The Power of Mercy


From Wendy Farley’s The Thirst for God: Contemplating God’s Love with Three Women Mystics [speaking here of the medieval mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg]: “As all good Christians know, sin separates us from God and deserves to be punished. But in Mechthild’s theology, God is like the priest at the beginning of Les Misérables: God surrenders the right to condemn and in this great mercy reconverts the soul back toward its divine origin. Mechthild poeticizes this conversion as God’s delight in surrendering to the mutual love between divinity and the soul. Mechthild sometimes describes this as God’s surrender to her desire to free souls from purgatory. In response to her prayers, God promises to allow her desire for their redemption to win out over strict justice: “yes, when two wrestle with one another, the weaker will go under. I want to be weaker, though I am almighty.” God seems to enjoy being cajoled into using God’s power to free prisoners and absolve sin. In these images of divine surrender, Mechthild acknowledges that there is a kind of power that demands strict justice and leaves the guilty to languish in their prison. Those rulers, judges, and prison guards who have the power to torture or imprison exercise a particularly real and terrifying power on earth. But she withholds this kind of power from God. This is not because God has less power than these wielders of might but because that kind of power is a diseased and distorted power. Out of love, the Father abandons the power to perpetuate suffering because the deeper and more authentic power is what redeems, heals, and restores. Mercy is a different kind of almighty-ness which draws even those brutalized by sin back into loving communion. The kind of power that is revered and feared in human society is a fallen and distorted shadow of divine power. Mechthild uses the poetic image of surrender to make a theological point: divine power allows love to displace might.”



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