of, was the feeling of shame. If you felt guilty, it wasn't because you had actually done anything wrong, but because you had "hang-ups" you needed to get beyond. If truth is relative, then there's not much that's really wrong—except, say, murder, judging other people, or failing to recycle.
     I think it's worked pretty well. I don't hear much about guilt anymore. If everything is permissible, what is there to feel guilty about?
     Even for those of us who think that there are plenty of impermissible things, today's feast—Divine Mercy Sunday—doesn't strike us as that exciting. Perhaps there's been such an emphasis in the last decades on God's love and mercy that we take them for granted.
     Many people today laugh at the idea of hell; if it exists at all, the only people there are Hitler and his ilk. 
     If that's true, why did Jesus speak more often of hell than heaven? If there's no hell, then why do some people who have been resuscitated, who have experienced "life after death," say that they went there?
     "Fire-and-brimstone" sermons are scorned as not only unnecessary, not only ridiculously archaic, but downright mean. How can it be mean, though, to remind us of a real danger we'd rather forget?
     Nowadays, most people don't think they deserve to go to hell. "I'm not that bad. I've never killed anyone. I'm basically a good person," they say. I don't think we're really being honest with ourselves, though, if that's what we think. When I look back on my life and think of the worst things I've done, think of the times I've turned my back on the God who has done so much for me, done things I knew would offend Him, I recognize that I deserve to go to hell.
     If that's hard for you to see for yourself, can you really say that you deserve to go to Heaven? That you are so wonderful, that your life is so exemplary and meritorious that you've earned it? I hope not, because that would indicate some seriously delusional thinking. No one can earn heaven.
     I think the real problem is a lack of really thinking about it. We're so caught up in our day-to-day concerns that we don't think about these deeper matters.
     But if we are not big sinners, that doesn't mean we have nothing to worry about. Today's feast derives in part from the approved private revelations to St. Faustina. She said that Jesus wished for not only a Feast commemorating His Divine Mercy; He also wanted it to be preceded by a novena, each day dedicated to a different intention. The last day was devoted for the most difficult: the lukewarm and indifferent. "These souls cause Me more suffering than any others; it was from such souls that My soul felt the most revulsion in the Garden of Olives." This echoes what He said in the Gospels about the lukewarm: that He would spit them out of His mouth.
     One way I can arouse gratitude in my heart for His infinite mercy is to contemplate my need for it. Relating the sorrowful mysteries of His Passion to my own sins is helpful in this. 
     Haven't I, for instance, like the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, only added to, rather than relieved, His sorrows? They fell asleep when He needed them, then fled when He was taken. Haven't I neglected spending time with Him in prayer, or spaced out if I did go; haven't I run from the cross, abandoned Him in countless ways?
     If every lash of my tongue in my life left a mark, would not my unkind words leave Him as welt-covered and bloody as did the scourging at the pillar? If my every negative, critical, selfish, judgmental, proud thought were visible, would they not amount to a crown of thorns covering His sacred head? If every sin of omission—every failure to do my part, to carry my cross—resulted in His not only being burdened with my sins, but in falling under their weight, would He not have fallen more than three times?
     Then the crucifixion: who wants to admit that their sins helped fix Him to the cross? But I recognize those nails as mine.
     How can such reflections not lead to sorrow? That's the point. But not to remain there. Yes, we should recognize that "It was our sins that He carried, our punishment that He bore," but precisely in order that we can rejoice that "By His stripes, we are healed..... On him lies a punishment that brings us peace."     
     Guilt feelings should not be denied nor should we swim in them. Rather, they are meant be used to help us grow in gratitude and holiness.

     I asked the Lord, "How much do you love me?"
     He said, "This much," and He spread out His arms...
and died for me.

     Thank you, Jesus, for your Infinite Mercy.