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The Quality of Mercy is Not Strained

The Quality of Mercy is Not Strained

Today’s Reflections is really just musings. Just the fruit of the wool-gathering I talked about last week. Definitely not anything and a bag of chips, but maybe a window into how I make thoughts? Something like that. It ends more confused than it begins, and I’m leaving it that way, just for fun. Let us begin!

Lately, I have been considering qualities that aren’t often talked about in Unitarian Universalism or Wicca: mercy, grace, sin, redemption, evil, virtue, and the like. Today, I am thinking of mercy and forgiveness. Trying to parse them out. Trying to distinguish them, if they can be distinguished.

Perhaps it is because my business community is also wrapped in Sufi practice, so several times a week, I hear, “In the name of the One most compassionate, most merciful, most kind…” that I am thinking of mercy. What is it, who offers it, who asks for me and under what circumstances…these are the kind of things I’m musing on as I consider the half-leaved dogwood.

Many Unitarian Universalists and practitioners of Wicca would say that mercy, especially Divine mercy, is an unnecessary idea. Like sin, mercy is irrelevant to our theologies, such as they are, our various theologies and philosophies.

For my Sufi teachers and friends, mercy is a divine quality that can be moved through human beings into action. Sure, God is merciful, but does that really matter if we’re not showing one another mercy? As Teresa of Avila said, “God has no hands but ours…” and she’s right.

That protean statement, paraphrased by many, often attributed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, Jr., begun by Rev. Theodore Parker, the 19th-century Unitarian preacher and abolitionist, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

If that arc is to bend, it is we who must do the bending, no?

Similarly, mercy has no hands, no mouths, no hearts but ours. And mercy, like forgiveness, like grace, is unearned. It is a gift that emerges from largesse of heart. We hope for mercy when we know when we have wronged someone (or SomeOne) by our actions or speech, and especially we hope for forgiveness when we have wronged someone who is in a position of greater power than we have. Mercy lightens the heart of the one who receives it, and it broadens the heart of the one who gives it.

That most familiar English poet and dramatist, William Shakespeare, thought about mercy a lot. For example, we read in The Merchant of Venice:

“The quality of mercy is not straind.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

Don’t mistake me. Those of you who have been around these parts, this neighborhood of The Way of the River, know that I am not someone who says that offering forgiveness is mandatory; sometimes it’s not even desirable.

Sure, letting go of bitterness, refusing mental “rent” to those who have wronged us, allowing forgiveness to bloom in the garden of our minds almost without our noticing… these are acts of gentleness toward ourselves. Forgiveness, though, cannot be forced or decided upon. Forgiveness is something that grows in its own time – or doesn’t.

Mercy, though, seems different.

Mercy is something we offer whether we feel like doing it or not. Even if we turn away, we pledge not to be vengeful, not to count the wrong someone has done in the ledger of our injuries. Mercy is a choice. Mercy is what we’re looking for when we pray for our enemies. Mercy is the choice to say yes, you have hurt me and I am not going to demand the reparation that is mine by right or by reason.

Am I splitting hairs? Maybe. Maybe I am.

A good friend points out that mercy can also imply a power imbalance. One asks for mercy when the guy has a knife to your throat, or you’re stuck in a headlock. “Mercy!” Not always the case, but an important point to consider, I think.

I am clear that “forgiveness,” like “hope,” is a word that is often twisted so hard it becomes nearly unrecognizable. Forgiveness is not the same thing as letting go of bitterness. Forgiveness is not merely “detaching with love.” Forgiveness is that quality that emerges within us that allows trust to grow again between two people. It is not just letting go. It’s not.

It is entirely possible to live a good life, a virtuous life, a happy life, without forgiving those who have done us harm, especially when that harm is irreparable or when the perpetrators of that harm have no interest in changing their behavior. As I have said in these pages before, I refuse to forgive the man who molested me when I was a young teenager. I will not. I have not fertilized the grounded where forgiveness could grow, and in fact, I think it would be harmful to my soul to forgive him.

But I can live happily without thinking of him except when he is part of a cautionary tale or when I’m writing about forgiveness and non-forgiveness. I refuse to allow forgiveness to grow. I deny him lovingkindness.

I also refuse the choice of mercy. Yes, mercy, like grace, is unearned and maybe if I were… no, I honestly don’t believe that spiritual enlightenment would lead me to unlimited mercy. Not until I were joined with the Heavenly Banquet—that Banquet Madeleine L’Engle says in A Stone for a Pillow, cannot happen until we all want all of us to be there—can I imagine offering the choice for mercy. What if I were in Communion with the One most compassionate, most merciful, most kind – Yet this Oneness, this Source of Love is also the One Who Avenges, the One Who Reckons… or maybe if I were in union with Guanyin (I have only recently learned that this spelling is the more correct transliteration and pronunciation and that “Kwan Yin” is like saying, “Peking”) or Green Tara or one of the other bodhisattvas…

But I am not Christian, Muslim or Buddhist. And so my practice leads me toward virtues of Authenticity, Integrity, Compassion, Wisdom, and Love… and maybe in seeking to be in Union with the Love I believe brought Creation into being, maybe then, I could forgive Rob Thornton.

A flash, all of a sudden, of the possibility of it. The possibility of mercy coming from the belief that people are doing the best they can with the tools they have. Even sociopaths like Thornton? They have strange tools. Weird.

Okay, that’s weird. Too weird to explore in Reflections. Know that I love you all, and that I welcome your thoughts about forgiveness, mercy, and really anything else at all. Simply reply to this email, and I’ll respond.

Are mercy and forgiveness different? You tell me!

And, as ever, if you find that these times, these strange and twisty times lead you toward a deeper spiritual attention, practice, or desire, be in touch and we’ll talk about how I might be able to help.

May we all continue the search for virtue, for the Good Life, for the greater love.


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