Of mercy’s fire and blood
Mercy burns, wrote Mary Flannery O’Connor, by which she meant … well, let’s think on it for a minute or so, before we say.
For we have ideas of mercy, several actually, and we must discard them all the time, and destroy them if can, as quickly as supernaturally possible. One idea many have is that it’s soft and sweet, and no doubt sugar and spice as well.
Mercy burns and mercy bleeds and both scald and both salve.
This paradox we know. Fire burns, obviously; it can level cities. Yet it can also cauterize and save, sterilize and cure. It can keep one warm, and kill one’s enemies.
Blood, too, is both. We need it to live … and we need it to stay on the inside of our skin for that to happen. It cleanses the body … and to save the soul meant taking someone else’s, lamb or Lord.
Mercy burns and bleeds.
Which is to say, Christ burns and bleeds.
Once teaching Sunday School I went on and on and on and on about “being like Christ” … until one gentle brother commented — to the class, to prevent outright shaming me, I think — that I had made a good point, and naturally included the idea of suffering in being like Christ. He said of course it would be part of our cost-counting — that we wouldn’t think only of all the nice and pretty ways we can be like our Lord.
Like when we say such-and-such a place or thus-and-so group of people is “just like a family” … and we mean mainly how sweet we feel toward them at that very exact moment, not that we are thrust together with people who are not like us and consequently whom we don’t like — and the toilet seat is up again.
When they talk about being like Christ, eople don’t usually mean that is what he meant. Though I surely meant both (all) kinds of experiences when I spoke of “being like Christ.” Well naturally.
Actually it’s supernatural, but his gentle point was that I was blathering, and hadn’t even begun to consider what it might mean to actually pursue Christlikeness. I hadn’t thought for a minute how coming right … up … next … to the Creator of all the galaxies in all the worlds possible or impossible would actually be like, what it would do, how it would feel.
Well it burns.
And it bleeds.
In C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce (fer instance) we find both.
In one meeting, a wretch with the lizard of lust perched on his shoulder begs the flaming angel to crush the animal and end the torment. Then when the Angel begins to do so, the shade cries out that he’ll be killed as well — that the good creature will destroy him too.
“It is not so,” the Angel says.
“But you’re burning me,” the man replies.
“I did not say it wouldn’t hurt,” comes the reply. “I said it wouldn’t kill.”
In another encounter, a hell-bound shade sputters contemptuously “I’m not asking for anyone’s bleeding charity,” … to which the Heavenly sent to fetch him replies rapturously, “Then do! Do ask for The Bleeding Charity!”
It burns and it bleeds.
The order is not set; I think it can work either way. But I’m going to say for now it bleeds before it burns. Which means first that the Lord was crucified before our sin hurt us one damned bit. It also means, I think, that God is soft with us before he is hard, because even though both burning and bleeding do scald and salve, we associate more quickly and closely with the bleeding as kind and we need all the kindness we can get and He gives it.
So I think mercy bleeds before it burns. At least it does so before it will burn as much as it will burn when God’s really gets going on our lives. On the other hand, maybe it burns first. Since we must know our sinfulness before salvation can mean a single un-damned thing to us — this is possible.
Well, anon. Which comes first, I don’t know; but we shall have both. I guarantee it.
C. S. Lewis again, this time in The Pilgrim’s Regress: the pilgrim protagonist learns he must take a particular road — there is no other — and it leads right past a dragon. Everyone must pass the dragon. Or as a friend of mine puts it: No one gets by.
Every knee shall bow. Every knee.
And one last thing about mercy — it’s very, very fast.
That may sound funny, since it so often seems so slow to us, and to others. But the truth is if it’s slow, the problem may be that we haven’t asked for it. Many times I’ve wondered at my parched life … only to realize I hadn’t even asked for a drink.
And how quickly it would come if I did!
In The Violent Bear it Away (indeed, after great violence and much bearing away) O’Connor’s Tarwater accepts he must be a prophet to warn others not just of God’s mercy but of its speed. Once called upon, you see, the Lord comes quickly.
Don’t summon the gods, says Chesterton, unless you really want them to show up.
And the truth is, many people don’t, because they don’t want God’s mercy. Either it burns and they fear it, or it bleeds … and they fear that, too. Mercy burns and bleeds — meaning it hurts and it helps … but some will have neither and they are most to be pitied for we need both.
Mercy burns and it salves.
Both hurt and will hurt because both, in the end do the same thing. Mercy ends everything in us that is not God. Depending on how much of that there is — where you are with Him, as the kids say — you’ll experience it as burning, or bleeding or both.
Both may also salve, because we receive — be it unto you according to your faith — what is best.
Burning mercy scalds, as the dross dissolves. Bleeding mercy salves, as God gives you His peace.
This is how it works for the believer. For the pagan — the out-of-towner rustic rube who does not yet or will never know — it is slightly different.
He can experience the fire and the blood as both good and ill … but it is a different sort of both. Returning to Lewis, recall the scene in The Last Battle when the dwarves, surrounded by beauty, can see (and taste and smell) only filth. And they revel in it. They are ecstatic in their agony and proud of their rage, and they shall not be moved.
The unbeliever at that moment believes, not in God, of course, but only in their pain (they would say it is undeserved) and their anger (fully justified given the hard cold facts, they add).
God in His mercy will continue to offer them fire and blood. They have become not the means by which to grow closer to God — more like Christ is how I said it in the Bible study — but are now the only safe barrier between them and the Lord they have rejected.