Mercy, by Lee van Laer

Understanding mercy as a force from on High

God’s greatest and most powerful quality

Photograph by Eberhard Grossgasteiger
Photograph by Eberhard Grossgasteiger

Mercy has intricate linguistic roots. In Latin, the word merced meant reward; in later Christian Latin, heavenly reward or pity. Now, pity implies compassion and a caring for the sorrow of another. Pity, in turn, derives from piety, Latin pietas, or pius. This in turn means to be dutiful.

It’s quite the word salad. I think we can safely say that the idea that the Lord might pity us (care for our fallen state of sin and suffering) is a core meaning in today’s Christian practice; we earnestly wish to be forgiven for our transgressions against a higher, sacred principle.

Yet this is a conceptual approach. What’s the nature of experience?

In practical terms, Mercy isn’t just an idea or a concept; in its metaphysical and esoteric sense, it’s a substance.

That is to say, it’s of a material nature, and we human beings have the potential to participate in the sensation of that tangible substance. We can receive Mercy—else why ask for it? This understanding is entirely consistent with the idea that it can be bestowed; and it brings it out of the realm of the theological or philosophical and into the realm of the personal.

One can personally ask for help from a higher level; and that help can be bestowed and received. This is an essential premise in the invocation of the classic prayer:

Lord, have Mercy. 

The prayer, of itself, assumes by default the personhood of both the divine and the human; it thus, whether by accident or intention, implies the union of the divine and the human in Christ, by means of the exchange between both natures. An exchange between beings.

Although Mercy is a metaphysical substance—its rate of vibration is higher than that of the coarse material plane of existence we live within and sense— its vibrations can be actively received within being as a substance that concentrates in the body.

On a visit to Sénanque several years ago, a Catholic woman who had participated in several retreats there (Sénanque is one of the very few still-active ancient Cistercian abbeys in the world which allows lay visitors to participate) said:

“When you pray here for some days with the monks, you begin to feel God in the body.”

She said this with a sense of awe and wonder appropriate to the experience, which is the truth: one can feel God in the body.

This is the sensation of Mercy as it flows downward into Being and is received by the devout. It’s an experience hard-won and only available, for the most part, under what we’d call “special” circumstances; if it matures, one experiences what Paul called “the peace of God which passes all understanding.” Yet for all of our secular and philosophical musings about mercy in its many temporal forms—often associated with strictly human institutions such as the justice system—it’s the encounter with this metaphysical manifestation of Mercy as a flow of Grace into Being that truly reveals its dimension as an inner force.

The existence of Mercy as a substantial  force, not a concept, thought, or outer action, marks the division between our understanding of what is sacred and what is ordinary. Mercy, according to the Sufis, is God’s greatest and most powerful quality, which exceeds all other aspects of His Being. In the midst of the suffering that inevitably arises throughout material creation, it’s the one force made universally available to help alleviate the terrifying consequences of existence, with all that it implies. As the prime emanation of God’s true Being, it offers us a direct contact.

Human beings are created with the capacity to open our inner being to the receipt of this flow of Mercy. To do so is one of the inner aims of the religious life. Its actions are understood to be deeply transformational; yet like the peace it bestows, it passes all understanding—everything the intellectual mind can offer.

What irony, perhaps, that we have to come to it through the intellect. Yet beginning there, if the mind is sufficiently stilled, and we wait quietly in silence, intimately sensing our bodies as the sacred vessels they are—then some particle of Mercy may touch us, no matter how lightly or swiftly, and remind us not just of our mortality, but of the Grace which is always and forever available to support us.

If we’re even quieter and more attentive, some tiny portion may stay to inform us as we move outward, back into our daily life. 

This is the mustard seed, and from that seed great plants grow. ♦

From Parabola Volume 44, No. 3, “Mercy & Forgiveness,” Fall 2019. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing. Four times a yearParabola has explored the deepest questions of human existence. Without your support, we would cease to exist. Please consider helping us by making a donation.

By Lee van Laer

Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor of Parabola. For more information, please visit