The Mercy of the Lord Burns:
Sinfulness in the Fire of God’s Mercy
Matthew Fox, the popularizer of a school of Christian spirituality sometimes known as “creation-centered,” once listed Vincent de Paul as a subscriber to such a spirituality. Apparently anyone advocating on behalf of God’s poor and marginal, that is, the anawim, by Fox’s lights, belongs to this school. Frankly such an assertion is not beyond contest. At the risk of sounding quaint, mercy as “sheer gift” (a matter for a subsequent reflection) presupposes a sober sense of sinfulness, both personal and structural; and Vincent seems quite cognizant of both.
Frederick Buechner – theologian, preacher, and story-teller – in a work entitled Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale maintains that proclaiming the gospel always entails telling the truth. Some truths we prefer to avoid, or at least to alter to suit our egos. More to the point, Buechner suggests that before the gospel is good news, it is bad news. To put it another way, the gospel is tragedy before comedy. The American Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, on the lips of a wretched character named Mason Tarwater in one of her novels entitled The Violent Bear It Away, puts this yet another way: “Even the mercy of the Lord burns.” O’Connor’s viewpoint, which might rightly be called Catholic realism, embodies hope but not the kind that pretends that history’s blood-soaked canvas is actually nothing more than cherry stains. She notes: “All my stories are about the action of God’s grace on a character who is not very willing to support it.” As the wife of one psychoanalyst, having attended a seminar with her husband in which the healing arts and their practitioners were apparently much extolled without sufficiently sober reflection on the human condition once said, “Some of them need a good stiff dose of Flannery O’Connor.” Perhaps we all do.
Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac probably would find themselves at home within O’Connor’s fictional world and the various characters that populate it. Vincent’s (and to a degree Louises’) sometimes self-deprecatory rhetoric offends modern sensibilities. We prefer to think of ourselves as well-healed or perhaps simply not in need of healing. Still, perhaps a style of logic, or more to the point, a “theo-logic” and “psycho-logic” attend Vincent and Louise in their clear-headed sense of sinfulness. Oddly certain modern psychologists and psychiatrists – Karl Menninger, M. Scott Peck, and even Carl Jung to name a few – presumably lacking knowledge of either Vincent or Louise or much of the Catholic spiritual and mystical tradition, mourn the apparent dying of a sense of sin and the rising illusion of a humanity quite taken by its own adventures and achievements. Vincentian spirituality is certainly not Pelagianism, yet neither is it Jansenism. The acknowledgment of a “fall from grace” might be quite useful in our current context; in fact, it might be quite liberating.
In the Bull Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis, relying rather heavily on the observations of St. John Paul II in his second encyclical Dives in Misericordia, notes that today both the concept and practice of mercy are besieged by a type of cultural amnesia (cf. MV #11). Our cultural assumptions – secularism (not to be confused with the “secular” which grounds a Catholic understanding of reality), pathological individualism and independence, a sense of entitlement – militate against the possibility or the need for mercy. The need and possibility of mercy, however, presupposes the reality of sin. Oddly the pope does not much mention sin or sinfulness in any pronounced way in MV, though these no doubt provide the backdrop for his reflection on mercy. No exotic descriptions of sinfulness are necessarily envisioned here; traditional ideas suffice: sin as “missing the mark” (biblical), sin as offense against God and other human beings (theological), since as a false sense of self (existential). Certainly something broader, deeper, and more profound than the mere transgression of law and yet just as ubiquitous and mundane, however, obtains here; perhaps more adequately expressed as a sense of sinfulness, woundedness, or brokenness. Frankly some retrieval of Pauline and/or Augustinian wisdom regarding the human condition and the stark skankiness of which we human beings are sometimes capable might be a welcome relief from the usual banality of the “psychologizing” of sin. The refusal to admit sin belongs to the leisured class who need not ride public transportation in our large urban centers during rush hour, or perhaps simply to the pathological. There one finds freshly displayed the wounding with which the human condition is marked, or what used to be called “concupiscence.”
Be careful though. Neither neurosis nor forms of penitential gaming or drama (such as were practiced in “chapter of faults” and elsewhere) serve useful purposes here. A healthy sense of one’s personal fragility before the Mystery of the Triune God, a healthy realization of one’s total reliance on God’s mercy matters greatly.
On its better days the Catholic tradition knows this. Sometimes people protest that the current liturgical ordo of the Catholic Mass enshrines a negative theological anthropology that focuses on human sinfulness. The return of the triple mea culpa and the insertion of the English adverb “greatly” into the Confiteor (coming from the Latin nimis) in the revised English translation of the third typical edition of the Roman Missal are sometimes thought to be manifestations of this. Actually, however, the Mass opens with the naming and the praising of the Trinity as well as God’s grace and mercy. This seems about right. The “penitential rite” follows only secondarily.
This returns us to the image of the burning mercy of God. Perhaps the image offers more than one might first think. Our ancestors in faith, with their propensity for imagining that piece of eschatological geography sometimes called “purgatory” (or more dynamically “purgation”) intuited more than we might realize. Let’s not sell that little piece of real estate prematurely. Purgatory suffers not from too broad but rather too narrow an application. For into the fires of God’s mercy we need to cast both our sinfulness and our propensity for self-righteousness, both of which ironically speed us away from reliance upon God’s mercy. Paradoxically our self-righteousness may be more problematic than our overt sinfulness for it bears the seeds of a double-illusion: first, that the mercy of God can be earned thus suggesting that we rise to God on the wings of our “good works;” second, that the mercy of God is a matter of entitlement. Mercy is the twilight zone within which is transformed both our sinfulness and our righteousness.
Vincent’s inclination to see himself as a sinner suggests more than a strategy for service to the poor; it speaks the truth of the human condition before God. Ironically though, it unwittingly does function strategically in our dealings with others, especially God’s poor and abandoned. The saint is not NOT (both negatives here purposely placed) a sinner but rather a very particular kind of sinner; namely the kind who recognizing the poverty of the human condition freely rejoices and embraces others no matter the depth of the other’s sin. It frees one to sing that most democratic of songs, “There but for the grace of God go I.”