Thomas Merton on Mercy and Compassion
That Pope Francis named Thomas Merton as one of four key American figures in his important address to the US Congress last September was perhaps more fortuitous than many people realized at the time. Those familiar with Merton’s extensive written corpus know that he wrote about diverse topics and engaged many different thinkers over the course of his all-too-short life. Among the themes that recur in his writing is that of mercy, which puts him in obvious kinship with the current bishop of Rome. And his writings on the theme of mercy offer us a tremendous resource in spiritual and theological reflection during this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.
Today, I’d like to share just one short reflection from Merton on mercy, though there are many, many selections from which to choose. This passage strikes me as timely given both the Year of Mercy and the Easter Season in which we find ourselves.
We can have the mercy of God whenever we want it, by being merciful to others: for it is God’s mercy that acts on them, through us, when He leads us to treat them as He is treating us. His mercy sanctifies our own poverty by the compassion that we feel for their poverty, as if it were our own. And this is a created reflection of His own divine compassion, in our own souls. Therefore, it destroys our sins, in the very act by which we overlook and forgive the sins of other men [and women].
Such compassion is not learned without suffering. It is not to be found in a complacent life, in which we platonically forgive the sins of others without any sense that we ourselves are involved in a world of sin. If we want to know God, we must learn to understand the weaknesses and sins and imperfections of other men [and women] as if they were our own. We must feel their poverty as Christ experienced our own (Merton, No Man is an Island, 211-212).
This passage calls out to us in a way that presciently anticipates Pope Francis’s own call for all Christians to move beyond the superficial, beyond what Merton describes as the platonic forgiveness we offer in thought and abstraction alone, to suffer with our fellow sisters and brothers in the world (compassion).
Like Francis of Assisi, whose own experience of God’s mercy led him to “show mercy” to the lepers, the poor, the outcast of his time, Merton and Pope Francis likewise exhort us to recognize the mercy of God that “we can have…whenever we want it.” And it is only in being merciful to others — a task that is so often painful and difficult to accomplish — that we can receive that which is already offered to us.