I Like You Just Because…:
Mercy as the Surprise of Sheer Gift
Whether the “gospel” begins with the tragic or the comic, that is, with sin or grace as its first movement, begs some discussion; and, still, the answer eludes any complete grasp. Catholic intuitions tend towards inaugurating the conversation with the comic, or with grace as sheer gift, but this does presuppose, as suggested in the previous meditation, some sober sense of one’s sinfulness, brokenness, and/or woundedness. To borrow a phrase found often enough in the current English translation of the third normative edition of the Roman Missal, we are in need of a “healing remedy.” Pope Francis states this rather well with great force and clarity in one of his 2014 General Audiences:
If any one of us does not feel in need of the mercy of God, does not see himself (sic) as a sinner, it is better for him (sic) not to go to Mass. We go to Mass because we are sinners and we want to receive God’s pardon, to participate in the redemption of Jesus. (Francis, General Audience, February 12, 2014)
Perhaps rather than some chronological posturing regarding whether sin or grace comes first, it might be more cautious to suggest that these two walk side-by-side, though certainly not in a dualistic sense of an eternal struggle between two equal forces – good and evil – the outcome of which we cannot predict. The Paschal Mystery has settled this matter. This brief meditation here, however, concerns the “comedy of grace as sheer gift.”
It might be theologically helpful to highlight three presuppositions operative here. First, since grace relates to both “graciousness” (the advent of the unimaginably undeserved, unearned, and unconditional) and “gratitude” (thankfulness), it is at least adequately understood to be of the order of a sheer “gift” (more on this in a moment). Second, since in the community of the virtues, which are also “graces,” a kind of “dance” exists among them (much like the dance of the “persons” of the Holy Triune Mystery of God, this dance being called in theology perichoresis or circumincession). In other words the virtues move in concert together though still they are varied. Finally, mercy, in this dance, must at some point partner with what is called justice and their dance together is sometimes awkward and laden with tension, mercy constantly taking the lead (more on this in a subsequent meditation).
For now, we simply meditate on mercy as sheer “gift.” All else depends on this.
Frankly our cultural context finds this difficult. Capitalist in its leanings (to be mild about the matter), modern culture and its economy experience this alternative economy of the gift distressing. Sadly, so too might some expressions of the Christian impulse, embed as they are in this culture and its economy. Even the Christian economy of God’s love, heard within the frame of a capitalist culture, sometimes morphs that love into something God is required to do because God is Love, and love is, after all, God’s “business.” One theologian, James Allison, in a wonderful work entitled On Being Liked, has suggested that perhaps we need to remember that God actually likes us for the sheer joy of it, rather than loving us because God has to, because that is part of God’s job description, or business. It’s a point for some reflection. (If we suffer allergies when near heavy theological discourse, googling Sandra Stoddard Warburg’s little poem “I Like You” suffices to make the point here though without mention of God or grace.)
Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary defines gift as “a notable capacity, talent, endowment;” further a gift constitutes “something voluntarily transferred from one person to another without compensation.” Perhaps we might want to amplify this by adding without expectation of compensation. That’s as good a description of mercy as gift as any.
Today there exists quite a bit of literature around “gift theory” both outside (for instance, anthropology) and inside theological circles. It constitutes an entire sub-discipline within theology, especially in areas such as theological anthropology (with its conversations around “grace”), soteriology (for instance, the Incarnation and the event of the cross as sheer gift), and fundamental sacramental theology (since, whatever else the sacraments concern, they concern the grace of encounter).
Of some import for this current meditation, notions of “gift exchange” assert that: 1] a gift involves an encounter, a dynamic process entailing first a giving, and second, a receiving, though the offer of the gift is not contingent on the reception; 2] a “gift exchange” entails risky behavior and can easily be thwarted by either some unarticulated ulterior motive on the part of the giver, or some condition that impedes the receiver from “receiving” the gift as sheer gift (rather than barter or reward). To put this dynamic another way, the heart of the gift is the offer of the unconditional that arises neither as a “deal/bargain” nor a “reward” (for instance, for good or right behavior) but as sheer graciousness.
Mercy, as gift, as grace, is haunted by a number of dynamics that endanger it – reification, quantification, commodification, and moralism (or perfectionism) – to name a few. However, to quote the sacramental theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet, “…grace is of an entirely different order from that of value or empirical verifiability;” “it cannot be calculated and it cannot be stocked.” It is no wonder that both St. John Paul II and Pope Francis think mercy as grace, as gift, may be in short supply since the advent modernity, especially today in late modernity.
By way of illustration, the nature of mercy as sheer gift is wonderfully captured in a “sermon” of sorts given by one of the dinner guests, General Lorens Löwenhieim, at the FREE meal provided by Babette Hersant as she offers her entire lottery winnings (10,000 francs) in the story entitled Babette’s Feast:
“Man (sic), my friends,” said General Loewenhielm, “is frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble . . . ” Never till now had the General stated that he trembled; he was genuinely surprised and even shocked at hearing his own voice proclaim the fact. “We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers (and sisters), makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”
The same can be said of mercy, since mercy is sheer gift. These words of the general beg reflection.