Revisiting Foundations & Fundamentals: The Mercy

Recently a friend sent me this quote from Julian of Norwich, and it inspired the reflection below: “First, there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God.”

In the last posting we revisited the Foundations & Fundamentals postings of last year as once more we reflected on the Absolute Mystery of God. In this posting we will do some more revisiting of the Foundations & Fundamentals as we reflect on what I called in the previous posting as “The Mercy.” You may be wondering at the unusual wording—why don’t I just say, “The Mercy of God”? There are a number of reasons and these may become apparent as we proceed.

In the last posting I reflected on the Names of God in light of the utter and transcendent Absolute Mystery that God is. To recap: for Pseudo-Dionysius the Reality of God is wrapped in total incomprehensibility, but because God does not, as it were,” stay “ “within Godness” but engages in Self-communication both in so-called inspired scriptures and in a pouring out of this reality which we call “creation,” everything then in this reality somehow conveys God’s Self-communication; and so we can have and do have all these Names for God, and indeed we have all these “words” of God. Thus, from a blade of grass to the person of Jesus Christ(according to Christian tradition) we learn “who” God is. ALL the Names are of course truly inadequate, more or less, to comprehend the Absolute Reality of God, but they do carry a real and true knowledge of God. (To diverge: Eastern Orthodox theology carries this distinction of the essence and the energies of God. We can never ever know the essence of God, but we have real contact with God through the energies of God, which are not just some “effect” of God but also truly God. This distinction is problematical in that it seems to divide God into 2 parts, but Eastern theologians insist that is not the case and in any way the notion is interesting and useful in some ways.)

Now to turn to our Islamic/Sufi friends—they have the most profound theology and a whole spirituality of the Names of God. The Names are innumerable but there are 99 special Names of God. It is a kind of pyramid of higher and lower levels, and the Names toward the top of this scheme are “the All-Merciful” and “the All-Compassionate”—“ar Rahim, ar Rahman.” From Annemarie Schimmel, a great scholar of Islamic mysticism: “The fact that God has been described in the Koran as possessing the most beautiful names forms the basis for a whole theology of the divine names…–though the mystics knew that these names were not proper names applicable to God, but derivative. The usual collection of these names of glorification comprises 99 names. The Greatest Name is hidden,….”

I won’t go into the very subtle distinction between these two Names: the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate. We went into that in the first posting on this subject. Let us concentrate on the Name, the All-Merciful. What’s important here is that this “mercy” is not seen as some separate thing/activity apart from God. No, it is more like the very “fabric” of God as it were. It is the Presence in another mode. Nor is this “mercy” a matter of emotive intentionality or a matter of “feelings.” But of course human language of longing, of desire, of kindness, etc. can all be used in reference to God—as in fact the Sufis are very good at this.

The essence of this Name, “the All-Merciful,” pertains to the very Reality of God in all its manifestations, absolutely all! Thus for the Sufi, for the mystic who has the eyes to see it, this Mercy is present in all things and all events and all persons. Thus we can name God everywhere and at all times. Our very being is a manifestation of the Name of God as Mercy. Now this is understandably very difficult to grasp in a lot of situations. Let me refer to and paraphrase a Sufi teaching: There is a veil that covers the reality of God in all the bad, negative things of our reality. It is one thing to see God when we lift this veil; it is quite another thing to see God in this veil. Now this is not to make light of or negate the reality of all the bad things in life. All our anguish, all our mistakes and failings, all our cries, all our struggles, all our pains, all our illnesses, all our frustrations and desperations, etc. are very real, but as we “awaken” to the Reality of God we will see it present in all this, even this—and God’s Name there is Mercy. Can you believe it? Perhaps Jesus on the Cross is the ultimate image of that.

Now let us switch back to the Christian tradition. When we see Jesus, we see this Name, “God, the All-Merciful,” personified; we see the human reality manifesting the Divine Reality, we see what this Mercy is like in human terms. At this point let us turn to the Christian East and the Jesus Prayer. The full prayer runs like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” It is used by those in the Hesychast tradition as a gateway to the deepest realms of contemplative prayer. But there are various levels of this prayer and various realizations of its meaning. It starts out as a kind of “asking,” “pleading” for this “stuff” called “mercy.” It’s as if you were standing in front of Jesus. So there is this image of God in Jesus, then you, and then this “stuff” or “activity” called “mercy”—same thing happens with that other Christian word “grace.” This of course is a crude picture. The Hesychast masters all insist that you must drop all images, all attempts in visualizing, all pictures in the mind, but enter into this Prayer in a kind of “silence of the mind.” Because first the Prayer will unfold the Presence as Mercy in every fiber of your being, in every moment, in every situation—to borrow from and paraphrase Abhishiktananda, “Maybe there is only the Mercy!” But then the Prayer will take you beyond all Names, even Mercy, into the very Absolute Mystery of God where our own relationship to God is concealed. And the journey is forever.

In conclusion, let me go back to our Sufi friends. A saying from Bayezid Bistami: “God spoke: ‘Everybody wants something from Me. Only Bayezid wants Me Myself.’” Bullseye! Indeed! If we seek “mercy” as some gift from God, that is one level of realization, but when we seek only God, then we have God’s Mercy everywhere and at all times. If we seek only God, what is it that we lack?

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