When a man’s love is caused from the goodness of the one he loves, then that man who loves does so out of justice, inasmuch as it is just that he love such a person. When, however, love causes the goodness in the beloved, then it is a love springing from mercy. The love with which God loves us produces goodness in us; hence mercy is… the root of divine love…
– St. Thomas Aquinas, In Eph. 2:2
Thanks to Pope Francis, I have been thinking a lot about mercy these days. A colleague sent me the above quote and it thrilled me! I love Aquinas’ precision and clarity.
Aquinas’ formulation of mercy made me think of a story I have long cherished and often shared. It was told to me by a Russian priest 30 years ago, who was involved in prison ministry in the 1980’s in New England. He had a particular soft spot in his heart for the most hardened criminals, as he himself early in life had been involved in drug-related crimes before coming to faith. This priest was able to minister not only “to” the suffering, but “out of” his own suffering.
He told me about this one prisoner who was in solitary confinement because he was so dangerous. He had committed heinous crimes, and showed absolutely no remorse. One day this priest was able to gain access to this man’s cell. When the priest entered the cell, the man yelled: “Go away, goddamn priest! Leave me to rot in hell.” Almost every day for the next year, the priest would come to this man’s cell and look through the small slot-window. He would say nothing, just look, and the inmate would just look back. Just about a year to the day, the priest came and looked in as he had every other day. But this time the man stood and walked over to window and said: “I just wanted to see if you were serious. Come in.”
The inmate took instruction, was baptized, and tonsured (i.e., became a monk-hermit).
The long-suffering love of this priest, which was the love of Christ in him (cf. 2 Cor. 5:14), caused goodness to bloom in the hard heart of this man.
That is mercy, and its most exquisite fruit, goodness.