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Blessed Are the Merciful

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”—ST MATTHEW 5:7.

Merciful is hardly, perhaps, an adequate translation, for mercy seems to involve a higher position than man has a right ordinarily to assume. We talk of the mercy of God quite naturally, or among men of a merciful judge in relation to criminals, or of a merciful creditor, but hardly of a merciful parent or friend. Mercy involves some idea of pardon, or at any rate forgiveness, and there is a wider suggestion in the Greek word ἐλεήμονες. It implies sensibility to all suffering, whether deserved or undeserved; it covers every kind and degree of sympathy and loving help, it implies a feeling which colors our whole attitude towards pain and sorrow, a sympathy both with the troubles and wants of the multitude around us, and also with the pain of mind, the travail of doubt, endured by the few; it goes out everywhere wherever there is sorrow and suffering, on the throne and in the cottage, in the study and in the prison—wherever there is sorrow, deserved or undeserved, thither does this Divinely-implanted virtue extend. This pity—this habit of feeling with and for others in their sorrows and misfortunes—is the echo in every human breast of the feeling of the Son of Man when He stayed upon the wayside to satisfy the mothers heart and to bless the children, when He felt within Himself the weariness of the multitude and gave them rest and food, when He came to His friend’s grave, or when He wept over the sight of the doomed city, or when, by His whole attitude towards pain, He justified the prophecy, “Himself bare our sins and carried our sorrows.” And it is an inward grace or virtue first of all; it may find expression in word or act in any case from want of opportunity or lack of the power of self-expression; a shake of the hand or a glance of the eye, a silence that is felt to be more healing than words may convey it more effectually than any speech or letter of condolence, but it is essentially the highest possible inward state of feeling for others. Where it is, the eye, the look, the tone conveys it; the man’s heart goes out through these. Where there is acute sensibility, deep pity, strong sympathy, there may lack power of self-expression, but there is no mistaking their presence; and when we come near them in any high degree we feel how blessed are the pitiful, how blessed is that power, cost what it may, of feeling for others. And so it is the very test of the Christian character, the one most easily applied, for this feeling, this compassion, this sensibility declares itself so plainly. It is hard to judge ourselves, but we can know about ourselves in this matter; it is hard to judge about others, but certain things which declare themselves sometimes in character—unmerciful pitilessness, want of sympathy—these things we can understand and judge of; we can detect the presence or the absence of mercy in a way that we cannot gauge purity of heart. The test is simply this, “Be ye therefore merciful as your Father Which is in heaven is merciful.” Modern life has wondrously brought out the tenderness of man and nature, and it increases our responsibility. We can apply the test historically. Was a man merciful, pitiful, was he Christlike in this respect in which we can judge? There we are on safe ground. We are called on now and then to bless men who have had strong ambitions, perhaps great desires to place the fortunes of the Church on a secure and sound footing. We have been called on lately to celebrate the anniversary of the death of Laud, to honour him as a martyr to his principles, to listen to his dying speech, to admire his aims, to recognise in him an upholder of the true office of the Church, to justify his methods and bless his life. But if we apply to his memory our test question, Was he merciful, pitiful, compassionate? the records of the Star chamber and of the Privy Council, the mutilated bodies of Puritans, and the executioner’s knife so freely used on those whose religious convictions were as sincere as his own, must supply our answer. Tried by the only test that we can apply, he was a persecutor, unmerciful, pitiless, and therefore un-Christlike, an enemy of Christ’s cause, the worst sort of enemy, for none have ever injured the Christian religion like those who have persecuted in its cause. That Laud adopted the methods of his age, that his suspensions and deprivations were less than those of the Roman Catholics under Elizabeth, or those of the Parliament, that the imprisonments and butcheries in Ireland and the transportations into slavery under the Commonwealth were far more terrible than anything to which he put his hand—all this which is brought forward as a palliative is not to the purpose when we are called upon to honour him as a Saint. We are not called upon to canonise Elizabeth, nor do we hold religious services, or perambulate Tower Hill, in memory of the Commonwealth. But when we are publicly invited to honour the man who revived in the Church of England the worst traditions of the mediaeval Papacy, we are bound to say that we cannot, we dare not. Laud had the Gospels before him. He had the words, “Blessed are the Merciful.” He knew the severe condemnation passed by the Master on the spirit of persecution when it broke out among the disciples, “Ye know not what spirit ye are of, for the Son of Man is not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” Those words must have stared at him when he gazed on the writhings of his helpless victims. He had the awful results of mediaeval torture chambers in every European country fresh in his mind, he lived in the age when the craft and subtlety of the Roman See had not, so to speak, wheedled men into forgetting and forgiving her inspiration of the terrible history of the Inquisition. At this hour, when harmless Cardinals perambulate our drawing-rooms and say smooth things on our platforms, we may be content to ignore the fact that only the rise of a religious liberty, which they opposed, keeps them at this hour from their historical methods, that their Church, so far from apologising for her crimes, honours as Saints some of the worst mediaeval persecutors. Laud had no real excuse. The Gospels were open to him, as well as the methods of mediaevalism; and where they were opposed, he chose the latter. We dare do no more than say, ‘let his crimes rest in his grave as a fulfilment of the Master’s words, “All they that live by the sword shall perish by the sword.” ’ But do not let us insult the moral sense of all those who really believe in Christ’s words, nor outrage the feelings of every Nonconformist, by extolling his memory, and palliating his crimes. In truth, my brethren, I cannot conceive of a worse service to the Church of England than has been done by this so-called commemoration of Laud. Whatever hope there is for us lies in our repenting of the Laudean spirit. Almost all of us have come to see that the policy of coercion is in religious matters the worst policy, that it is not only opposed to Christ’s teaching, in deadly antagonism to His spirit, but that it does not pay—which last argument has affected many who were unmoved by higher appeals—that an organised tyranny, such as Laud endeavoured to establish in religious matters, has lost the Church of England her hold of almost the whole industrial classes, that Puritanism is strong still, because of the halo of endured persecution that still clings like a sweet memory to it. We may be thankful in one respect that it is strong because we owe to it the grit and bone of our English religious convictions; but it is also strong in its negative and unlovely aspects, in its zeal for mere observance, in its narrow view of life and its interests. Of all things that we have to do in these days the most important seems to me not to emphasize the fact that we are the ‘children of those who killed the prophets’—as we do, if we glorify the memories of cruel persecutors, and the users of inhuman methods, like the pillory—but to say that we see and own that they were wrong, that we would dissociate ourselves not only from what is dark in the history of medievalism, but also would repudiate any kind of condonation of all the cruelty and tyranny which characterized the Tudor and Stuart periods.

In this matter of Christian pity we must go back to Christ Himself if we want to see what Christianity is and was meant to be. We do not forget the noble and splendid works of mediæval Christendom, or the countless ways in rough times by which the Church has soothed, elevated and upheld the lives of the people. We do not forget the millions whom it has raised to higher lives, or the way in which, in its worst days, when it was tolerant of slavery, it was the champion of chastity and the friend of the poor. But did you ever read the darkest chapter of history, the persecution of the Jews, that much suffering people, hunted and oppressed, and slain and tortured by the disciples of Him Who said of them, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”? If you have, it is difficult to help feeling that the question arises whether they do not rather need to send missions to us to teach us the principles of Christ, until we learn to represent Him to such an extent as shall induce them to forget a record of injustice, which must be ingrained in the history of their race. Certainly the heroism of the defenders of every other creed fades into insignificance before this martyred people, who, for thirteen centuries, confronted all the evils that the fiercest fanaticism could devise, enduring obloquy and spoliation, and the violation of the dearest ties rather than abandon their faith. The lowest depth of infamy was reached when, after their expulsion from Spain, having taken refuge in Portugal, and being hounded from thence, all their children under fourteen were taken forcibly from them to be educated as Christians. *“Then, indeed, the cup of bitterness was filled to the brim. Their severe fortitude gave way and was replaced by the wildest paroxysms of despair. Piercing shrieks of anguish filled the land. Women were known to fling their children into deep wells, or to tear them limb from limb, rather than resign them to Christians. When at last, childless and broken-hearted, they sought to leave the land, they found that the ships had been forcibly detained, and the allotted time having expired, they were reduced to slavery and baptised by force. A great pæan of rejoicing filled the Peninsula and proclaimed that the triumph of the Spanish priests was complete.” They gained toleration only through the uprising of the commercial classes, and to this day their woes and wrongs have been almost unacknowledged by official Christendom. The history of Christendom sheds indeed a gruesome light on the words, “Blessed are the pitiful.”

For ourselves, who have the experience of these centuries to live by, the one great mistake is to condone them. The greatest treason we can commit is to say that these were cruel days, and to condemn those who did these things; and then to turn round and say that these were the days and these the persons to whom we look for the highest enlightenment; surely that is to build the sepulchres of the unmerciful. The one test which we can and must apply is brought home to us by the darkest and most vivid experience: the one test of the Christian spirit and character is that it is pitiful, compassionate, merciful, that it puts itself in others’ place, that it is sensitive to their points of view, that it is kind, gentle, tender in dealing alike with equals and with inferiors.

I reserve for another occasion a detailed examination into this moral habit and the means to attain to it. I would only ask you to-day to remember that, though we live in days when outward persecutions are, thank God, almost impossible, there is an inward persecuting spirit of which we may need to free ourselves.

When we encourage within ourselves hatred, because others disagree with us or misrepresent us, when we give ourselves up to the remembrance of injuries, when we trample on the fallen, when we harden our hearts against our political opponents, when we refuse to see good in them, when we misrepresent them, we prove that we are the ‘children of those that killed the prophets.’ It is impossible to read the newspapers or listen to much of our ordinary conversations without becoming sensible of such a spirit. Let us cast it away from ourselves as an accursed thing; it cuts us off from Christ, so that we shall never understand Him. The one thing that matters is to know God in Christ, and this vile spirit blocks Him out; it hardens the heart and kills the nerve of our best feelings. Let us pray against it, struggle against it, let us renounce it at once and for ever; let us dwell on the beauty, the loveliness of the Christian ideal “Be ye therefore merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful, for He maketh the sun to shine on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” “Be ye kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as Christ has forgiven you.”

* Lecky’s History of Rationalism.

Eyton, R. (1896). The Benediction on the Merciful (I). In The Beatitudes (Second Edition, pp. 73–82). Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd. (Public Domain)

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