At the beginning of this year, the sisters heard a portion of Pope Francis’ letter regarding the Holy Year of Mercy, which reminded all Christians that “God forgives all and God forgives always. Let us never tire of asking forgiveness.”
What might mercy look like to Benedictines? One way to explore a response is to study the uses of misericordia (literally, having a heart for compassion) in the Rule of Benedict [RB]. In his long list of “instruments of good works” in RB 4, Benedict concludes with the words, “And finally never lose hope in God’s mercy” (4.74), which is related to a similar teaching in RB 7.46 on the fifth step of humility: “And again, Confess to the Lord, for [the Lord] is good, whose mercy is forever,” a quotation from Psalms 106:1 and 118:1. In both psalms, hesed (Hebrew for mercy or loving kindness) is a form of love, and is often translated into English as love. Thus, it is God alone, who is always merciful and invites us to participate in that mercy by relying on that mercy and believing in its Source.
There are practical implications of mercy for the monastic, namely, “Whoever needs less [of goods] should thank God and not be saddened, but whoever needs more should be humbled on account of his/her weakness, not be exalted on account of the mercy shown” (RB 34.3-4). Next, mercy shown toward the elderly and the young is especially enjoined in RB 37.1: “Although human nature itself is inclined to mercy toward the old and young, the authority of the rule should also provide for them.” Then mercy is embodied in the guest who is welcomed with care: “After the washing [of the guest’s feet], they [the superior and community] will recite this verse: God, we have received your mercy in the midst of your temple (Psalms 48:10)” (RB 53.14). Love becomes real in the exchange of welcoming gestures for every guest, who is as Christ coming to the monastery.
Moreover, the leader of the monastery has special directives to honor about mercy in RB 64.9-10: “[The superior] ought therefore to be learned in the divine law, so that s/he has a treasury of knowledge from which s/he can bring out what is new and what is old (Matthew 13:52). S/he must be chaste, temperate and merciful. S/he should always let mercy be raised up over judgment (James 2:13), so that s/he too may win mercy.” Benedict urges the superior to be so familiar with the Old and New Testaments, that s/he can apply them to situations that arise, but always with mercy. Thus in the whole of the rule, any expression of mercy toward others is a participation in the very mercy of God.
How shall we show mercy? Jesus, in speaking to his disciples, taught them that the criterion for the final judgment will be the deeds of mercy done for those most in need of them, which have come down to us as the corporal works of mercy: giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, care for the sick and visiting the imprisoned (Matthew 25:35-36).
Benedict reiterates a few of these merciful acts in RB 4: “relieve the lot of the poor” (v. 14), “clothe the naked” (v. 15), and “visit the sick” (v. 16), and adds “bury the dead” (v. 17). In addition, Benedict also lists what has come down in Christian tradition as the spiritual works of mercy, which can be seen in the parallels between the traditional list and those in RB, as follows: Counsel the doubtful — “Go help the troubled” (RB 4.18); Instruct the ignorant — “In teaching the [superior] should…use argument, appeal, reproof (2 Tim 4:2; RB 2.23)”; Comfort the sorrowful — “Console the sorrowing” (RB 4.19); Forgive injuries — “[Pray:] Forgive us as we forgive (Mt 6:12; RB 13.13)”; Bear wrongs patiently — “Do not injure but bear injuries patiently (RB 4.30)”; Pray for the living and the dead — “Devote yourself frequently to prayer (RB 4.56).” Thus Benedict’s rule provides both corporal and spiritual works of mercy as the means to express God’s mercy toward those most in need of hesed.
How might you manifest God’s mercy?