“And you, O Lord, stood in the secret places of my soul, by a severe mercy redoubling my lashes of fear and shame, lest I should give way again.”

In Augustine’s account of his conversion, he describes his confrontation with a force that produces such a devastating awareness of his own guilt that he wants desperately to turn from the sight of it and hide. Yet it is this same force that will free him from his guilt. Augustine describes it as “severe mercy.” And although his narrative prepares the reader for this unusual characterization, the phrase is nonetheless puzzling. Mercy is free and easy; it is light and liberating. How then can it be severe in any way?

The question is important. Mercy is the only antidote for guilt, and if accepting it involves experiencing severity, should we not ask ourselves if we have truly encountered mercy if we have not experienced severity? We must, then, look carefully to see what it means to accept the mercy that God offers us. We must determine the “requirements” of this gift that is given to us without condition.

A comparison with accepting an ordinary gift will illuminate the idea. Although a person may give us a gift without expecting anything in return, we must meet certain requirements if we are to accept the gift. If the gift is something we can hold in our hands, we must take it into our hands. If it is wrapped, we must unwrap it.

Moreover, if the gift is given to us without condition, we must accept it as such. We cannot say, “Thank you. I’ll have to give you something sometime for giving this to me.” One of the requirements of accepting an unconditional gift is that we not act as if we have to earn the right to receive it.

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