The Emperor Napoleon had a rule that any soldier who were absent without leave would be shot if captured. This rule was enforced without exception until a soldier who happened to be the seventeen-year-old son of Napoleon’s cook ran away. When he was captured, his mother asked -Napoleon for mercy. He said, “Woman, your son doesn’t deserve mercy.” She replied, “Yes, of course, you’re right. He doesn’t deserve mercy. If he deserved it, it would no longer be mercy.” Napoleon responded, “Well, then, I will have mercy.” And he spared the woman’s son.
Mercy isn’t mercy if it’s deserved. A gift isn’t a gift if it’s deserved. In our human relationships we tend to choose gifts based on merit, and we sometimes mistakenly apply the same principle to our relationship with God.
We recognize the gift of life, the gift of grace, and the gift of forgiveness with little or no effort and easily identify these as God-given. Other gifts from God are a little more difficult to discern because they’re well disguised—sometimes so well disguised that it takes us a lifetime to recognize them as gifts.
What comes to us from God is totally undeserved, but it still calls for a response.
When we respond to God’s gift of awareness and insight—through grace, also an unearned and unmerited gift from God—we begin to see life from a different perspective. We begin to see the many paradoxes in God’s ways of working with us and inviting us to enter more and more into relationship with him.
This is why we gather in church, in community with others who have also responded to the invitation. We might think of our response as primarily obligation, but it’s not. Only through the power of God’s grace can we gather at each moment, at this time, in each place. We permit, in faith, God’s grace and love to be made manifest in the manner and with the timing God intends, not the timing we intend. That’s a hard lesson to learn, but it’s well worth the effort.
Human beings often find it difficult to fully accept and understand that we’re not in charge. We have just enough intelligence, just enough talent, and just enough power to think we’re in charge, but we’re not. We are not the creator; we are the creatures.
Of course, we have moments when we recognize this essential truth—in times of tragedy, when we’re challenged beyond our skills and abilities, when we’re at a loss. We struggle to make sense of the situation. If we fit it into a nice little category to help us understand and comprehend it, we feel like we again have control over what is happening.
This attempt to interpret and control is a distraction, but it’s not a sin.
Scrupulosity is a harmful distraction that focuses our attention on something that’s an illusion, an effective distraction from important, necessary, and even messy aspects of daily life.
Scrupulosity magnifies the allure of illusion. Maintaining the illusion is not a sin. It’s a symptom of an affliction that deprives us of our capacity to act and choose fully and freely.
If the Emperor Napoleon could be convinced of the need for mercy in a situation in which there was no relationship, no care and concern for the other person, imagine the mercy we can expect from God. God’s unending care and concern for each person is motivated only by love.
Unwavering love and mercy are pure gift. They cannot be earned. They can only be gracefully received and celebrated. They are freely given, and each of us can experience them every day.
By Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR