Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find mercy. (Mt. 5:7)
St. Gregory of Nyssa (1954), the Church Father who has written such extensive Homilies on Christ's Beatitudes, instructs us that this Beatitude on mercy, among all of them, points us in a singular way to the core of who God is. He emphasizes that this "Beatitude is the property of God par excellence."
The saint then tells us of the challenge to us that is inherent in this spiritual perception. He asks:
If, therefore, the term "merciful" is suited to God, what else does the Word invite you to become but God, since you ought to model yourself on the property of the Godhead?
Once we have attained being merciful, then we are deemed worthy of Beatitude, because we have attained that which is characteristic of the Divine Nature. Mercy is one of God’s Divine characteristics that He has revealed to mankind. As the prophet David tells us: "All the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth, to them that seek after his covenant and his testimonies." (Ps 24: 10). And in another psalm David cries out: "O Lord, thy mercy is in heaven, and thy truth reacheth, even to the clouds." (Ps 35: 6). This is beautifully described by St. Isaac of Syria, who in his 1st Ascetical Homily (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011) tells us:
Do you wish to commune with God in your mind by receiving a perception of that delight . . .? Pursue mercy; for when something that is like unto God is found in you, then that holy beauty is depicted by Him. For the whole sum of the deeds of mercy immediately brings the soul into communion with the unity of the glory of the Godhead's splendor.
The source of mercy is God and His activity
It starts with the relation of the persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit among themselves. Staniloae (2003) describes this relationship as a "perfect community of supreme persons." Staniloae goes on to explain:
The Persons communicate their nature as an energy. Everything is an energy which is communicated from one person to another. Their love is perfect; they radiate their whole nature from one to the other.
Staniloae goes on to point out that this perfect love is not uniform, but rather unique to whom the Persons are themselves:
The Father loves the Son with an infinite parental sense, comforting Him with the unending sensitivity of a perfect Father, and the Son responds to this parental love with the filial sense of one who feels comforted by a perfect Father . . .the sensitivity of the Father for the Son assumes the hypostatical and comforting image of the Holy Spirit.
The place of the Holy Spirit in this 'community of persons' is best described by Bobrinskoy (1999) as "the place of unity between the Father and the Son." Bobrinskoy instructs us that from all eternity it is the Spirit in whom the Father tells the Son, as Prophet David tells us: "The Lord hath said to me: Thou art my son, this day have I begotten thee." (Ps 2:7).
Vladimir Lossky (1978) tries to make this Divine Mystery of Love as comprehensible to us as is humanly possible given the limitations of our finite reasoning. He uses very concrete imagery to convey an understanding:
. . .all the Divine Names, which communicate to us the life common to the three, come to us from the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. The Father is the source, the Son the manifestation, the Spirit the force which manifests. Thus the Father is the source of love, the Son, love which reveals itself, the Spirit, love realized in us. Or according to the admirable formula of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, the Father is crucifying love, the Son, love crucified, the Spirit, love triumphant. The Divine Names are the flow of the Divine Life whose source is the Father, shown to us by the Son and communicated to us by the Spirit.
The act of creation is an extension of this Divine Love outside of God's essence. Staniloae considers this a desire by God to "extend the gift of His infinite love."
St. Gregory the Theologian's understanding of mankind's application of God's Mercy
St. John of Kronstadt (2003) notes that St. Gregory the Theologian tells us that "no service is as pleasing to God as mercy." This is because mercy is most similar to God Himself who is merciful. Consider how many times in the various services of the Eastern Church the priest exclaims after a prayer: "For Thou art a merciful God and lovest mankind, unto Thee we ascribe glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: now and ever and unto ages of ages."
St. Gregory notes that God as the righteous Giver "showers" His love on all mankind. Consider God's mercy as spiritually perceived by St. Gregory (Daley, B.E. 2006):
This is how they are suffering, and much more miserably than I have said: our brothers and sisters before God (even if you prefer not to think so) who share the same nature with us, who have been put together from the same clay from which we first came, who are strung together with nerves and bones in the same way we are, who have put on flesh and skin like all of us, as holy Job says when reflecting on his sufferings and expressing contempt for our outward form. image of God in the same way you and I have, and perhaps preserve that image better than we, even if their bodies are corrupted; they have put on the same Christ in the inner person, and have been entrusted with the same pledge of the Spirit; they share in the same laws as we do, the same Scriptural teachings, the same covenants and liturgical gatherings, the same sacraments, the same hopes. Christ died for them as he did for us, taking away the sin of the whole world; they are heirs with us of the life to come, even if they have missed out on a great deal of life here on earth; they have been buried together with Christ, and have risen with him; if they suffer with him, it is so they may share in his glory.ii
St. Paul tells the Ephesians: ". . .but God, Who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us." (Eph. 2:4]) Thus, if we are to be Godly and reflect Christ, it behooves us to show love and mercy for all mankind.
St. Gregory of Nyssa's understanding of mercy to be practiced by mankind
St. Gregory sees mercy "as the opposite of cruelty." To practice mercy, individuals must be softened in soul. Psychologists would consider this understanding to be related to empathy. Empathy is the ability to think and feel what the other is thinking and feeling. (Morelli, 2005). It is only when fostering this ability that mankind can apply mercy, that is to say, attempt to heal the ills of others.
Spiritually, mercy is related to compassion. Morelli, 2005 notes: "Compassion is the deep awareness of the suffering of others coupled with the desire to relieve it." He goes on to say: "Compassion is a precursor of love (agape). Love is what we do for the good and welfare of others. How can we love, how can we work for the good and welfare of others, if we are not aware of their suffering nor have a desire to relieve it? We love others only if we can first sense their needs." God's love is called ‘agape.’ The basic understanding of love as agape is that it is an attitude, a heartfelt intention and a set of actions that are aimed at the good and welfare of the other.
The Orthodox Services and God's Mercy
One need go no further than the ordinary prayers, such as Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Liturgy and other services in the Eastern Church, to meet the phrase that God, our God is a God of Mercy. The transliteration of the Greek word for mercy is eleosi. The never-ending cry in the Church and prayerful petition in Greek is Kyrie eleison, rendered in as English Lord have mercy. The importance of this petition cannot be overestimated. A few examples from the Divine Liturgy: At the Prothesis, the great hidden offering of the bread and wine to be confected by the Holy Spirit into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ and be offered to the Father starts with the priest praying "O God, be gracious unto me a sinner, and have mercy on me;" when this same prayer is said right before receiving the Eucharist; when the numerous Ektenias (Litanies) whose petition response is "Lord have mercy” are prayed; when, immediately before the Lord's Prayer, the priest turns toward the assembly and, blessing them with the hand Blessing Cross, says: "And the mercies of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ be with you all." Finally, at the end of the Liturgy when, as the rubrics of the Antiochian Archdiocese state:
The Priest stands on the lowest step of the stairs before the Holy Doors with the hand Cross in his left hand, and gives the people the Antidoron [blessed bread] with his right saying meanwhile:
The blessing of the Lord and His mercy come upon you; always: now and ever unto ages of ages. Amen
The mercy of God is referenced in the beginning and at the end. "Lord have mercy."
The Jesus Prayer
No discussion of God's mercy in terms of Orthodoxy could be had without reference to The Jesus Prayer. It is central to the spirituality of the Eastern Church. It is composed of a single line: "Lord Jesus .Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner," The seed of this prayer is first found in the prayer of the tax collector in Christ's Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Luke's (18:13) “And the tax collector, having stood afar off, was not willing even to lift up his eyes to the heaven, but kept beating upon his breast, saying, ‘God, be gracious to me the sinner.’"
Theologically, this prayer reflects the Orthodox understanding of Christ's redemptive crucifixion that "it is not the anger of God the Father but His love that lies behind the sacrificial death of His Son on the Cross." (Alfeyev, 2002).
Furthermore the prayer is Trinitarian. St. Philotheos of Sinai tells us that "through remembrance of Jesus Christ . .the intellect grows lucid in its radiant contemplation of God and of Divine realities." (Philokalia III). How this takes place is made more explicit by St. Hesychios the Priest:
. . .invoking Jesus Christ . . . .You will then attain a vision of the Holy of Holies and be illumined by Christ with deep mysteries. For in Christ 'the treasures of wisdom and knowledge' are hidden, and in Him 'the fulness of the Godhead dwells bodily' (Col 2: 3,9)” (Philokalia I).
The implicit Trinitarian ethos of the Jesus Prayer can be emphasized by focusing on the word Christ-Messiah, the one sent by the Father as an act of selfless love. As St Paul tells us:
Who, existing in the form of God, deemed it not a prize to be seized to be equal with God; but He emptied Himself and took the form of a slave, and came to be in the likeness of men. And having been found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient even to death—indeed, the death of a cross. Wherefore God also exalted Him exceedingly, and freely gave to Him a name that is above every name, that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth; and every tongue should confess for itself that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:6-11).
The Sonship of Jesus, the Christ, was confirmed by the Holy Spirit at Jesus Baptism, as St. Matthew (3:16,17) records: "And Jesus, having been baptized, went up straightway from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and coming upon Him. And behold, there came to be a voice out of the heavens, saying, “This is My Son, the Beloved, in Whom I am well pleased.” Also not to be lost in St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians is the focus on the name "Jesus" itself. St Cyril of Alexandria's commentary on St. Luke (2: 21b) (Orthodox New Testament, 2004) tells us of the significance of this name: "He received His name, even Jesus, which by interpretation signifies, the Salvation of the people. For so had God the Father willed.”
Christ's Parable on mercy: The Good Samaritan
Most Christians are, I pray, quite familiar with Christ's Parable of the Good Samaritan.ii The important points to be noted are that the man beaten by the robbers was most probably a Jew. The two person's passing by who offered no aid were Jews themselves. One, a priest and another male member of the tribe of Levi, a Levite who would serve as an assistant to the temple priests. Samaritans were considered a mixture of peoples following the Torah, but also following pagan practices. As the writer of the Book of Kings (2Kg 17: 32-37) tells us: "And nevertheless they worshipped the Lord. And they made to themselves, of the lowest of the people, priests of the high places, and they placed them in the temples of the high places. And when they worshipped the Lord, they served also their own gods according to the custom of the nations out of which they were brought to Samaria: Unto this day they followed the old manner: they fear not the Lord, neither do they keep his ceremonies, and judgments, and law, and the commandment, which the Lord commanded the children of Jacob, whom he surnamed Israel."
However, it was the Samaritan not the two Jews, members of God's chosen people, who offered aid, that is to say, showed mercy to the injured traveler. The lesson from this parable is obvious. No one should decline to offer mercy should be mercy be declined to anyone in need. It terms of mercy there should be no ethnic, legal, political, sex-gender or societal boundaries. Mercy is for all and should be by all.
Mercy in action
First let's consider the commentary of St. John Chrysostom on Blessed are the merciful:
Here He seems to me to speak not of those only who show mercy in giving of money, but those likewise who are merciful in their actions. For the way of showing mercy is manifold, and this commandment is broad. What then is the reward thereof? “For they shall obtain mercy.” And it seems indeed to be a sort of equal recompense, but it is a far greater thing than the act of goodness. For whereas they themselves show mercy as men, they obtain mercy from the God of all; and it is not the same thing, man’s mercy, and God’s; but as wide as is the interval between wickedness and goodness, so far is the one of these removed from the other.iii
There is no better place to practice and teach the practice of mercy than to follow the well known listing of corporal and spiritual works of mercy found in Christian traditioniv:
The chief corporal works of mercy:
To feed the hungry
To give drink to the thirsty
To cloth the naked
To ransom captives
To shelter the homeless
To visit the sick
To bury the dead
The chief spiritual works of mercy:
To admonish the sinner
To instruct the ignorant
To counsel the doubtful
To comfort the sorrowful
To suffer wrongs patiently
To forgive injuries
To pray for the living and the dead
An example of a corporal mercy in action program
A good example of a mercy in action program is the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve (FOCUS).v Their expressed vision is to experience and reveal "the Kingdom of God in North America “on earth as in heaven.”" The group sees their mission "as an expression of Christ’s love." Their mission statement is written in the form of the Corporal Works of Mercy: "FOCUS North America serves the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick and imprisoned by providing Food, Occupation, Clothing, Understanding, and Shelter." This ministry is accomplished by social action groups, social welfare agencies, professionals and volunteers dedicated to this service. FOCUS also aids parishes and various Orthodox groups "with the education, resources and training needed to initiate social action ministries in their own communities." I can personally attest to the effectiveness of this program in my hometown San Diego area. Orthodox families, youth groups and entire parishes have volunteered in this diaconia.
Other corporal mercy service ministries are available to individuals, families and parishes as well. Coming to mind are the Orthodox Prison Ministryvi and various parish nursing ministriesvii The Department of Chaplain and Pastoral Counseling of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America functions as an Orthodox psycho-spiritual resource for clergy, laity and professionals in applying the works of mercy.viii
Practicing the Spiritual Works of Mercy
Prayer and spirituality make up the core of the Spiritual Works of Mercy. Both prayer and enlivening the ethos of Christ's spiritual teachings can be practiced as individuals, in families, parishes, geographically local groups of parishes and jurisdictional assemblies. However, there are some examples of Fellowships and Brotherhoods that exist to support these practices as well. The 'St. Philip's Prayer Discipline' initiated in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America "exists to provide a daily balanced rule of prayer for those who wish to deepen their spiritual life and to learn to pray as the faithful have done for generations and generations."ix The straightforward goal of the Prayer Discipline "is to teach us to pray diligently and effectively so as to enhance our spiritual lives and to fortify us, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to persevere unto our life's end." Other specialized groups also sponsor prayer fellowships. In Communion, an organization focusing on peace, and the Orthodox Christian Fellowship (geared to college and university students) are notable examples.x Also, many individual parishes have formed prayer-groups.
It should also be noted that various vocations (and even when looked at as secular professions) are dedicated to comforting, counseling, and educating. Certainly the Holy Priesthood is the ultimate example. However, the various educational, medical and social service occupations can be easily dedicated to this spiritual diaconia.
Principles of applying mercy
"...and for all."
Certain principles should be kept in mind in practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. First is to apply to the giving of mercy, the words of the priest prays during the Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy, that it is to be given: "on the behalf of all and for all." Applying mercy is one area in which there is complete inclusiveness. From no one, saint-sinner; perpetrator-victim; gay-straight; citizen-illegal immigrant; while-black; young-old Orthodox-Non-Orthodox— can mercy be withheld. It is by being merciful to all that we correctly apply the Mind of Christ and His Church, as told to us by St. Paul: "For as many as were baptized into Christ, ye put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:27, 28)
This Orthodox understanding is in sharp contrast to the man-made, Protestant and secular argument applying these words of St. Paul to justify, for example, changing the original text of Sacred Scripture to inclusive language or supporting a feminist agenda such as women's ordination. These words have always been understood by Christ's One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Orthodox Church to be a 'call to sanctity to all mankind."
Mercy starts in the home
Also keep in mind that applying mercy has to start with those most immediately around us. For most this means family, friends, parishioners and members of one's community. It is important to model mercy to those around us. It could mean something as simple as a merciful comment about, and prayer for, any that may be involved in some horrific tragedy that may be in the current news media. (Morelli, 2006). It must be emphasized however, that the genuine needs of all mankind throughout the world must never be left out in our thoughts, prayers and actions. Especially in today's world, mankind is truly a global community.
Real mercy centers on real needs
We must focus on the true and diverse needs of all and be able to prioritize their real needs. Jesus did cure the physical illness of the paralytic, but His concern was for the paralytic's spiritual wellbeing. This can easily be seen in reflecting on Jesus' words after the cure: “Behold, thou hast become well; no longer go on sinning, lest a worse thing should befall thee.” (Jn. 5:14)
Crises, emergencies, needfulness and tragedies do not usually happen on a planned time schedule. Very often they may occur at the most inconvenient of times. Individuals with different personalities have different degrees of adaptability to such unplanned occurrences. To give a personal example, I carefully plan my activities, usually in great detail, and find it hard to deviate from my planned task schedule, etc. However, this may be the cross Christ is asking me and some of us to pick up and bear at this time. The Good Samaritan mentioned above most probably did not expect to come upon someone in crises and would have to adapt his plans to tend to the suffering man, but he did so.
Mercy: out of agape and respect for all, as we are made in God's image
Here resounds the words of St. Paul: "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but I have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And if I dole out all of my goods, and if I deliver up my body that I may be burned, but I have not love, I am being profited nothing." (1Cor. 13:1,3. Implied in St. Paul's understanding of any act that from a worldly perspective would appear 'good' is that if such an act is to rise above worldly 'goodness' to Godliness, it must be motivated by the selfless, kenotic love that is Godly love, or agape. For example, acts of philanthropy and social service and the works of the helping professions, mentioned above, are good, but must be motivated, enlivened by Christly love. As St. Paul told the Romans: ". . .for the love of God hath been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit Who was given to us. For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly."(Rm 5:5,6) Furthermore, we must see that the recipient of any merciful act has dignity as a creature composed of body and soul, made in God's image and called to be like Him, just as we ourselves are. All are worthy of Godly respect, never belittlement or condescension.
ii "And behold, a certain doctor of the law stood up, tempting Him, and saying, “Teacher, by having done what shall I inherit eternal life?” And He said to him, “In the law what hath been written? How readest thou?” And he answered and said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.” And He said to him, “Thou didst answer rightly; be doing this, and thou shalt live.” But he, wishing to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” And taking it up, Jesus said, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, who both stripped him and laid blows upon him, and went away, leaving him, as it happened, half-dead. “Now, by a coincidence, a certain priest was going down on that road. And having seen him, he passed by on the opposite side. “And in like manner also a Levite, having come to be by the place, came and saw him, and passed by on the opposite side. “But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came down to him; and having seen him, he was moved with compassion. “And he drew near and bound up his wounds, pouring over oil and wine; and he put him upon his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. “And on the morrow, after he came forth, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatsoever thou shalt spend besides, on my coming back, I will repay thee.’ “Which then of these three seemeth to thee to have proved to be a neighbor of the one who fell among the robbers?” And he said, “The one who rendered mercy in dealing with him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go on thy way, and be thou doing in like manner.” (Lk. 10:25-37)
iv (From A Pocket Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians (Antiochian Archdiocese, popularly known as "The Little Red Prayerbook")
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Morelli, G. (2005, August 29). Compassion and love. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/compassion-and-love.
Morelli, G. (2006, September 24). Smart Parenting IV: Cuss Control. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting4.php.
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V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.
He is the Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and Religion Coordinator (and Antiochian Archdiocesan Liaison) of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion.
Fr. Morelli is also Assistant Pastor of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California.
Fr. Morelli is the author of: