Divine Mercy 101: Divine Mercy Greater Than Sin and Despair

A weekly series by Robert Stackpole, STD, the Director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy 

WEEK 26: St. Divine Mercy Greater Than Sin and Despair

For St. Catherine, the merciful love of God so essentially defines who He is that, along with St. Augustine and St. Thomas, Catherine understands that it is precisely despair of His mercy that constitutes the only unforgivable sin. It is the offense of considering one's own sin to be greater than God's mercy (section 37):

This is that sin which is never forgiven, now or ever: the refusal, the scorning of my mercy. For this offends me more than all the other sins they have committed. So the despair of Judas displeased me more and was a greater insult to my Son than his betrayal had been. Therefore, such as these are reproved for this false judgement of considering their sins to be greater than my mercy, and for this they are punished with the demons and tortured eternally with them. 

They are reproved also for their injustice in grieving more for their own plight than for having offended me. They are being unjust in this because they are not giving me what is mine, nor taking for themselves what belongs to them. It is their duty to offer love and bitter heartfelt contrition in my presence for the sins they have committed against me. But they have done the opposite: they have lavished such tender love on themselves and felt so sorry about the punishment they expect for their sins! So you see how unjust they are. 

They will be punished therefore on both accounts. They have scorned my mercy, so I turn them over to my justice. I condemn them along with their cruel servant, sensuality, and with the devil, that merciless tyrant to whom they bound themselves as slaves through the mediation of that selfish sensuality of theirs.

Loving 'glance'
It would seem that we have here a rigid separation between God's mercy and God's justice. However, St. Catherine makes it clear later that it is not so much that God will destroy those who refuse His mercy; rather, God will permit them to destroy themselves if they do not willingly receive and accept His merciful aid. If we stubbornly will it so, we can cut ourselves off from Him forever. For example, Catherine explains that the loving "glance" of Christ will be received differently by different souls on the judgement day, depending on their self-chosen dispositions (section 39):

His glance will be such a torment and terror to the damned that words cannot describe it. But for the just it will be a cause for reverent fear and great rejoicing. Not that his face will change-for he is one with my divine nature and therefore unchangeable, and even in his human nature his face is unchangeable since it has taken on the glory of his resurrection. But it will seem so to the eyes of the damned. For they will see him with terribly darkened vision. A healthy eye looks at the sun and sees light. But a sick eye sees nothing but darkness when it looks into such lightsomeness-and it is no fault of the light that it seems so different to the two; the fault is in the sick eye. So the damned see my Son in darkness, confusion, and hatred, not through any fault of my divine Majesty with which he comes to judge the world, but through their own fault.

For St. Catherine, as we have seen, it is vital to our spiritual health that we come to self-knowledge, especially knowledge of how dependent we are upon God for everything: for existence itself, and for the grace that sets us free from sin. Yet we can only safely arrive at this self-knowledge in the light of God's infinite mercy; otherwise, in gazing at ourselves and our own sinfulness and nothingness, we could easily fall into despair. St. Catherine says that this is one of the ways that the devil tries to deceive and entrap us (section 66): 

Now I do not want her [that is, the soul] to think about her sins individually, lest her mind be contaminated by the memory of specific ugly sins. I mean that I do not want her to, nor should she, think about her sins either in general or specifically without calling to mind the blood [of Christ] and the greatness of my mercy. Otherwise she will only be confounded. For if self-knowledge and the thought of sin are not seasoned with remembrance of the blood and hope for mercy, the result is bound to be confusion. And along with this comes the devil, who under the guise of contrition and hatred for sin and sorrow for her guilt leads her to eternal damnation. Because of this-though not this alone-she would end in despair if she did not reach out for the arm of my mercy. 

This is one of the subtle deceptions the devil works on my servants. So for your own good, to escape his deceit and to be pleasing to me, you must keep expanding your heart and your affection in the immeasurable greatness of my mercy, with true humility. For know this: the devil's pride cannot tolerate a humble mind, nor can his confounding withstand the greatness of my goodness and mercy when a soul is truly hopeful.

Inmost Heart
Finally, St. Catherine gives us a beautiful symbol of the merciful love of God when Christ explains to her why blood and water poured out from His pierced side after His death. The ancient Church Fathers had generally held that these two elements flowing from the pierced side of Christ were symbolic of the graces of Baptism (water) and the Eucharist (blood), graces that Christ won for us on the cross, and from which the Church is born. Without contradicting this ancient testimony, St. Catherine is shown another layer of symbolism in the blood and the water. She asks our Lord (section 75): "Why, gentle spotless Lamb, since you were dead when your side was opened, did you want your heart to be pierced and parted?" Jesus replied: 

There were plenty of reasons, but I shall tell you one of the chief. My longing for humankind was infinite, but the actual deed of bearing pain and torment was finite and could never show all the love I had. This is why I wanted you to see my inmost heart, so that you would see that I loved you more than finite suffering could show.

Thus, our Lord tells St. Catherine that His merciful love is so infinitely deep and broad that it could not be adequately expressed even by his (finite) act of dying for us in torment on the Cross-it overflows, so to speak, the boundaries of even that demonstration of His love, for no finite act could very fully contain or exhaust it! This is the same infinity of God's merciful love that St. Paul was referring to when he wrote in Ephesians of "the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge" (Eph. 3:18-19). And of course, this is also the same symbol-the blood and water gushing forth from His pierced side-that our Lord will choose to sum up His infinite mercy when he appears to St. Maria Faustina Kowalska almost six centuries later, and gives to her the Image of Divine Mercy. More on this in future installments of this series. 

This series continues next week on the theme, "St. Bonaventure on St. Francis of Assisi." 

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of The John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.

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