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Feb 22

Mercy in Stories

Professor Schmalz and the book cover.

Professor Schmalz and the book cover.

A few months ago I received a free book on mercy from an associate professor of religious studies at a Catholic university. I was expecting a very technical explanation of what mercy was – a theological treatise. Instead,  it was a collection of personal stories.

Even though the year of mercy that inspired such a book is over, Mercy Matters: Opening Yourself to the Life-Changing Gift by Mathew N. Schmalz remains a worthwhile read. Setting up as a series of stories makes it much easier for us to apply it to our everyday life.

Schmalz’s stories come from everyday American life, from his experience as a missionary, and from discussing exceptional events like the Boston Marathon bombing with others. They hold a personal touch because they are all experiences within his own life and not just abstract examples.

He brings out certain moral and religious values from the stories. However, starting with the stories, some of which show him receiving mercy or imperfectly practicing it, allows him to avoid a huge pitfall of books on moral issues: his voice comes across offering hope to the reader and not as insisting on perfection from the reader. Even the few times the story shows him properly practicing mercy, his reflection is about all those factors which helped him do so not about how great he was.

Now, a few specific points about what mercy is that he presents.

He points out, “Compassion is co-suffering – recognizing and experiencing the interconnectedness of love and longing, anger and disappointment. Mercy comes in when you accept the whole thing – and the whole person.” Thus, mercy comes from a place of sharing the other’s burdens.

He shares a long story about having to kick a man out of a drug recovery program and send him to a homeless shelter because drugs were found in his system in a urine test. He struggles with how this could possibly be merciful. In the end, he realizes sometimes loving another means trying to show them who they are when they can’t face it themselves, and certain forms of love can only be given to someone who has a certain degree of self-awareness.

This story shows the need to give mercy to all, both perpetrator and victim. This comes out in his discussion of the Boston Marathon bombing. “Mercy to the killers [the Tsarnaev brothers] might be a way of responding to violence by breaking the cycle of recrimination and revenge. But that very same mercy also ran the risk of another kind of violence by insulting the many victims in the memory of those were killed.”

Near the end he gives an important point about the value of forgiving: “Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness but a strength; forgiveness is not resignation, it is hope.”

So, if you struggle with practicing mercy, I would highly recommend this book as a way to learn about this wonderful virtue.

Disclaimer: Mathew sent me this book for free as a gift in appreciation for my presence on Twitter – it was free but not a review copy.