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Moving Beyond Selfishness and Even Altruism: Blessed Are the Merciful, for They Shall Obtain Mercy

March 2, 2014

If philautia, that pseudo-love of self, is the root of all the passions and the very essence of sickness within the soul as Saint Maximus maintains, then love of the other, in the person of God and the person of our neighbor, can be understood as the source of every virtue and the very essence of spiritual health. For this reason, the fathers would encourage the faithful to cultivate a merciful heart for all of creation, instructing us to “compel ourselves at all times to be inwardly merciful to the entire nature of rational creatures” (Saint Isaac the Syrian, Homily 76).  For the fathers, there is clearly something divine about being merciful, something that expresses the very image of God. We can see this in Saint Leo the Great’s comment: “Mercy desires for you to be merciful, righteousness desires for you to be righteous, so that the Creator may be seen in His creature, and the image of God may be reflected in the mirror of the human heart expressed by the lines of imitation” (Sermon 95).

Among psychologists, there happens to be some debate about whether or not people can really be merciful. The term they use is altruistic, which basically means being concerned with the welfare of somebody else (altrui). The pessimists in their ranks, known as psychological egoists, would argue that no motive is ever pure; the self and selfishness cannot be separated from one’s actions. Even kind deeds become nothing more than a projection of one’s own will to survive. The more optimistic, however, would reply with some form of the empathy-altruism hypothesis that expresses what we encounter in life at its very best and not simply what we can conjecture about the psychoanalytic workings of the human mind. Namely, the optimists of human nature maintain that people can see the distress of others, feel for that distress as though it were their own, and have a desire to alleviate it that is not based on self-gain, regardless of whether they happen to be benefited in someway during the process. This sequence of events can also be observed in many passages in the Gospel in which “Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick” (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; Mark 6:34; Luke 7:13…). And so, when it comes to the altruism debate, Christians certainly would side with the optimists, but they would also go somewhat further.

In those passages in which Christ saw, was compassionate, and healed, Saint John Chrysostom asserts that “His motive for healing them is His mercy, His intense mercy (ἔλεον ἐπιτεταμένον)” (Homily 49 on Matthew) and His “surpassing friendship with humanity (φιλανθρωπίας ὑπερβολή)” (Homily 61 on Matthew). Something divine clearly shows through the intensity and the surpassing nature of the Lord’s mercy and kindness toward what others would see as a faceless multitude. How then is being merciful and being altruistic related?

There are, without doubt, similarities between being merciful according to the Gospel and being altruistic according to psychologists, for both reflect the same image of God in every human soul. The mercifulness of the beatitudes, however, blazes more brilliantly with lines etched more deeply, for they express the intimate response of the soul that has come to know God and has united the two desires that make us most human, the desire to love God and love our neighbor. Saint Gregory of Nyssa, writes, “If God is called the Merciful One by the divinely inspired scriptures and if divinity is truly blessedness, then it clearly follows that if a human being becomes a merciful being, he becomes worthy of divine blessedness through which he also can be called divine” (Homily on the Beatitudes, 4, PG 44.1249).

According to Saint Isaac the Syrian, a merciful person is not simply someone “who shows mercy to his brothers by giving him something,” but someone who “burns within his heart when he sees or hears of something that grieves his brother” (Homily 4).  Elsewhere, the Saint provides a beautiful description of the mercifulness of the beatitude: “If you are truly merciful, do not grieve inwardly when you are unjustly deprived of something you possess, and do not tell others of your loss. Nay, rather, let the loss you suffer from others be swallowed up by your mercy, as the sharp edge of wine is swallowed up by much water. Show the fullness of your mercy by the good with which you repay those who have done you injustice” (Homily 6). The mercy of the Gospels extends beyond a natural tendency towards altruism by embracing those who have wronged us and caused us to suffer. The altruistic will be moved to compassion at the sight of someone suffering; the merciful will do so even when that suffering soul has just caused them much pain. Altruism can do much that it is good and worthy of praise, but it does not ascend easily to a “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Truly, the merciful are blessed in the sense of being Godlike. They are a source of joy, healing, and restoration in an often sorrowful, sick, and broken world. To be merciful is to overflow with goodness, forgiveness, and mercy. It is to be like the sun that gives light and warmth and the rain that gives refreshment and coolness, being truly “the children of your Father which is in heaven: for He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). May we all cultivate that splendid mixture of goodness, forgiveness, and mercy that only knows kindness even where kindness is not deserved and does so in every direction towards every living thing. Then, we will know by experience the truth of the words, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,” for we will have come to know the merciful God in the depths of our own heart.

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