From “Show Me Thy Face!” Retreat Conferences by Silvano Matulich, O.F.M. (1948)
It will be very fruitful to meditate on the mercy of God, because a fuller realization of that surpassing mercy will certainly increase our trust in God and our love for Him. The words which our Lord gave to Sister Benigna Consolata Ferrero will be our guide, for to her He dictated a “Decalogue of Mercy.”1
The first point is this: “I am the God of all mercy.”
This compassionate mercy is mentioned on almost every page of Sacred Scripture, and according to the context it means: compassion, love, pardon, tenderness. It fills the whole earth:
“The earth is full of His kindness.”2
It reaches to the very heavens:
“Jehovah, Thy kindness reacheth unto the heavens,
Thy faithfulness unto the clouds. . . .
Man and beast Thou savest:
Jehovah, how precious is Thy kindness!
The children of men come unto Thee:
They take refuge in the shadow of Thy wings.”3
St. Paul assures us that God is “rich in mercy”;4 and elsewhere the Apostle calls him “the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort.”5
The second point is: “I seek nothing so much as to exercise mercy continually.” Here, let us take the story of Mary Magdalene; you know it well. St. Luke gives it in the following way: “Behold, a woman in the town who was a sinner, upon learning that He was at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment; and standing behind Him at His feet, she began to bathe His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kiѕѕеd His feet, and anointed them with ointment.”6 There is the story of love and contrition; but the story of mercy will be more lovely still. Mary certainly had met the Son of God before. On some occasion she must have heard Him speak — that speech which held the multitude spellbound —7 and listened enthralled to the words of grace which flowed from His lips. She saw the sanctity in His face, and the kindness in His eyes, and the mildness in His gestures, “fairer than the children of men.”8 And His eyes fell on her, and somehow, even as with St. Peter,9 they pierced her soul with sorrow, a sweet, tormenting sorrow that would soon urge her with a bewitching restlessness to the throne of mercy. Finally, the chastening anguish prevailed, and she set out to find Him, for she was in search of His mercy and was confident she would receive it. Hearing that He was at dinner in the Pharisee's house, she took the jar of precious ointment and hastened to the banquet. Here she beheld divine Mercy reclining at the table among sinners — another proof of His ineffable compassion — and, distracted with grief and love, rushed to His feet. Tears streamed from her eyes, and in their torrent she washed His feet. Thus she poured forth her heart before the Throne of Mercy.
But think of the exquisite gesture, never dreamed of before, that with her long tresses she should have dried those sacred feet after she had bathed them with her tears. It is impossible to describe the depth and delicacy of such love. It struck profoundly the imagination of St. John, the beloved disciple, who used it later to characterize Magdalene and to distinguish her from all other women born of Eve: “Now it was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet dry with her hair.”10
What must have been her thoughts in the midst of this industry of love! “Alas, I might have loved Him always, but I have learned to love Him so late! I have loved vanity for His truth and sin for His sanctity and tyranny for His mercy.” And she kiѕѕеd His feet continuously.11 Quickly she broke the alabaster jar, and having poured the ointment upon His feet, worked it reverently into His sacred flesh. What condescension on the part of Jesus, Who, though Purity itself, did not disdain to receive these loving ministrations from a penitent sinner.
All the while, Simon the Pharisee, the host of Jesus, looked upon this moving scene and was troubled and thought within himself, “This Man, were He a prophet, would surely know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.” Certainly He knew who Mary was, and He also knew the secret thoughts of Simon; and to prove it, He proposed to him a parable: “ ‘A certain moneylender had two debtors; the one owed five hundred denarii, the other fifty. As they had no means of paying, he forgave them both. Which of them, therefore, will love him more?’ Simon answered and said, ‘He, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.’ And He said to him, ‘Thou hast judged rightly.’ ”12 Then turning from Simon to Mary He said, “Dost thou see this woman?” — and all eyes were upon her — “I say to thee, her sins, many as they are, shall be forgiven her, because she has loved much.” Indeed, she loved far more than Simon did. Jesus was his guest, yet Simon violated every canon of courtesy toward Him; whereas Mary, in her immense love, made richest reparation to Jesus for the slights of Simon, although utterly unaware of them. Jesus Himself points out this glaring contrast: “I came into thy house; thou gavest Me no water for My feet; but she has bathed My feet with tears, and has wiped them with her hair. Thou gavest Me no kiѕѕ; but she, from the moment she entered, has not ceased to kiѕѕ My feet. Thou didst not anoint My head with oil; but she has anointed My feet with ointment.”13 Then turning to Mary, He spoke words of divine reassurance: “Thy sins are forgiven.” And who was she? St. Luke tells us, “a woman in the town who was a sinner.” But Christ says to her, “Go in peace.” Why? Because she has loved much. Such is divine mercy.
We come to the third point of the “Decalogue of Mercy”: “To exercise justice is for Me to go against the current; it does violence to Me.” This we can well imagine. The Son of God, when He became man, stripped Himself of His external glory through mercy, and died for us. He was crushed like a grape under the feet of His enemies, yet He died with His heart full of love and compassion for them. A single mortal sin provokes His justice; yet see how His mercy endures! How many there are living forty, fifty, sixty years, adding sin upon sin, and living on the mercy of God alone! The hope that they may still become the happy captives of that mercy withholds the arm of His justice; and thus “mercy triumphs over judgment.”14
The fourth point: “The door of My mercy is never closed; it is always ajar; however lightly touched, it opens; even a little child can open it, or an old man who has lost his strength.” Imagine, then, how little is required to win the mercy of Christ: a spirit of contrition, humility and confidence, and we shall have it. The door stands ajar; you can almost stumble through it into His mercy, as the good thief stumbled through it and fell into paradise, and as countless others have stumbled through it and are now in glory in heaven.
The fifth point: “The door of My justice, on the contrary, is shut and locked; and I open it only to him who compels Me to do so; but I never open it spontaneously.” What shall we say to that? And remember, He is constantly offended by all, either in greater or in lesser degree; yet He opens the door of His justice only under constraint. Will not that win us over finally and entirely to His love? Is not that enough to arouѕе in us at least a generous will toward Him? Can we still go on negligently and without principle, or must there be applied to us, in their own measure, the severe words of St. Paul to the unbelieving Jеwѕ: “Dost thou despise the riches of His goodness and patience and long-suffering? Dost thou not know that the goodness of God is meant to lead thee to repentance?”15
The sixth point: “Once the soul has crossed the threshold of the door of My mercy, she falls into the power of love, who employs every means possible to hinder her from escaping, and to attract her to her new abiding-place.” Surely, the experience of the mercy of God will beget in us a deep love for God — especially if we have been great sinners. See the tears it wrung from the very heart of Mary Magdalene, and the unbounded love. And though Christ said to her, “Go in peace,” she never left Him, but followed in His footsteps. It is she whom we find on Mount Calvary; not St. Peter, but the two great exponents of love, the one innocent, the other penitent, St. John and Mary Magdalene. And we would expect to see her there once more embracing those sacred feet, now pierced with nails, and bathing them with a fresh flood of tears. Mary had first experienced the immense charity of Christ in the banquet hall; here, at the foot of the cross, she is witnessing the sublimest expression of His divine goodness — she sees the price He paid for her forgiveness. Referring to his crucifixion Christ said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to Myself”;16 imagine with what omnipotent bonds He drew Mary to Himself that day on Golgotha. With Christ she was nailed to the cross;17 and she who had been a sinner in the town was made worthy to wear a crown of eternal glory.
The seventh point: “Once she has become the happy prisoner of love, love sets her at liberty, but only within the precincts of love; because if the soul should issue forth from this enclosure, she would meet death. Love does not prevent her departure but averts it, and this is the bridle that he puts upon her.” Nobody welcomes a forced devotion, a forced love, neither God nor man. God wants to be loved from a full and free heart; and therefore, in spite of all His longing for our love, if we nonetheless spurn Him, He will spurn us; if we depart from His embrace, He will suffer us to depart, but we shall find death.
The eighth point: “The more evil the state to which the soul is reduced by the sins of the past, by her disorders and passions, so much the more pleased is love to have so much to accomplish in her.” Evidently, then, there is no reason for discouragement when we really turn toward love. The more wretched we are, in fact, the more we have a claim on mercy, for an infinite mercy seeks an infinite misery that it may forgive and heal.
Are you conscious of having been ungrateful? of having been negligent? of having been sinful? If you are truly sorry, if you are earnestly determined to turn toward Him for the future, do not let the memory bear you down; your misery will only urge Christ to exercise a greater measure of solicitude in your behalf. “Souls the most miserable, the most weak, the most infirm are the best clients of love, the most desired of the divine mercy.” (ninth point)
The tenth point: “These souls, thus become as it were the favorites of God, will, like so many living monuments, exalt and magnify the multitude of His mercies, sending up to God the reflections of living light, His own light, which they have received from Him during their mortal life — the multitude of kindnesses God has made use of to conduct them to eternal salvation. These souls will shine like precious gems, and will form the crown of the divine mercy.” This is the end of the story, the end of the divine romance. Here, indeed, we can use the words of the Psalmist:
“He raiseth the weak from the dust, And lifteth up the poor from the dunghill.”18
Misery has been turned into glory, dust has become a jewel, the slave of the devil has become the eternal crown of God. What a transformation! What mercy on the part of God! And all of this “unto the praise of the glory of His grace.”19 Thus, upon our profound miseries God raises up the throne of His divine mercies.
Consider the following beautiful instance. It is the case of Nicola of Toldo, a Perugian knight who was condemned to death on the charge of high treason. He was a bantering spirit; he was ignorant of the catechism; he had not made his first Communion. Now he was condemned to death. As he raged against God and man, everything seemed to foretell that he would die the death of the impious. But he called for St. Catherine of Siena. She hastened to him; she encouraged him; she exhorted him to virtue. After an ardent prayer she obtained for him the grace of making his first — and last — Communion. She induced him to submit to his death as an atonement for his past life. Now was the time to trust in divine mercy.
When the hour came, St. Catherine accompanied him to the very scaffold, stood beside him, received his severed head in her own hands. Then, in ecstasy, she beheld an indescribable scene. Jesus was on the scaffold, at once as Judge and Rewarder. He stooped, gathered up the blood, which was still warm, and placed it like a precious jewel in the wound of His own Sacred Heart. Then St. Catherine saw the soul of Nicola wing its way, radiant and transfigured, into the realm of peace.20
Do you now understand what is the measure of divine mercy, the measure of divine love? Do you not see that it is measureless? Therefore, do not be discouraged, for mercy seeks out misery and transforms it into glory and sets it like a jewel in its own beautiful crown.
“I will sing forever the kindnesses of Jehovah.”21
LOOK down upon us, O God, our protector, that we who are oppressed by the weight of our sins, having experienced Thy mercy, may serve Thee with a tranquil mind.22
O God, Who dost manifest Thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: increase Thy mercy toward us, that, seeking the way of Thy promises, we may be made partakers of Thy heavenly treasures. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.23