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Mercy As A Guide To Metaphysics

From an interview with Father Thomas Esposito, a Cistercian priest-monk who was ordained in 2011:

MD: Is there something you did not fully appreciate about Catholicism until you became a priest?

FT: Honestly, I would say that I did not fully appreciate the need for compassion and forgiveness until I began to hear confessions and offer spiritual direction. These encounters make me realize that we never know what battles a person may be fighting – with God, with themselves, with temptations or addictions – and for that very reason, lay Catholics and priests alike should always be merciful to everyone they meet, especially the people they think they know best.

Boy, is that true. Just the other day I found out that someone I know who was on top of the world when we were kids actually had had a very difficult childhood. I guess we really can’t learn the “judge not” lesson often enough. This, from The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, dates to the early 1990s, when my sister began her teaching career:

On a visit home from Washington, I helped Ruthie grade papers at her kitchen table one night. These kids in her class missed easy questions. I asked my sister what was wrong with them.

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with them,” she said. “See this worksheet? This little boy’s mother dropped him off one Christmas Eve on his grandmother’s doorstep, and disappeared. Pick out a bad worksheet, and I can tell you something terrible going on in that kid’s life. You can’t believe what kids these days have to go through. For a lot of them, it’s a victory just to show up in the morning.”

On the other hand, Ruthie was not shy about showing her acute displeasure over the decision Julie and I made to homeschool our kids — this, not even when I told her in great detail about all the massive struggles we had had with our Asperger’s son, and how he had burned out in conventional schooling. She wouldn’t hear us. She was so ideologically devoted to public schooling, and so uncomprehending about autism, that she would not take seriously the things we told her about our son’s suffering, and our struggles to find a way to educate him. As far as she was concerned, there was nothing wrong with him that better discipline and public schooling couldn’t fix.

I say that not to tear her down, but to illustrate that even the best and most compassionate among us, as she certainly was, have our blind spots. I know I do; it is a constant struggle to see more clearly. This is human nature. The only way to escape it is through a lifetime of constant repentance, and even then we can only achieve this kind of compassion imperfectly.

The difficult thing is when to know what compassion requires of us in a given situation. True love is to will what is best for the beloved. But neither we nor our beloveds have perfect and unfailing cognition of what is best for us. There are times when the most loving and compassionate thing someone can say to us is, “Stop it. You’re hurting yourself and others.” Or: “I’m not going to enable this behavior.” It is neither compassionate nor merciful to allow someone to persist in living a destructive lie. But they may not be ready to hear the truth.

Or, for that matter, it could be you who is deceived. Some moral situations are black-and-white, but the older I get, the more I realize that there’s more gray than I could see before — and even when situations remain black-and-white, there can be a misleading fog of gray preventing everyone from seeing truth.

A Catholic priest friend of mine once said something to me a lot like what Fr. Esposito told the reporter — and he added that he was startled to learn how much sexual abuse people were dealing with, and how much pornography addiction was part of men’s lives. Reading Fr. Esposito’s comment made me think of all the things I’ve brought to my confessors over the years. There are things you tell your confessor that you don’t tell another soul on earth — and for all I know, I am the biggest sinner in town, despite the outward appearance of a calm, orderly life. Or, to put it another way, a prostitute who works the docks may be closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than I am, because the all-knowing, all-merciful God sees her as she really is, and may know that she is a lot less culpable for her great sin than I am for my comparatively minor sin.

In truth, there are no minor sins. A few years ago, Father Neuhaus wrote a masterful essay about Good Friday, sin, and guilt. In it, he quotes St. Paul’s reference to himself as the “chief of sinners” — a confession every Orthodox Christian makes in the Sunday liturgy before receiving communion. Isn’t that self-dramatic? After all, says Father Neuhaus, it’s not like we are concentration camp guards or drug dealers or anything. But no, he goes on, that will not do:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Yes, we were there when we crucified our Lord. Recognizing the line that runs through every human heart, no longer do we try to draw the line between “them” and “us.” Who can look long and honestly at the victims and the perpetrators of history’s horrors and say that this has nothing to do with me? To take the most obvious instance, where would we have taken our stand that Friday afternoon? With Mary and the Beloved Disciple or with the mocking crowds? Knowing myself and fearing God, knowing a thousand big and little things that I have done and failed to do, I cannot deny that I was there. In ways I do not fully understand, I know that I, too, did the deed, wielded the whip, drove the nails, thrust the spear.

About chief of sinners I don’t know, but what I know about sinners I know chiefly about me. We did not mean to do the deed, of course. What we have done wrong—they seemed, or mostly seemed, small things at the time. The word of encouragement withheld, the touch of kindness not given, the visit not made, the trust betrayed, the cutting remark so clever and so cruel, the illicit sexual desire so generously entertained, the angry answer, the surge of resentment at being slighted, the time we thought a lie would do no harm. It is such a long and tedious list of little things. Surely not too much should be made of it, we thought to ourselves. But now it has come to this. It has come to the cross. All the trespasses of all the people of all time have gravitated here, to the killing grounds of Calvary.

Not only about our entanglement in the loss of each but also in the consequence of our deeds, John Donne was right: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” It was not only for our sins, but surely for our sins, too. What a complex web of complicity is woven by our lives. Send not to know by whom the nails were driven; they were driven by you, by me.

The death of God and the metaphysics of morals: we have gone far from the simple words of compassion and understanding offered by a new priest in an interview. But have we really?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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