The weights of vengeance and mercy

Vengeance dominates the tide of social media these days. Sometimes it comes in the form of mob justice descending upon the perpetrator of a crime inadequately punished, other times as smaller and subtler smears against those who have wronged us.

But perhaps we could spend some time pondering on the perennial tug-of-war between two opposing forces: Vengeance and Mercy.

The desire for revenge is rooted deep in us. We want those who hurt us to hurt, those who shamed us to be shamed. Whether we inflict the retaliatory attacks ourselves or by inciting others, the root of that thirst is one and the same. Sometimes we confuse the desire for revenge with the desire for justice, and certainly there seems to be an overlap. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that at some point the streams diverge. Justice ends (ideally) in some kind of restoration, whereas unabated revenge ends in destruction.

Vengeance seeks to destroy the other party. Often we don’t realise that in the process it destroys a part of us as well. What feels like ointment on the surface, could it not in fact be poison that seeps into our hearts?

On the other hand you have Mercy. Where vengeance seeks to destroy, mercy seeks to redeem. There’s no doubt that mercy presents itself as a heavy demand on the one who has been wronged. Anyone who claims it is easy does not know what they are talking about. Mercy is epitomised by a Man of Sorrows who, while nailed to the cross prays for those jeering at Him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Perhaps such radical mercy is a weight none of us can bear. But when we truly contemplate the effects of such a mercy, perhaps we would at least desire the capacity for it.

The only known photo of Maria Goretti.

No story of radical mercy has captivated me as much as that of Maria Goretti, an 11-year-old girl from a small town in Italy who died a most tragic death in 1902. Maria’s neighbour, 20-year-old Alessandro Serenelli, had developed some kind of a sick and vile desire for the girl. When Alessandro attempted to rape Maria, her resistance and insistence that she would rather die than yield to him propelled him into an unfathomable rage, which ended in him stabbing her no less than 14 times.

As she lay dying on the hospital bed, Maria’s last words were: “I forgive Alessandro…and I want him with me in heaven forever.” Those words make me tremble; it’s as if Jesus Himself had whispered those words into her ears.

Meanwhile, Alessandro was not immediately contrite. He was even reported to have said in court that Maria would not have died had she just given in to him. However, a few years into his prison sentence, Alessandro recounted a dream to the visiting Bishop in which Maria appeared to him and handed him 14 lilies, as if a symbolic reminder of her forgiveness for each stab wound inflicted. Profoundly moved, he began living a converted life.

Alessandro was released from prison in 1929, after serving 27 out of 30 years. After being rejected by several communities, he found lodging at a Capuchin Franciscan monastery, where he began living a quiet life working in their garden as a lay brother. Said Alessandro, “Maria’s forgiveness saved me.

On Christmas of 1934, he sought his victim’s mother, Assunta Goretti, and got on his knees to beg for her forgiveness. And imagine this: that night they attended Christmas vigil Mass together at their parish, and received Holy Communion side by side. Before the stunned congregation, Alessandro asked for God’s forgiveness and for the pardon of the community. Assunta later even adopted him as her own son. She said, “Maria has forgiven you, and surely God has forgiven you. Who am I to withhold my forgiveness?

Assunta Goretti with Alessandro Serenelli, the man who murdered her daughter.

If Maria’s mercifulness wasn’t miracle enough, the chain of events it precipitated surely were.

An excerpt from a public letter written by Alessandro Serenelli, dated 5 May 1961:

Alessandro Serenelli before an image of Maria Goretti.

At the age of 20, I committed a crime of passion, the memory of which still horrifies me today. Maria Goretti, now a saint, was my good angel whom God placed in my path to save me. Her words both of rebuke and forgiveness are still imprinted in my heart. She prayed for me, interceding for her killer. Thirty years in prison followed. If I had not been a minor in Italian law I would have been sentenced to life in prison. Nevertheless, I accepted the sentence I received as something I deserved. Resigned, I atoned for my sin.

Little Maria was truly my light, my protectress. With her help, I served those 27 years in prison well. When society accepted me back among its members, I tried to live honestly. With angelic charity, the sons of St. Francis, the minor Capuchins of the Marches, welcomed me among them not as a servant, but as a brother. I have lived with them for 24 years. Now I look serenely to the time in which I will be admitted to the vision of God, to embrace my dear ones once again, and to be close to my guardian angel, Maria Goretti, and her dear mother, Assunta.

May all who read this letter of mine desire to follow the blessed teaching of avoiding evil and following the good. May all believe with the faith of little children that religion with its precepts is not something one can do without. Rather, it is true comfort, and the only sure way in all of life’s circumstances—even in the most painful.

St. Maria Goretti, one of the Church’s youngest canonised saints, did not live to see the fruits of her mercy, and there’s no guarantee that we would see the fruits of ours in this lifetime either. But nonetheless, may the life of St. Maria Goretti, brief yet so intimately configured to the Divine Mercy of Jesus, sprout lasting fruits of mercy in our own hearts.

Judas Iscariot and the Year of Mercy

I can’t help but be filled with compassion for Judas Iscariot in his moment of despair. After betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, he attempted to return the blood money in exchange for his Master, but the chief priests and elders were unmoved. Scripture tells us that Judas then flung the money into the temple, departed, and went off to hang himself (Matthew 27:5). I don’t mean to excuse his actions, but my heart breaks as I imagine that kind of poisonous despair which has one convinced that all is lost.

It brings to mind a time when, unable to bear the weight of despair in my soul, I ran out of church in the middle of Mass. It seems absurdly dramatic now, but I remember with excruciating detail that overwhelming sense of hopelessness. 

The celebration of the Mass felt like a wedding to which I was not invited. Surrounded by devoted worshippers and the splendorous grandeur of St Mary of Perpetual Help, I felt unwelcome in my metaphorical tattered garments. I was convinced that I was unloved by God, and I fled from His presence.

Listening to today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 26:14-25), I contemplated the foolishness of Judas in accepting thirty pieces of silver in exchange for Jesus, who chose him to His disciple, to hear the mysteries of God explained, to participate in His ministry, and to witness many miracles. 

If we’re honest with ourselves, we, too, have traded true goodness for cheap, trifling goods. N.T. Wright correctly observes: “Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we settle for vengeance. Made for relationship, we insist on our own way.” But the worst possible trade that we who know Christ can make, is to trade His mercy for despair.

Remorse, anguish, and despair are so very bitter. But how sweet the taste of mercy! Judas wasn’t alone in betraying Jesus. Peter, after pledging his allegiance to his beloved master, denied Him three times. He then wept bitterly, but he never caved to despair. While Judas ended up taking his own life, Peter became a saint. I believe it’s because Peter never lost sight of who Jesus was: Love and Mercy. Sure enough, when the resurrected Jesus asks Peter if he loved Him, three times he boldly responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” imperfect as his love might be at the time. Not once does Jesus say anything along the lines of, “How dare you say you love me when you denied me three times!” Far from it — Jesus entrusted him with the task of feeding and tending His sheep (John 21:15-17).

How could we not know that Jesus is full of mercy? Pope Francis reminds us in his recent Palm Sunday homily:

Jesus, however, even here at the height of His annihilation, reveals the true face of God, which is mercy. He forgives those who are crucifying Him, He opens the gates of paradise to the repentant thief and He touches the heart of the centurion. If the mystery of evil is unfathomable, then the reality of Love poured out through Him is infinite, reaching even to the tomb and to hell. He takes upon Himself all our pain that He may redeem it, bringing light to darkness, life to death, love to hatred.

Pope Francis has declared 2016 to be the Jubilee Year of Mercy — we are invited to return to and rediscover the mercy of God. It is a mercy that accepts, heals, and transforms. It awakens true hope and true joy.

There was no way Judas could undo his betrayal of Christ (he could not even return the bounty!), but Jesus humbly accepted that betrayal and His resulting death on a cross, and would have forgiven and redeemed him if he’d asked. I don’t know where Judas is, and the Church has been silent on this matter. We don’t know if perhaps he might have repented and accepted Christ’s mercy in his last moments. I really hope he did.

But I know I never again need to flee from the presence of God. Today at Mass I wept as I gazed up at the Crucifix. I looked upon the face of Jesus, and I saw Love and Mercy.

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Watercolor; Quote by St. Faustina Kowalska

“Begin again with joy”

A huge part of growing up is accepting that things won’t always go your way. An obvious statement, perhaps. It’s easy to realize, but difficult to accept.

I have made many mistakes in my life, but there always seemed to be something I could do to avoid, or at least mitigate, the damage. Rationalize it. Tell a white lie. Tell a half-truth. Apologize profusely. Make amends. There’s always…something. Likewise with things that are beyond my control — there have been times when I’d seen trouble brewing and threatening to spill out of the cauldron — deep in my subconscious I always believed I could hatch a strategy to prevent the seemingly inevitable outcome. I don’t always succeed, but I guess I had a good enough track record to fuel such delusion.

But at some point, I had to learn that I’m not the playwright, and that I’m not God. My will cannot and will not always prevail. I have the freedom to do what I choose, but I can’t expect freedom from the consequences of my actions.

Somewhere along the way, I’d somehow come to believe that all damage can be repaired. Love, compassion, grace, mercy — those are all good things — so they must always prevail, right? They must be able to erase any wrongdoing, right? I don’t mean to say I have lost faith in those things; I still believe with every fibre of my being that they are the most powerful forces of healing. But I did learn that you cannot feel entitled to those things.

Say you hurt someone you love. You can ask for forgiveness, but you cannot demand it. You can extend a hand of reconciliation, but you cannot force it on them. Say you lose the esteem and respect of some people. You cannot argue your way back into their good books. To attempt to do these things only shows how out of touch you are with human nature. And it shows a lack respect for others’ free will.

What you can do is humbly acknowledge that you did wrong, apologize, and ask for forgiveness. And after all is said and done, accept the outcome. Whether or not it’s what you’d hoped.

And then? Move forward. Begin again. (Kicking and screaming is not recommended — it only makes things worse.)

These words by Pope Benedict XVI have taught me much:

Holiness does not consist in not making mistakes and never sinning. Holiness grows with capacity for conversion, repentance, willingness to begin again, and above all with the capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness.

Conversion, repentance, and willingness to begin again. I never had too much difficulty with the first two — but beginning again? That one’s proved to be the hardest part.

We don’t like having to start over. We prefer to pick up where we left off. It’s a lot less painful, it requires less work, it’s far more convenient. We stubbornly insist on fixing the old so as to avoid having to build something new from scratch.

But the greatest hindrance to beginning again, I’ve found, is the inability to forgive oneself. When we don’t get our desired resolution, we twist that into the belief that we are irredeemable. But the truth is that even if the situation was irredeemable, we are not irredeemable. Nobody is condemning us — nobody but ourselves.

Following a series of painful events, I sank into deep depression and got myself stuck. I buried myself under the rubble of my mistakes and failings, I wrapped myself in a cocoon of guilt and shame. I didn’t believe I had any right to be free, not unless I obtained the idealistic outcome my heart so deeply desired. So I just waited, and waited, and waited, and put my life on hold. I believed that my mistakes had permanently disqualified me from doing anything good. I understood that God had forgiven me, and that I had been washed clean by His blood and mercy, and yet I chose to base my worth on the (real or imagined) opinions of others.

The beautiful part is that when you fail to recognize the power of God’s mercy, when you fail to hear His invitation to enter into His joy, He sometimes sends people to help you. These are the people in your life who see more than your failings and mistakes. They see your potential for growth and support you as you strive towards holiness.

These are the people who will help you dig your way out of that miry grave of guilt and self-condemnation you have heaped upon yourself, and who will remind you that there is no need for that.

No, it doesn’t mean they will blindly and indiscriminately defend you. They are not there to imbue you with a false sense of self-righteousness. But they will affirm your capacity for growth; they will affirm the truth that your mistakes do not invalidate your dignity.

I’m learning that you cannot hold your breath waiting to win back everybody’s approval. It’s not fair to the people who love you and need you. And you shouldn’t deprive the world of your gifts on account of those who do not see them. But most of all, you should not deny and cheapen God’s love for you.

Beginning again is scary. But it’s the only way to experience God’s healing mercy. As the wise Blessed Mother Teresa said, “Do not let the past disturb you — just leave everything in the Sacred Heart, and begin again with joy.”

Begin again with joy. It can seem like an impossible exhortation at times. How do we muster up that joy while plagued with guilt, fear, and uncertainty? Or when you feel like such a horrible person that you’re better off dead? It can be hard to feel joyful about having to begin again, but do it anyway. The joy will come later. It will come when God shows you that you were right to place your trust in Him while your heart was screaming THERE IS NO HOPE, when He shows you that you were right to step out into the deep while your mind screamed THERE IS NO JESUS TO CATCH YOU.

The joy will come when you learn that yes, in Jesus’ hands we are never damaged beyond repair. That we can toss our ugliest mistakes into that blazing furnace of His Sacred Heart, to be purified and transformed for the good of our souls.

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This was inspired by the words of Blessed Mother Teresa: “Do not let the past disturb you — just leave everything in the Sacred Heart and begin again with joy.”