Here is the final reflection in a series on the upcoming Year of Mercy, provided by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Psychologial Sciences. This third reflection, titled “Restored and Healed by Mercy,” was written by Jessie Tappel, MS, LGPC.
The first reflection, on mercy as more than a theological term, but rather a life-transforming reality, can be read here. The second reflection, on the psychological barriers to forgiveness, can be read here.
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“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Mt 5:7) Mercy is a fundamental part of the Christian life. Both the sinner and the righteous need mercy and to ask for forgiveness; no one is exempt. Practically, it can be challenging to understand how receiving mercy and showing it to others actually works. How can receiving another’s act of forgiveness transform us? What does showing mercy to another cost us? Is it possible that being merciful benefits us?
Despite our sinfulness, God opens the door of mercy for us to enter. “Showing mercy is therefore proper to God, in a special way, for it manifests His infinite perfection, and His infinite abundance and generosity,” St. Thomas Aquinas writes. God, the source of all mercy, provides us with an experience so great that we have no choice but to reflect it to our own brother and sister. We are called to receive His mercy. As St. Faustina accounts in her Diary, “Tell souls not to place within their own hearts obstacles to My mercy, which so greatly wants to act within them. My mercy works in all those hearts which open their doors to it.” God desires to shower upon us His mercy, but we have to choose to accept this gift. It is not something automatic, we need to engage our intellect and will to be able to understand, reflect upon and choose this great gift of mercy. To be able to receive God’s mercy, we must admit our faults. (CCC 1847) Admitting our faults is difficult and oftentimes challenging, for it comes at a cost to our own pride and selfishness.
Mercy is when we do not receive what we deserve. We are not given a punishment rightly due. At first, the realization of what we do deserve and then the lack of a proportional response can seem disconnected. We live in a world of justice where if you commit a crime, there will be a penalty. The same is not true with God’s mercy. Through our fallenness and sinfulness we try again and again to understand the power of God’s love in relation to our weaknesses, but we never receive what we truly deserve. Upon realizing this, we feel a sense of deep gratitude, a transformational gratitude. “When this happens, the person who is the object of mercy does not feel humiliated, but rather found again and ‘restored to value’,” reflects John Paul II in Dives in Misericordia. The reception of mercy and forgiveness restores our inner being and transforms us in a way we are unable to do by ourselves. It becomes a healing, a freedom. Mercy leads to the truth in helping see beyond the barriers that come between us and God and how with His help we are able to overcome them. Mercy enables us to see the love of God and how His love is transformational.
At particular times throughout our lives we can recall having asked pardon for our wrongdoings. ‘I’m sorry’ is a frequent statement of childhood as we were taught to recognize our own faults and to correct them accordingly. On the natural level, it is common to feel hesitation in the matter of forgiveness. Forgiving another requires action on our part, a choice, and oftentimes it must be chosen over and over again. It is important to know what forgiveness is not, but it is essential to admit to oneself that we have experienced hurt and even that we desire to retaliate. To ignore the hurt experienced results in a denial of the real effect of the wrongdoing, which is unhealthy both spiritually and psychologically. When someone harms us and does wrong, it hurts. The pain causes real emotion and real suffering. What makes one able to forgive such an offense? Feeling a grudge and harboring a sense of hate can temporarily give us energy, but in the long run causes us harm. Nurturing resentment takes time and energy as well, even if we don’t fully realize it. As part of the process of forgiveness, empathy can play a role. Empathy involves a caring and understanding response to another’s viewpoint or experience. This does not mean, however, that we approve or reward another person’s viewpoint or behavior. If we are to forgive someone, it is important to see that the person is not all bad or all good because we understand that we are not all good or all bad. “The relationship of mercy is based on the common experience of that good which is man, on the common experience of the dignity that is proper to him” (DM 6). Mercy is proper to the dignity of the human person. When we are merciful, we reflect the goodness of God and the duty to our neighbor. Mercy restores value to fallen man and gives glory to the power of Christ and His salvific mission.
Jessie Tappel, MS, LGPC, graduated from the Institute for the Psychological Sciences and now serves as a therapist for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Arlington as well as the Director for Communications for IPS, a Catholic graduate school for psychology. She is passionate about educating on issues related to Catholicism and Mental Health.