Mercy: It's Written Right into Our Bodies!

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By Christopher West

It is no coincidence that both the Divine Mercy devotion and St. John Paul II's theology of the body were born in Poland. I would say this is providential, and we can't understand one without the other. Maybe it's more obvious that we can't understand the theology of the body without Divine Mercy because we're talking about the realm of the body, of human sexuality, of marital love, and we all know that we fall short of the ideal. So obviously we need Divine Mercy to live the truth of the theology of the body.

But how is it that we can't understand Divine Mercy without the theology of the body? Here's why: the Divine Mercy Image. Mystics throughout Church history have said that the flow of the Blood and Water from the Heart of Christ has a spousal significance.

Saint Augustine says that, on the Cross, Christ is consummating the marriage with His Church, with His Bride. The flow of Divine Mercy, the flow of Blood and Water from His open Heart is, as it were, the spiritual seed of the Bridegroom. The gift given by the Bridegroom to the Bride is His Merciful Love.

There are two very important words for mercy that help us understand how Divine Mercy only makes sense in light of the spousal symbols of Scripture — misericordia and rachamim. The word misericordia has a more masculine meaning, and rachamim has a more feminine, bridal meaning. Misericordia is Latin; it means "a heart that gives itself to those in misery." As the Bridegroom, Jesus gives His Heart to His Bride, the Church — we who are in our own misery. Rachamim is a Hebrew word for mercy that means "womb," which is a bridal and motherly aspect of mercy. The mercy of the Church is always the mercy of a mother. It's the mercy that allows us to be born again. Not only do we see this mercy given in the Sacrament of Confession, but also primarily and fundamentally in the Sacrament of Baptism, which cleanses us from original sin. The Church has always understood the baptismal font to be the womb of the Church from which Her children are born again.

This powerful spousal (or nuptial) meaning of mercy is also written right into our bodies as male and female. Written right in my body as a husband, as a man, is the call to give myself as a gift to my spouse — that life-giving gift of misericordia — the heart that gives itself to those in misery. As a husband, I must be willing to take on the burdens of my own wife. This is what Scripture means when it says, "Husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the Church." It means I must be willing to take on the burdens of my wife so she can be without spot, wrinkle, blemish, or any such thing (see Eph 5:25-27). That's the dimension of mercy proper to the bridegroom in theology of the body.

The bridal dimension of mercy, rachamim, is written right into the womb of a woman, to show that love that welcomes, gives life, nurtures, and enables us to be born again. That's always what mercy does. It enables us to be born anew. This is the connection, in both directions, of the need to understand Divine Mercy in order to understand the theology of the body, and the need for the theology of the body in order to understand Divine Mercy.

This is what my new book, Love is Patient, but I'm Not: Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist, is all about. My book explains how in day to day life, we encounter our need for mercy, and how, in all of us, there's a gap between what we're called to be and what we actually are in our broken humanity. That gap is either going to be filled with our own striving and perfectionism, or it's going to be filled with mercy.

We don't have to pretend we have it all together. If we don't have a paradigm of mercy, we think that our misery repulses God. That's kind of the environment that I grew up in: I thought my misery made me unlovable. So what does that create? It creates a need to hide and pretend I have it together so I can be considered lovable. Well, the revolution of the Gospel is that God is not only not repulsed by our misery, but rather it is our misery that attracts His Heart to us.

Christopher West will go deeper into this connection between Divine Mercy and St. John Paul II's theology of the body (and how it affects our daily lives) at the 13th Annual Divine Mercy Conference on April 28, in Bronx, New York.

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