Mercy is the length and breadth and height and depth of what we know of God—and the light by which we know it. You might even think of it as the Being of God insofar as we can possibly penetrate into it in this life, so that it is impossible to encounter God apart from the dimension of mercy.
The choice of term may seem a bit odd. Today “mercy”—along with so many other classic words in our spiritual tradition—has developed a negative connotation. It seems to suggest power and condescension, a transaction between two vastly unequal parties. A friend of mine, in fact, was told by her spiritual director that she should not pray the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy one me,” the mainstay of Eastern Orthodox contemplative spirituality—because “it reinforces medieval stereotypes of paternalism and powerlessness.” Modern people, this spiritual director felt, need to be told that they are worthy, “that they can stand on their own two feet before God.”
But the word “mercy” comes profoundly attested to in our Judeo-Christian spiritual heritage. Aside from the fact that the Jesus Prayer, hallowed by two millennia of Christian practice, has been consistently singled out... as the most powerful prayer a Christian can pray, we simply cannot get away from the Mercy without getting away from the Bible as well. The word confronts us at every turn, as a living reality of our faith...
Cynthia Bourgeault Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God (Cloister Books) pp.20-22I have to confess, without wishing to be unpleasant to Bourgeault's friend's SD, to finding the idea of standing on my own two feet before God so utterly silly as to be almost funny. This has far less to do with my own ingrained stereotypes of paternalism and powerlessness than with the odd few fleeting little glimpses of God's own Being that have been granted me over the years. The legend of King Canute on the seashore comes to mind.
Cynthia Bourgeault comes closer, in this wonderful little book, than almost anyone else I've read to describing what this way of prayer actually feels like.
Living in the Mercy, since that is what having the Jesus Prayer at the centre of one's spiritual life over al long period actually seems to be, As Bourgeault describes so well in the last few pages of Mystical Hope, we become changed, gradually, at a level which the everyday parts of our minds may come to observe, but which they can never directly access nor control. At this level, all is God's. The part of ourselves that St Paul calls σάρξ, sarx, translated variously as “flesh” (NRSV, KJV etc.) “human nature” (ISV), “sinful nature” (NIV) chunters on, doing what it does, and yet we are no longer under any obligation to take that much notice of its panics and enticements (Romans 8.12). As Bourgeault says, “Hope is not imaginary or illusory. It is that sonar by which the body of Christ holds together and finds its way. If we, as living members of the body of Christ, can surrender our hearts, re-enter the righteousness, and listen for that sonar with all we are worth it will again guide us... to the future for which we are intended. And the body of Christ will live, and thrive, and hold us tenderly in belonging.” (ibid. pp.98-99)