Mercy, And Not Sacrifice

The icons shine. When you give them even cursory attention, they shine. Icons are in the habit of gathering dust. They are bought in a moment of illumination and love, affixed to the wall, and there they stay for months and years on end, gathering dust. It is difficult to clean them all. Sometimes they are too many. Sometimes the edges are rough, you cannot run a cloth over them. Sometimes they are simply affixed to the wall too firmly or they are stuck.

And yet they respond to even a superficial dusting. Just a quick wipe, they seem to gleam, to appreciate the attention, to speak of another world where all is light. They beckon you onwards. ‘Keep going,’ they seem to say, ‘the race is not so long, it will be over soon.’ It is like when you have an illness, you feel terrible for a few days, but then when you get better, the life surges back into your veins, you are grateful simply to be alive, you almost cannot believe it. I wonder if this short cycle of illnesses like colds and flus isn’t a preparation for what death will be like, a feeling awful, followed by a rush of gladness and disbelief, of joy and gratitude when the weight is lifted. Having shed the stones of the illness that irked your feet, you will rise again, but this time your feet won’t touch the ground.

Simple things. The eye of the lamb on a mug. The resurrected cactus in its new ceramic pot. We ignore most of the things most of the time. Most of them become covered in dust for our sight. We see only what we want to see, or are capable of seeing, which isn’t much. How much do we notice the street we are walking along, when we are immersed in our thoughts? How much do we notice our neighbour’s need or put ourselves in their shoes, try to perceive the world as they do? I’m not sure we really see each other. We get glimpses, but most of the time it’s a cardboard cut-out, a presentation.

My father was just in a restaurant in Folkestone. He couldn’t position himself under the table properly, so that he could eat. An anonymous stranger sitting behind him got to his feet and slid my father’s chair closer to the table, carried out his purpose for him. My father was surprised, taken aback, mumbled thanks. Again, at the end of the meal, they exchanged a few words. He was so touched by this simple act of kindness that he felt the need to communicate it to me a few days later. An act of simple kindness.

I have been reading St Matthew’s Gospel in Greek. It is known that this Gospel was aimed primarily at the Jews (it is the only Gospel that was originally written in Hebrew and later translated into Greek) and it was concerned with presenting the life of Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies, the words of prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, who it seemed foretold the coming of the Messiah, the Spirit worked through them. There are many verses in St Matthew’s Gospel that are printed in bold, quotes from the Old Testament, but the only one that I am aware is repeated is when Christ says to those around him, ‘Go and learn what it means, “I want mercy and not sacrifice”’ (Mt 9:13, 12:7).

God wants mercy, not sacrifice. What does this mean? Is it possible that in this spiritual training ground that is the world God has his finger on the pulse of everything, he knows what we need and sends what is best for us, all he requires from us is not great sacrifice, but simple acts of kindness? We think we need to control events around us, we think only we will be able to find the resources that we need to enable ourselves and our families to survive, but is it possible that God has already arranged these things – the sacrifice – after all, he knows every blade of grass, every hair on your head, and what he needs from us is not the big picture, not the creation of the world (he brought the creatures to Adam to name, not to create), only that we open our eyes a little, that we notice our neighbour, that we blow away the dust?

Mercy, and not sacrifice. When you believe, the world catches fire.

Jonathan Dunne,

Word in Language (7): Time

Let us look at time. We live in time, our lives on earth have a beginning, a middle and an end. When we learn our own or a foreign language, one of the first things we learn is the tenses: past, present and future. So our lives are very quickly conditioned by the concept of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Everything in this sense is linear, and indeed the word ‘time’ is connected to ‘line’ by the phonetic pair m-n and by drawing a line through the letter l to make t (I call this a physical pair, because they look alike).


Teachers of English, of which I was one, teach the tenses by going up to the whiteboard and drawing a horizontal line with their marker. On the line, they mark three crosses to represent past, present and future, but the fact is the line is like a loose thread and it exists before the cross that stands for the past and continues after the cross that marks the future, because we cannot be certain about these things – when the past started, when the future will end. It hangs in the air, like a loose thread on our clothing, which we pick up and put in the bin.


I remember standing in Wandsworth, London, while teaching an English class, and having a revelation. I realized that the only way I could draw a timeline was by having a whiteboard, without the whiteboard it was impossible for me to draw the line. And while the black of my marker seemed to obliterate the white of the board underneath, the fact is the white of the board still existed beneath the black of the line. This meant that time exists – and can only exist – in the white space of eternity. Time is proof for the existence of eternity because without eternity time cannot exist. There is nowhere to draw it.


But what is its purpose? I have already said that I believe time exists to give us a chance to make meaning a two-way process, to offer ourselves to God in the same way that he has offered himself to us on the Cross.


Let us take out our toolkit and disassemble the word ‘time’. What do we find? Four letters: t – i – m – e. That is, ‘time’ is made up of a cross – the letter t, which we saw earlier resembles the letter l with a line drawn through it – and the words ‘I’ and ‘me’. So it seems the first thing about time is crucifying the self, our egotistical impulses. This is the meaning of the Greek word for ‘love’, agape – we overcome our own will, our own selfish inclinations, in order to love the other, however different he or she may be, because God has already loved that person and because, by loving them, we will learn to discern what it is in them that makes them worthy of God’s love and gives them value, something we may not have been able to see when our spiritual sight was obfuscated by our own concerns and ambitions. We have already seen that when we draw a line through the self and form a cross, the letter t, we also form a plus-sign, +: in laying down our life for the other, we find our true self, the one that is meant to live, the one that exists in the white space of the board and is not conditioned by the tenses (I am born, I live, I die).


But we can go further than this, because, by changing one of the vowels (remember that y corresponds to i) and applying the phonetic pairs d-t and m-n, we see that TIME is connected to two words: MEET and DENY. That is, our sole purpose in this life is to turn towards God or to turn away from him, to embrace him or to reject him, to enter into the personal relationship that is represented by the Holy Trinity or to turn in on ourselves and enter into a relationship that is inward-looking and ultimately futile. We can see a similarly stark choice in the word LIVE, because LIVE in reverse reads EVIL, but if we take the ego in LIVE – the letter I – treat it as a number (1) and count down, we get LOVE. So in LIVE we are faced with a similar choice: to do EVIL or to LOVE the other (God and our neighbour – they are one).


If we take steps in the alphabet, we will see that TIME is connected to LIVE (l-m, t-v), but it is also connected to DIE if we apply the phonetic pair d-t and take away the letter m. Again, the stark choice between allowing space for God in our lives or leaving him outside. The connection TIME-LIVE involves keeping the letter m, a letter which, when upended, resembles the number 3 (the Holy Trinity). If we keep the number 3, we live.


It is certainly true that from the point of view of this world our lives have a beginning and end, and time itself is no different. It came into existence and it will cease. We see this if we apply the phonetic pairs d-t and m-n, because ‘time’ is connected to ‘begin’ (here, the d has been reversed to make b, and we have added the letter g) and to ‘end’ (here, we have omitted the letter i and read the word in reverse).


Put simply, time is a space in which we are given the opportunity to grow. It cannot go on for ever, just as our childhood cannot go on for ever, because at some point we must become spiritually mature, realize our limits and seek another meaning that is not the simple gratification of our needs. Time is a teacher. It is like an enclosure in which the damage we can do may appear great, but it is limited. Take time away, and you have boundless space. Lift up the veil of time (I think those two words are connected), and you will reveal the twitching nose and arching whiskers of the white rabbit of eternity beneath, the one we have been grasping at, the one we knew was there all along, if only we could believe it. TIME, in short, is a MYTH (same three letters, addition of e/h), a story, the story we tell our children when we put them to bed, the story we read to ourselves as we get older. It is a myth, but we take it to be reality, and the one who is – namely, God – we take to be a myth.


There is another word connected to TIME, and that word is SIN (alphabetical pair s-t, phonetic pair m-n, addition of e). Time is an opportunity to sin – only God is without sin – but by sinning we learn from our mistakes and reach spiritual maturity. We take the opportunity to MEET God rather than to DENY him. We learn to LOVE rather than to do EVIL. We become a child of God – a SON – by taking the I in SIN and counting down, as we did before, from I to O.


We have learned to place too much emphasis on our reason, to make an effort and to expect the corresponding reward for our exertions, for everything to have a price (though how that price is fixed in this world is questionable, to say the least). Salvation, however, will not come to us through our own intellectual acceptance of God, our keeping our side of the bargain. It will not come to us through MERIT (a word that contains TIME). It will come to us when we open ourselves to the grace of God and participate in his energies, when we align our will to his.


We do not get to heaven by our own efforts, just as we cannot know God through an act of our own will. We can strain as hard as we like, bang our heads against a brick wall. God has to reveal himself to us. The ball is in the other’s court, I’m afraid. But we can invite this revelation, this participation in his energies, by showing mercy. MERCY is the counterpoint to MERIT – they are only a letter apart, but the connection is hidden so it won’t be immediately visible. The letter c is pronounced s, s-t is a jump in the alphabet, y corresponds to i. MERCY-MERIT. Two ways of viewing the world. MERIT: you get what you deserve (this is patently untrue). MERCY: we humble ourselves and – at this point, yes – by an act of will we do violence to ourselves and force ourselves to embrace our enemy, to understand him, to say a good word to him on the road instead of hurling abuse.


TIME, like a screen, a partition, a stage set, a loose thread, is whisked away, the board rubber comes out and eliminates the black line in time for the next lesson, the bell goes, people’s attention turns to other things, what lesson is next, what the other person thinks, and ETERNITY is revealed.


The letter y corresponds to i. Phonetic pair m-n. ETERNITY has TIME in it, just as the whiteboard showed us.


And the word ‘eternal’ – if we juggle the letters around, rotate or extend the letters (phonetic pair m-n, physical pairs f-t and i-l) – spells ‘I am free’.


Jonathan Dunne,