We finished the Jules Verne biography on the way home from Maine (now’s not the place for a full review, but basically it was about six hours of an interesting study stretched to twelve by a good deal of repetition, the biographer going off on his own pet theories, and his harping on Verne’s sex life every other paragraph or so). I was very glad to hear that, after all, Verne apparently died reconciled to the Church and received the Last Rites on his deathbed. Like a lot of people, he started out as a wild young radical, but mellowed and become much more conservative with age, and though he was never observant and his life was not edifying (e.g. he seems to have had at least one mistress while he was married), he did lay claim to being a Catholic. He even sought and received an audience with Pope Leo XIII at one point.
Most people today have an idea of Christianity as being a kind of synonym for ‘good person’. So, when someone claims “I am a Christian” he is saying “I am a good person” (in other words, exactly what people mean by, say, tolerant or woke or progressive). It’s kind of the opposite really; a Christian is someone who recognizes that he isn’t a good person and seeks to correct or make amends for the fact. One of my favorite anecdotes about the Medieval world is how the Thieves and Prostitute Guilds in the different cities would show up to Mass every week. Everyone knew what they were, of course. The Thieves would pray to St. Dismas and St. Nicholas for a windfall or a successful score that would allow them to give up their thieving ways, and the Prostitutes would pray to St. Mary Magdalen for a husband or a gift from a wealthy customer, and both would pray that they would not die without the chance to do penance for their sinful lives.
And it is a mark of the Saints that they are keenly aware of their own sinfulness, even when they seem, to us, to lead singularly blameless lives. The closer we come to God, the more we see how unlike Him we are. Fortunately, we also stop looking at ourselves so much to focus on Him, and the keener our perception of our sins, the keener the sense of His mercy in wiping them away.
It is another example of the ‘both-and’ touching two seemingly incompatible extremes that is one of the hallmarks of the Faith: we cannot abhor sin enough, nor do too much to avoid or amend it, but we also cannot trust too much in His mercy and we should only expect to find all kinds of ugly and gross sin in both ourselves and others. The greatest Saint may bewail his sins and cry aloud of the mercy of God: the most debased sinner can hope for salvation on his deathbed. Both stem from the same fact, which is the inexpressible goodness of God.
One thought on “Sunday Thoughts: On Mercy”
“Well, if you believe Catholicism to be the only true Christianity, how can you say that non-Catholics can be true Christians?”
“Simple. Christianity is the Gospel and teaching of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, in which no shadow of fault or error is admissible. Christians are sinners saved by grace.”