Glory to God for All Things

The Sacrament of Mercy

There are many things that Christians think about that have been spiritualized out of existence. Our secular culture tends to grant two kinds of realities: the first is the reality of solid objects – or things we treat as solid objects. The second is the reality of thought and imagination. Of course, we do not really think that thought and imagination have any reality. This is one of the great weaknesses of modern secular culture. The imaginary world (which I have described as the “Second-Storey“) sometimes includes God Himself.

The imaginary world certainly includes God’s “thoughts.” Abstractions such as God’s justice, His goodness, His mercy, His kindness, are treated as attitudes – God’s feelings, if you will. In such a theological world, what matters are those things we do to adjust God’s feelings and attitudes. It is the ultimate form of co-dependency.

The world-view of classical Christianity (of which Orthodoxy is the primary expression in the modern world) sees the world in a One-Storey form. The world is better understood as sacrament or icon. We do not live in a dual existence – torn between thought and matter. The God Whom we know became flesh and dwelt among us – and we would not know Him had He not done so.

This God Who makes Himself known, is the God Who gives Himself to us in the sacraments. Those events in the life of the Church, such as the Holy Eucharist, Ordination, Holy Unction, Marriage, etc., are moments in which we receive the very life of God, united to us making possible the life of grace. The so-called “seven” sacraments are really not an exhaustive list (by Orthodox understanding). For those with the eyes to see, the whole world is a sacrament – all things are properly a means of receiving the grace of God. The One-Storey universe is the arena in which we encounter and know God – everywhere and at all times. In such a world, the character of the Christian life is measured in how we ourselves accept the reality of God which is given to us at all times and everywhere. We do not and cannot change God’s thoughts or feelings (what do we mean by such language?). We have God made known to us in Christ, “the same yesterday, today and forever.” It is His love and His mercy that we find at every moment and every place. It abides (“His mercy endures forever”).

The goodness of God (and of His creation) surrounds us at all times. Even within the situations where we encounter pain and difficulty – those situations we would label “evil,” are never devoid of goodness (though sometimes obscured). The spiritual life can be understood as a journey towards the goodness of God.

Good and evil are not static terms (though we speak of them that way). Good and evil within creation are dynamic. All of creation is in motion – nothing is at rest. We were created good – directed towards God who alone is good within Himself. Our purpose, meaning, even existence itself is found in our end – Christ God. He is our good. The good we know in this life is our movement towards Him.

By the same token, evil is a movement away from our good, away from Christ. It is the rejection of our proper end and a substitution of a false end. Thus such movement has no meaning that is true, no purpose that is correct, no existence that is real.

In such a world, our actions become deeply important. At any moment we can change direction – turning towards God and away from that which is not God. This is the heart of repentance.

This is the sacrament of mercy – the sacrament of goodness itself. Those actions that are merciful and kind are more than attitudes and thoughts – they are united with the very life of God and fulfill our lives and the universe in which we live. Our culture is psychologized in the extreme, too often divorced from action and effort, mired in abstraction. The good God acts on our behalf – He became flesh and dwelt among us and continues to give Himself, His own life. We are not invited into God’s attitudes – we are invited into His love.

Accepting life in a One-Storey universe is difficult. The habit of our culture runs counter to such an understanding. But we would do well to see just how concrete is the mercy of God, how solid His love. We would do well to see how concrete should be our own mercy and kindness. Taste and see that the Lord is good.

A note for readers: I will be on retreat until February 18 and unable to manage or respond to comments. Keep the peace with one another.

5 Responses to “The Sacrament of Mercy”

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  1. Philip Jude says:

    Very fine essay, Father.

  2. Lewis says:

    Thank you for your many blessings, Father Stephen, which you have imparted faithfully in this blog. I pray that in your retreat, God will not spare His love, mercy and kindness for you.

  3. Darlene says:

    I have questions, but they can wait. Instead I will read over your essay and ponder what you have said. Often, meditating on what one has read leads to clarity.

    Meditate on Christ and all that He has done, Father. May the retreat go well for you in every way possible.

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