Can We Have It Both Ways?

JusticeMercyPantocratorThe Christ Pantocrator from St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula provides an unusual, somewhat disconcerting, vision of Jesus, with each half of his face portraying a very different expression. Some have suggested this portrayal is meant to underscore his divine and human aspects, while others characterize his visage as combining God’s justice and mercy.

A number of events and issues, both in the wide world and my own life, have me thinking more deeply about the role of, and balance between, justice and mercy in our Catholic faith. Over the years, different priests have guided me back to Church and the Catholic faith in very different ways. At various points, my confessors have welcomed and encouraged me even when my head and heart were hardened against certain teachings of the Church. They encouraged me to frequent the sacraments of Reconciliation and Communion and to struggle with my doubts, questions, sinfulness, and weakness from within, as a member of the Body of Christ — in some cases, even encouraging me to embrace leadership roles in the parish that helped strengthen and deepen my understanding and faith and to further my conversion.

On the other hand, in at least three specific cases, a priest hearing my confession drew a verbal line in the sand and told me that from where I was standing, there was only one path forward, and it would require fundamental change on my part. In the first case, I knew instantly that he was right; in the second, I ignored the warning until I finally bottomed out spiritually and realized he was right. In the third case, I got angry and took the priest’s words personally, as a challenge — resolving to “show him” by (guess what?) repenting and changing my life. Only in hindsight did I see that he had pushed me just hard enough. And I thanked him.

Of course, I don’t hear confessions in a sacramental sense, but I do hear plenty about people’s sin. These days, when I am confronted with people I know and love who are far from Christ, I see two choices in how I approach them: I can meet them where they are and encourage them incrementally forward, speaking the truth, but gently; or I can stand on the narrow path over the bridge and say, “You shall not pass!”

There is a manful combination of courage and pride that inspires the latter in me (not to mention a healthy aversion to murky gray fog and sustained conflict — black and white, right or wrong, is far more comfortable). And then, in another moment, I am reminded of how far from God I was when a humble priest invited me into his living room and into sacramental living again, and how it took more than a decade to really take up my cross and follow.

I’m still learning to balance under those beams today, and I shudder to think where I would be had God, through His Church, rendered unto me my just due. Yet I know at times the hard line is the most effective. Come, Holy Spirit, that I may be wise enough to discern which approach is best in each circumstance.

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