Blessed Anthony Grassi
Blessed Antony Grassi, superior of the Oratory in Fermo for thirty six years, from 1635 until his death in 1671, once said that he did not know how to be severe. He was indeed celebrated for a gentleness that was not merely passive but also generative: a capacity not only to receive the troubled and the guilty, but, in the way he received them, to reassure and restore them as well.
Oh father, someone once said to him, I fear for my salvation, when I consider the wickedness of my past life. But in what…are you placing your confidence, Bl. Antony replied, in your own endeavours or in the divine mercy? In the divine mercy, the man replied, but with some hesitation. Well then, Antony told him, do so, and be joyful. To another similarly afflicted, he urged him to have no fear of damnation. On the contrary, have great hope and confidence that you will be a partaker of Christ’s glory, just because you are now a partaker of His cross by your suffering. Nor was it solely in troubled states of mind or body that Antony saw opportunities to enter more intimately into the redemption. He understood that even our sins can be such an opportunity. Our sins, he said, are in a sense worthy of God; for they are the matter of one of His sacraments. What did Bl. Antony mean by this? He meant that God does not disdain us, even in the wrong that we do. This is because He sees, in our very sins, a kind of suffering that, in Christ, He has taken upon Himself, sharing in its weight and its destiny so that He can relieve and transform it. And it is this healing solidarity with sinners that is offered and communicated to us in the sacrament of confession. The greater the malady he cures, Bl. Antony remarked, the greater the glory of the Physician.
So if, as he said, Bl. Antony did not know how to be severe, it is this, above all, that shows us what was of God in him.
For despite our deeply-rooted tendency to think otherwise, Christianity in fact reveals to us that God Himself does not know how to be severe. He doesn’t deal with us according to the just measure of reward and punishment. He does not deal with us thus in creating us in the first place, nor, secondly, in redeeming us from sin, nor, lastly, in calling us to share in His own eternal life. None of these – neither creation, nor redemption nor sanctification – is intelligible in light of what is just, the severe system of debts implacably incurred and equally implacably repaid.
And yet too often it seems that severity is something we understand, expect and even desire. For justice is severe, but with this severity in place at least we know where we stand. The severity of justice ensures a manageable and foreseeable order of things: it makes sense. Mercy, by contrast, seems wild: unfounded and unpredictable. And so we tend to think of it as something selective, even exceptional; and we seem never to succeed in believing in it with an assurance comparable to our sense of the inescapability of justice. This seems to be so, even though justice, depending upon how our lives happen to be going, tends to make us either self-righteous or fearful.
In either posture, however, we miss what the Gospel wants to show us. It seems that even now we have to go and learn the meaning of the words which God does not cease to speak to us: I desire mercy not sacrifice.
God desires from us, not the sacrifice of what we owe Him, for in truth what we owe Him is for ever beyond being repaid. What He desires is our readiness to receive and to share with others the mercy that He offers us. Our relation to Him is governed from beginning to end by His gifts to us, which are offered unconditionally; and His gifts are always merciful. They are merciful because they are ways of enriching us in our poverty. This is so whether it be the poverty of our nothingness, which is overcome in the gift of creation; or the poverty of our sinfulness, which is overcome in the gift of redemption; or the poverty of our distance from Divine life itself, which is overcome in the gift of heaven. The mercy of the gift, the gift of mercy, is the very air that we breathe.
What should we think, Bl. Antony once asked, of a God so good as ours, who offered up for us his death, at the cost of so much pain and blood? How can we doubt that He will give us His life, which will cost Him nothing?
So we need have no fear that God will withhold anything from us; what we should fear is what we can withhold. In other words, we should fear our unwillingness, which at times can seem to amount almost to an incapacity, to desire and receive all that God offers us. Repentance is always a return to Divine generosity, an acknowledgment that His gifts always go before us, preceding everything we can be or do. It is in repentance that we recognize ourselves once more as always already gifted by God, as enriched beforehand: it is then, in other words, that we experience ourselves as fore-given.
This is why Bl. Antony put aside the severity which either flatters or dismays us. We have no cause to be flattered, because everything is given us, nothing is fundamentally ours to claim and to possess. And for exactly the same reason, nothing should dismay us either, morbidly confining us in a sense of our unworthiness. For of course we are unworthy; but this is the whole ground of our confidence in God.