Sometimes you come across an idea that is so transformative that it feels as if it changes your whole life. Mercy was one of those for me. It started when I read an article on the Home Forum page of the Monitor called “History in the hands of mercy.” It told the story of three generations of merciful acts that seemed to ripple out in response to each other.
The first one occurred when the writer’s father was in World War I and had the opportunity to kill a young German soldier, and decided not to. Then, during World War II, that same father was sitting on a white bench in his front yard in Wales, and a German fighter plane appeared over a hill and began strafing the nearby hillside. As the plane flew right at him, the father and the pilot were close enough to make eye contact, and suddenly, for no apparent reason, the pilot turned the plane and soared off.
Then, years later, the writer was in his office in Canada, and a man came to ask for his professional help. The writer was able to help this man, who had been the chief engineer during World War II designing the type of German fighter aircraft that had flown so close past the father years earlier.
The writer saw this encounter as evidence of mercy rippling through the decades – of the premise that every merciful act sets up a response of lovingkindness that endlessly goes on blessing and blessing in widening circles, actually transforming human history.
That view of mercy made a huge impression on me. Suddenly I was faced with the possibility that even the tiniest act of mercy on my part, or even the smallest charitable thought I entertained, could have worldwide impact and could help leaven the whole of human history with waves of compassion and brotherly love. And accordingly, it seemed less difficult to make the choice to be merciful if mercy could have such a large effect.
I also began to wonder if there was a level of mercy so pure and spiritual that it could not be taken advantage of or be used as a doormat, because it affects thought in such a way that it not only draws forth more mercy, but it also rules out the possibility of an offender or an offense. The beauty of this kind of mercy would be that it blesses both the forgiver and the forgiven.
I conjectured that this must have been the mercy that Christ Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). It must have been the level of thought that the Master experienced when he was on the cross and could say about those who crucified him, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
But I yearned to experience this kind of mercy firsthand, to find out what it takes to forgive in such a way that the slate is wiped clean for everyone involved. It didn’t take long before an opportunity arose. My daughter became pregnant out of wedlock. She made a courageous decision to keep and raise the baby, but was trying to figure out whether she should marry the father of the child. This would seem like a good idea, but for a number of reasons, the couple did not look to have long-term compatibility. It was tempting for me to point out to my daughter why I felt this way in order to help her avoid a marriage that might compound the difficulties of this situation. But I was also praying deeply to feel God’s mercy and to know that there would be compassion and care for us all.
One day, as I was praying, a new definition of mercy came to thought: “Mercy is having all the evidence to condemn someone to being a mortal, and choosing instead to see them spiritually, as God sees them.” Now that’s mercy, I thought to myself – when you have a pile of human reasons and proof of others’ character flaws, and instead choose to ask God for the divine evidence of their spiritual nature. So I asked God to show me how He saw all involved – my daughter, this dear young man and his family, the baby, and me. And I was overwhelmed by the qualities of God that I saw in each one of us – the attentiveness of the baby’s father during the delivery and after the baby was born, the two grandmothers tenderly giving the baby his first bath, my daughter trusting that somehow she would find work and be able provide for this child. And now it felt clear to me that honoring the good, bearing witness only to the spiritual nature of each one, could bring about the right answer to the questions of how to go forward.
Without my intervening, my daughter and the baby’s father came to the conclusion through peaceful discussions that they were not a good fit for a marriage. And while I could fill a book with all of the mercy that has swept down the 14 years since my grandson’s birth, suffice it to say that both families are still on good terms, and still gratefully holding up their delight in this precious child and cherishing the good in one another.
And these days, well, I keep learning about mercy. I learn from Mary Baker Eddy’s words,
I have made it a goal to do at least one merciful thing a day – to make the choice right when I have all the evidence to condemn someone to mortality, to see instead the spirituality that God is showing me about the individual, including myself. And when mercy goes to the level of divine witnessing, it never fails to bless universally.