Thursday, June 9, 2016

Mercy is Perfect Virtue

The favorable Christians in Dostoevksy's fiction tend toward committing an act that the unlearned has mistook for shaded Paganism. They will prostrate themselves, kiss the earth, and water it with their own tears. As the former Archbishop Rowan Williams has argued, Dostoevsky is drawing upon his own theological heritage as Russian Orthodox.

Eastern Christianity has had a stream running through, particularly through monastics, that severely emphasize the redemption of all creation. As St. Isaac the Syrian (of Nineveh) would metrically put it, he prayed for the birds and reptiles, asking forgiveness of them for his sins against them, and pray to God for them. Indeed, in what might be almost absurd, Isaac prayed for the Devil, that indeed evil the "god of this age" would be redeemed. Here is Isaac discussing the "merciful heart":
And what is a merciful heart? It is the heart burning for the sake of all creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and every created thing; and by the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. By the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and by his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God.
Perhaps this sounds weepy-eyed and sentimental and reflects the absurd temperament of a monk living mostly alone in the Syrian deserts. To the harsh critic, Isaac has lot his mind and engaged in the most childish game of make-believe, talking to his invisible friend in the sky and to all the animals around them.

Except children do not live in the desert. They do not restrict their diet and resist cravings, some normal and others devious, in order to discipline their body, mind, and spirit. If Isaac was a child in mind, he would merely be the village idiot, living upon the labors of the community. The brutality of the discipline reflects, rather, someone who is sharpened into a kind of weapon.

Of course, a weapon can be either good or evil, and there have been quite a few evil ascetics whose discipline and fortitude are put to reshaping the world. Robespierre was an unmarried bachelor with little interest in women and completely married to his absurd vision of a new French republic. Hitler was a teetotaler and a workaholic. These evil men reflect a kind of ascesis towards the work of the Devil. Indeed, the Devil is the greatest monk as he never eats or sleeps.

Through the resultant discipline, we see a man, Isaac, who weeps even for the creeping things of the Earth, even has compassion for the Adversary. Contrary to our so-called wise critics, perhaps this reflects someone who has reached a kind of maturity. Perhaps Isaac is beginning to scrape the life of virtue in his overwhelming flood of compassion.

Very easily we define virtue, perfection, ethics, morality, yea, the Good, in terms that fit whatever dominant culture we are connected to. Many times we justified our so-called values as "common-sense", "natural", or "biblically defined". American greed is constituted as thriftiness. American paternalism and arrogance is reconstituted as charity. American conquest and economic dominance is believed to be liberation and salvation. We obscure the Truth for our own good and ease of life. For it is easier to be as one was born than to conform to another pattern.

The Scriptures talk both about what was accomplished, through the person and work of Christ, but also the life we, His followers, ought to live in light of such. The Lutheran reaction, and subsequent law-gospel theology, was constructed in opposition to clear reading of the New Testament, but it was not designed for it. What I mean was that while Luther complicated a plain reading of the Apostles, he was resisting something equally damnable: works-righteousness.

Contrary to Luther's reading of the New Testament, the Medieval Sacramental Complex was not quite what the Pharisees had in mind. Luther was not a prophet of Christ overcoming his Pharisaic opponents who possessed all powers and riches in Rome. But he was attacking a confused and corrupted version of virtue and the path of life.

Of course, I'm exaggerating in some of this. Luther was not quite as Lutheran as some make him out to be, and he, of course, had his own expectations of people and hope for good works. In someways this makes him better, in other ways worse (c.f. His writings against the Peasant revolts). But either ways, there was a mistake that virtue was something other than what we might claim to see in Isaac's prayer.

Perhaps the excellency of virtue is the kind of mercy that feels the weight of all creation. Perhaps this virtue of mercy for all, reflected in the prostrate man kissing the Earth, is our vocation. That is, the vocation of Man to be priest, a sacerdotal conduit, for all creation. The greatest use of our voice is to intercede on behalf of an other.

These are just speculations, but, perhaps, it's a sentiment that the Lord's brother shared:

"So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgement." Jas. 2:12-13

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